For people who did not grow up in Texas, and for the occasional Texan who did not spend time in public school lunch rooms or patronize the concession stands at Friday night high school football games, a Frito pie is a dish containing three ingredients: Fritos corn chips, chili, and cheese.
I make this rather simplistic statement because since its invention by Daisy Dean Doolin of San Antonio many years ago, the recipe for Frito pie has been tweaked, tested, modified, added to, changed, and experimented on by a legion of home cooks and high-end chefs the world over.
As it should be. Any dish that elicits such passionate loyalty will inevitably be set upon by the culinarily adventurous who are convinced that they can "improve" on a classic. Frito pie connoisseurs, myself included, are enriched by such invention and creativity.
Recently the introduction of a "kicked up" Frito pie at Cullen's Upscale American Grille raised a few eyebrows among Frito pie purists. This variation uses a pork and beef chili, Texas goat cheese and Oregon cheddar, crème fraiche, and scallions. But the dish has gotten mixed reviews in the Houston food community -- some calling it too salty, some too bland, and some just wondering what the heck it's doing on this upscale menu in the first place. I tried it and thought it to be a worthy and tasty variation of the classic dish I grew up eating.
Which got me to thinking. What is it about Frito pies, what is the ultimate culinary essence, that stokes the passions of Texas food lovers?
Simplicity certainly. Fritos (the original only), chili (Wolf Brand, traditionally), and cheese (melted Velveeta, doing double duty as the topping for nachos at concession stands). Mix it up good and let the Fritos soak up the chili grease. Sure, throw on a few onions and/or sliced jalapenos if you like. Perfectly acceptable. Personally I don't go beyond that. Sour cream? Meh. Lettuce? Um, no.
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SHOW ME HOW
But the thing about Frito pies isn't necessarily what you eat (the ingredients), but rather how and where you eat it.
You eat Frito pies out of the Frito bag, sliced lengthwise, with the chili and cheese ladled on top. A plastic spoon or fork, or better yet a spork, is shoved into the mix and juts out vertically from the bag like a ship's mast on the USS Frito Pie.
And even more importantly, the essence of a Frito pie is where you eat it -- sitting on metal bleachers on a crisp October Friday night at your local Texas high school football game.