First time I ate Frito Pie was in 1985, at the old Woolworth’s store on the Santa Fe Plaza. I sat on a vinyl swivel barstool in the back of the store, behind miniature Indian drums and dreamcatcher souvenirs. I think my friend and roommate, Denise, was with me. The counter help handed us each a sandwich-sized bag of Fritos, opened lengthwise and topped with chile beans (or, as Denise would have said, “chile beany”), shredded cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onion.
Mom didn’t start making Frito Pie until we were grown and out of the house. Maybe she didn’t like that the recipe included processed food. (Although that didn’t stop her from making chow mein, which she threw together with a can of sliced water chestnuts and crunchy store-bought noodles that tasted like Cheerios without the sugar.)
Now Frito Pie is one of those dishes Mom will have on hand in case everyone drops by on a Saturday or Sunday. She says it’s easy to make — all you need is a pot of beans, chile meat, shredded cheese, and a bag of Fritos.
I’ve started making Frito Pie for my family, being as how it’s one of two things my girls will ask me to cook when I give them a choice. (The other is something we call “Soupy Spaghetti,” passed down from my grandmother, who learned how to make it in the mining camp of Dawson, NM.)
I made Frito Pie last night with ground pork I picked up at the butcher shop and powdered red chile from yesterday’s growers market. Healthy as I tried to make it, Frito Pie is not the kind of meal you want to serve every day. Fritos are high in calories, although they come these days with zero trans fats. But it’s a nice treat once in a while.
As to the origin, some say Frito Pie got its start right there at Woolworth’s on the Plaza. Corporate lore at Frito-Lay, however, is that Daisy Dean Doolin, mother of the guy who first bought the rights to market Fritos in 1932, not only perfected her son’s product but also made it into a dish as a way to help market the crispy fried corn chips.
Woolworth’s on the Plaza closed in 1997, but you can still find Frito Pie in a few places around New Mexico. Like most foods, though, the best Frito Pie is the one you cook yourself:
1. Pot of Beans
Sort about two cups of pinto beans to remove any small stones or not-so-pretty beans. Wash the beans and soak them overnight in plenty of water. I always forget to soak, so I do the “one-hour method” the day of, which is to bring the beans to a boil in a medium-sized pot; the water should cover the beans by about two or so inches. Take the pot off the heat as soon as the water starts to boil, put a lid on the pot, and let the beans stand for an hour. (Either approach — soaking overnight or the one-hour method — will minimize the gas that beans are prone to cause.)
Add more water to the beans, covering them by about an inch. Make sure not to add too much now that the beans have soaked in a lot from the earlier step. Throw in a couple of whole cloves of garlic, and put the beans on a low simmer, as low as you can go (if you’re using a gas stove) without the burner going out.
You don’t want the beans to boil even slightly, as boiling makes the skins fall off. Let the beans simmer, watching the water level and adding more as needed, for two to four hours. The longer you cook them, the thicker the bean juice. Again, make sure not to add too much water; you’ll want the bean juice to be thick, not watery.
Once the beans are done, season them with salt, pepper, and a pinch of dried oregano. Don’t add the salt while the beans are simmering, as salt toughens beans.
2. Chile Meat
In a large frying pan, add just a touch of oil. I use olive oil, and I use no more than a big teaspoon. Add a couple cloves of chopped garlic and a chopped yellow or white onion. Once those are turning soft, add a pound-and-a-half of your favorite ground meat. I use lean pork or lean bison, but beef is traditional. Cook over medium-low heat until the meat browns nicely. This might take a while, about twenty minutes.
While the meat is cooking, add a teaspoon of ground cumin, a teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of dried cilantro, a teaspoon of dried oregano, and a teaspoon of pepper. (Truth is, I don’t follow recipes unless I don’t know the dish, and since I know this one pretty well, I’m just guessing on the amounts. These should work.) Make sure that as the meat is cooking, you break it up well, as ground meats have a tendency to clump.
Once the meat is browned and seasoned, add three tablespoons of red powdered chile. Add another tablespoon of flour. Mix those in as much as you can. Then add two cups of water, mixing it well with the chile powder and flour to make a thick red chile sauce. You can add a bit more water if you’d like, especially as it thickens.
3. Toppings & Assembly
While the meat is cooking, shred plenty of medium sharp cheddar cheese. Chop lettuce, white onion, and tomato (you’ll want to use locally grown).
To assemble, place a couple of handfuls of Fritos (don’t get the big scooping kind) in a bowl, add in a handful of grated cheese, a ladle of beans, and a ladle of chile meat. Top it all with the lettuce, onion, and tomato. It’s ready to go.
Does anyone remember the old Frito joke from when you were a kid?
Your older brother asks you, “Hey, ya want some Fritos?” You sit up, excited. We don’t get Fritos every day; usually it’s Safeway brand potato chips, the bag of which invariably includes a few green-rimmed bitter chips.
“Yeah,” you say.
He stands up to get the chips, and while he’s standing and you’re admiring him from the bean bag chair, he sticks his bare foot into your face.
“Free toes,” he says.