For generations, the Frito pie has been a culinary staple for New Mexicans and tourists visiting the Santa Fe Plaza.
But television viewers who tune into food critic Anthony Bourdain’s Sunday evening show on CNN will hear him disparage the “World Famous” Frito pies sold at the Five & Dime General Store’s snack bar. He says they feel disgusting, are indigenous to Texas and hazardous to one’s health.
Even worse, he charges during this weekend’s episode of Parts Unknown that the snack bar makes its version of the dish with canned Hormel Chili and a “day-glow orange cheese-like substance.
The store’s owners, employees and patrons say Bourdain got it wrong.
“How can this man ever say that? That’s ridiculous. No way!” said Connie Lanyon-Roberts, who grew up in Santa Fe but has lived in Queensland, Australia, for the past nine years. She drops by the Plaza for a Frito pie when she’s in town visiting.
Lorraine Chavez has been making Frito pies at the Five & Dime since it opened 15 years ago, carrying on a tradition that started decades ago when a Woolworth’s lunch counter that stood on the same corner of the Plaza got locals hooked on the concoction. Chavez says she cooks up the chile con carne from scratch every morning, using ground beef and powdered red chile, then ladles the spicy result into small bags of corn chips and tops it with real cheddar cheese.
“We sell them by the thousands. So as long as we’re on a roll, who cares that people have their opinions?” she said of Bourdain’s critique.
Most of the Frito pie buyers interviewed this week disagreed with Bourdain’s assertions.
Earl Potter, a Santa Fe lawyer who helped open the Five & Dime, 58 E. San Francisco St., in May 1998, defended his product. He said the Santa Fe store sells more than 30,000 of them each year at $4.75 each.
“Our Frito pie is made the same way it has been since the ’60s, and, believe me, our customers let us know if there’s any variation in quality,” he said.
Mike Collins, store manager since the Five & Dime opened in a remodeled part of the former Woolworth store, said he had heard about Bourdain’s negative comments from his daughter, who saw a preview of the show on Facebook.
“I have no idea where he got that,” Collins said, adding that he buys 10-pound bags of powdered red chile from Los Chileros of Albuquerque and that the cheese “is not fake at all. It’s 100 percent cheddar cheese. It’s not the imitation.”
Bourdain began his segment on New Mexico food auspiciously by calling the Frito pie “as American as apple pie or the Manhattan Project and nearly as deadly. … I’m opposed to everything this dish stands for, and yet it is also delicious.”
Then he states that the bag of corn chips, chile con carne and shredded cheese “feels like you’re holding warm crap in a bag.”
“If you closed your eyes and I put this in your hands, you would be very worried it’s a colostomy pie,” he said.
Bourdain’s observation that Frito pies nutritionally are bad for you isn’t likely to surprise anyone. Three years ago, Health magazine named the Frito pie as New Mexico’s fattiest dish, with 46 grams of fat, including 14 grams of saturated fat.
But, Patricia Martinez said Thursday as she and her daughter, Erica Martinez, munched Frito pies on the Plaza, “one every once in a while can’t hurt you.” The First National Bank of Santa Fe employee estimated she buys one two or three times a month.
Despite the Five & Dime’s insistence that only homemade chile is used on its Frito pies, Bourdain doesn’t seem likely to retract his charge that it’s just the mass-produced, canned variety.
When contacted by a reporter, Bourdain’s press agent, Karen Reynolds, initially claimed Bourdain didn’t actually say the Five & Dime’s Frito pie was made with canned chile, only that it “tastes like it.” But after a reporter listened carefully to an online video of the episode and called her back to say that Bourdain did, indeed, say the chile was canned, Reynolds said she didn’t expect Bourdain to issue an apology or make a correction.
“I don’t think at this stage they’re going to be able to,” she said. “I don’t really know what else to say. … If I can get through to him, I’ll let him know.”
Bourdain also resurrected an old argument by saying that Frito pies, like Frito brand corn chips themselves, began in Texas.
According to the Fito-Lay website, the salty chips originated in 1932, when C.E. Doolin purchased a recipe for fried corn chips from a cafe in San Antonio, Texas, and began to sell Fritos from his Model T. A short time later, some sources say, Doolin’s mother, Daisy Dean Doolin, came up with the Frito pie.
“New Mexico, you have many wonderful things,” Bourdain tells his audience. “I think, let Texas have this one.”
Santa Fe resident Reina Roybal Romero, who was eating a Frito pie as she sat on a Plaza bench this week, said she had no doubts that the chile she was eating tasted homemade.
“It’s always been a great quick lunch, very reasonably priced,” she said. “This is not Austex Chili. Austex is a canned chili from Texas that they can keep in Texas.”
Contact Tom Sharpe at 986-3080 or firstname.lastname@example.org.