Frito Pies (or Not) Across America

Just look at that beauty.
Just look at that beauty.
Photo by Troy Fields

I suffer under no delusions that Frito pies -- whether Texan in origin or not -- are as popular outside of Texas/Oklahoma/New Mexico as they are in this Frito tied-triangle. I understand that Frito pies are to our region as lutefisk suppers are to Minnesota or lobster rolls are to Maine.

However, I also figured that the concept of a Frito pie at least registers with Americans outside of the state, like the po-boy or the Philly cheesesteak. Not so, as I found out last week.

"I've lived in the United States my entire life and I've never heard of Frito pie until I read this article," wrote commenter schedulingepiphanies in our post on 15 American foods that foreigners found weird, a post which quickly went viral and found commenters from across the nation in our normally quite Texan comments section. "Must be a regional thing."

It's not just foreigners who find the Frito pie to be alien: It's Americans, too.

Frito Pies (or Not) Across America
Photo by J.C. Reid

"Definitely regional," responded commenter GlenW. "I never heard of it until I moved to Houston."

Comments exactly like these drew my editor-in-chief out of her office to my desk. "I ate Frito pies all the time in Mississippi!" she said. Frito pies were nothing new to her upon moving to Houston years ago. I was surprised, too; after all, Fritos and Wolf-brand chili and cheese -- the main ingredients in a Frito pie -- are all in abundant supply across the entire United States. I turned to some authorities on the matter for more insight on the question: What do food critics outside of Texas think of Frito pies?

"I love you Texans, but your self-centered worldview makes New Yorkers seem humble by comparison," came OC Weekly writer Gustavo Arellano's quick reply. "No one outside of New Mexico, Texas, and wherever people from those states exist (Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, etc.) give a shit about Frito pie. Out here in Southern California, you only buy them during Little League games and call them chili billies -- children's food."

Frito pies have long been tied to Little League games here, too. In fact, I'd venture to guess that a children's sporting event is where most Texans had their first Frito pie, whether as a kid or a parent. So why doesn't the "chili billies" popularity extend beyond childhood in California?

Perhaps it's because it's more of a Southwestern food than Californian, and thus falls out of favor as wee Californians grow up into gourmands. "I grew up in the Midwest and have lived on the West Coast all my life," said SF Weekly's food critic Jonathan Kauffman. "The only places I've eaten them have been in New Mexico and at a New Mexican restaurant here."

Seattle Weekly food critic Hanna Raskin lends credence to that idea: "I don't remember ever encountering a Frito pie growing up in Michigan, and wish I could recall when I first became aware of the dish," she wrote. "I'm guessing I read about it in a Jane and Michael Stern book, and vaguely remember scouring menus at Michigan coney joints for a Midwestern version."

"I definitely made a point of ordering it when I first visited New Mexico in the late 1990s."

Fellow Midwesterner Emily Weiss at Citypages agrees: "For all the weird food items that are pervasive in Minnesotan culture (lutefisk, lefse, things on sticks), to my knowledge Frito pie is not well-represented here," she wrote. "I was always aware of it because I had had it in casserole (or, hot dish, as we tend to call it) form at some point when I was growing up and it was total love at first bite."

But Raskin has another idea as to why Frito pie would be so prevalent in some areas of the country but not others: Sonic.

"Frito pie had a following in Mississippi when I lived there, and I wouldn't be surprised if that had something to do with Sonic," she wrote. "I bet you could map Frito Pie knowledge according to Sonic locations."

Considering the uproar that happened across America when some Sonic restaurants took Frito pie off the menu, I think Raskin just might be on to something...

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