Frito Pies (or Not) Across America

Categories: Leftovers

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Photo by Troy Fields
Just look at that beauty.
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.

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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."

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Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
The modern Texan Frito pie often comes topped with jalapeños and sour cream.
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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31 comments
Renee
Renee

Linda Ellerbee told a story once of cooking Frito Pie in NYC for some kind of "celebrities cook their home town dish" function. Unfortunately the organizers provided her, not with chili, but with a bottle of Heinz Chili Sauce. Oh the horror....

ThurstonH3
ThurstonH3

Fritos are over-salted corn thingies that ought to be chihuahua snacks, not human food. You can try covering them up any way you like in a 'pie', but bottom line is: you should have moved past them by age 8. Covering them with junk doesn't move them along the continuum toward anything edible, let alone lovable. 

MoBarbq
MoBarbq

I thought everybody had heard of frito pies! My dad bought for me when I was just 3 or 4. Best served in the actual bag! No muss, no fuss.

Kelli
Kelli

Love Frito Pie, Love Texas, who cares? 

Frito Pie for all!!!!!!!!!!!

GlenW
GlenW

"I love you Texans, but your self-centered worldview makes New Yorkers seem humble by comparison," OC Weekly writer Gustavo ArellanoOmg, truer words...Sorry, couldn't resist.

Corey
Corey

In Ohio they serve this on rice. Rice, Fritos, Chili, Cheese, Onions..  

Mike
Mike

I ask the same thing about making chili over spaghetti like they do up north?  Blasphemy!

I'm going to make some frito pie tonight.

JMTexas
JMTexas

Forgive me, I'm from NY, but why is it called a "pie"?

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard

I certainly don't think that Frito Pie needs to be served in a bag to be authentic.  I'll eat it out of any vessel.  In fact, in addition to sour cream & jalapenos, Louisiana hot sauce will work, as well.  I will see whether my out of State folk have heard of it.

Terry Alexander
Terry Alexander

Who would have ever thought we would fight so vehemently for Frito Pie? #OneMoreReasonTexasIsSoAwesome!TA 

ec
ec

Tdorsey's correct.   If it's not served in the bag, it's not a Frito pie

dave
dave

Arellano's condescending comment comes from a guy who writes a(n irritating) column that purports to speak for Mexicans, yet really applies only to Mexicans in California. That's pretty rich.

Megan
Megan

I was having this discussion on Twitter last night with a fellow Midwesterner (he lives in Iowa).  He was talking about "walking tacos" (small bag of Doritos, taco meat, cheese, lettuce, salsa, sour cream) and how none of his coworkers had heard of it.  To be fair, I'd never heard of it, either.  I mentioned that it sounded like Frito Pie.  "That sounds gross," came his reply.

*sigh* 

I never heard of it until I moved to Texas.  If we had, I doubt my mom would've served it and I refused to eat chili growing up (the beans were too gross for me).

H_e_x
H_e_x

Eh, Gustavo Arellano is an alright writer, but a little travel could do him well. I don't want to say he is a stereotypical Californian, but he kind of is. I looked at his list and the places he brought up and I think they were pretty bland, but then again that's what I can describe much of the food I had in his neck of the woods. 

William Philpot
William Philpot

Definitely a regional thing. I have friends from Minnesota and NJ that I introduced Frito Pie to and both of them were blown away. Another friend of mine moved from Texas to California and has been introducing it to people there as well. I was surprised to find out that chicken fried steak is actually popular outside of our region, my friend from Minnesota said it's recently become extremely popular there. 

Johnhebbler
Johnhebbler

I have been eating frito pie all my life that i can remember I live in Texas and i think thats where it started,(not sure) They served it in the school cafe ,and you could buy it at Drive inn,s like Pig stands and Princes drive inn,s and that was before they had Sonic  

Tdorsey
Tdorsey

To be genuine, a Frito Pie must be made by slitting a Frito bag lengthwise, and then ladling chili over the Fritos in the bag.

Serving chili-covered Fritos in a styrofoam bowl is like putting beans in chili:  the first isn't chili pie and the second isn't chili.

Adding sour cream amounts to gentrification.

Where is Robb Walsh when we need him. 

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard

 Gilligan, what you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this thread is now dumber for having read it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

Kelli
Kelli

That's just gross.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I'm honestly not sure. I'm going to guess that when put on a plate or in a casserole dish, the layers resemble a pie? I know it's a bit of a stretch, but I've got no other ideas... Anyone?

ec
ec

If you put sour cream on it, you might as well serve it on a plate.  That's not a frito pie.

Bruce R
Bruce R

Tex-Mex is pretty bland.  It's like Shiner Bock. 

Wyatt
Wyatt

Just because that's how it allegedly started doesn't mean that's how it has to be. And chilli with beans in it is unappealing, but it's still chilli. Maybe you should tell us about how the genres you don't like aren't actually music, and how paintings you don't appreciate aren't actually paintings. Trust me when I say we'd just DIE if you didn't offer us some further opinions.

ThurstonH3
ThurstonH3

Oh Fatty, why the bile? Are Fritos not oversalted corn thingies? Does covering them with junk make them fit for consumption by the human species? And beyond that, worthy objects of love and sanctification? I know you're a proud local guy, but my point's pretty clear: What didn't you get about my claim that you can't respond to, braino a braino?

Jessica Crowl
Jessica Crowl

I have a vague memory of my first Frito pie being served in a pie tin... The only other reason I can think of is that Southerners love pie. 

H_e_x
H_e_x

To each their own. If I had only eaten bland tex-mex, then I would think the same as well. Thankfully, that is not the case.

Kelli
Kelli

There are no beans in chili sir, I might have to just pull your Texan card.

Wyatt
Wyatt

I know it's chili, not chilli, I don't know what the hell that was.

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