SANTA FE, N.M. — Take a good dose of red, some ancient history and a little concern about genetically modified corn. Add in a healthy dose of celebrity controversy and you have … the ingredients for a Santa Fe panel discussion dissecting one of New Mexico’s favorite foods, the Frito pie.
“It’s really accessible, anyone can enjoy it. It might seem a little blue-collar to some, but there’s a real connection between this simple indulgence and our ancient roots,” Rocky Durham, executive chef and Santa Fe Culinary Academy co-founder, mused.
All that was needed then, and all that’s required now, is some corn, chile, beans, perhaps a bit of meat.
“There’s a lot I think is noble about the humble Frito pie,” Durham declared.
“Frito Pie: New Mexico’s Favorite Indulgence” was in the lineup Saturday at the Fuze.SW Food and Folklore Festival on Museum Hill.
The world’s eye is on the humble Frito pie, according to Earl Potter, co-owner of the Five & Dime store on the Santa Fe Plaza.
That’s thanks to Anthony Bourdain, who stirred up a firestorm in September when he said on his “Parts Unknown” CNN TV series that the Frito pie served at Potter’s Five & Dime was made of canned Hormel Chili and a “day-glow orange cheese-like substance.”
Bourdain also asserted that Frito pie was invented in Texas, not New Mexico.
After a New Mexico-based uproar, Bourdain quickly admitted he was wrong about the canned chili (which has always been made in the store; Bourdain didn’t address the fact the Five & Dime also uses real cheddar cheese) and said in a statement that although the Five & Dime Frito Pie “may have felt like (expletive)” it “was shockingly tasty.”
Bourdain was invited to participate in Saturday’s panel but declined to show.
“Anybody here who called us up or the store up and expressed their anger at his slander of our product is very much appreciated,” Potter said.
However, Potter said Bourdain has done the Five & Dime “an enormous favor.” The story appeared in over 400 media outlets around the world, he said, and a lot more people now know about Frito pie and what’s in it than before Bourdain’s show aired.
Potter’s newest vision is a Frito pie-centered wine-tasting event, scheduled to take place some time next year.
Potter said the Five & Dime added the Frito pie to its menu in the 1960s – when it was Woolworth’s – after staff decided the snack bar needed something extra. Last year, the store sold 36,000 of the culinary creations.
As for the New Mexico-Texas origins battle, writer Gustavo Arellano said he’d give the win to the Lone Star State, with a nod to Fritos developer Elmer Doolin. Doolin created a Frito pie recipe in the 1940s as part of a campaign to elevate his chips.
But Arellano and the other panelists acknowledged that some form of Frito pie has probably existed since, well, “time immemorial,” as Durham put it. Arellano mused that older versions of the snack might even be considered one of the world’s first fusion cuisines. “People get tired of what’s in front of them and want to put a twist” on their food, he said.
And they continue to help it evolve. Saturday’s discussion also touched on how more fresh, local ingredients could be incorporated into Frito Pie, if it could be made without the use of genetically modified corn and even what a sushi Frito pie might taste like.
“I will love it for all of my days,” Arellano said.