Among Teresa Hernandez’s passions were colcha embroidery, watching Spanish-language novelas, and making the famed Frito pie — a combo of beans, red chile, Fritos chips, cheese and onions that arguably should have been trademarked decades ago by the Woolworth’s store on the Santa Fe Plaza or its successor, the Five and Dime General Store.
Family members said Hernandez, 88, died at the Santa Fe Care Center on Feb. 24 of natural causes. Though she’s gone, family members say her legacy will last forever — especially in opened bags of chile-laden Fritos corn chips purchased at the store on the Plaza.
“The [Frito pie] she introduced was a worldwide thing, you know? People from all over the world have eaten her recipe,” said Hernandez’s nephew, Fred Gutierrez.
Over the years, the Frito pie became a thing in Santa Fe — a topic of controversy, heated arguments and pure joy for locals and tourists alike. It’s been featured on the Food Network, in numerous national publications and popular television shows, including, somewhat disparagingly, on the late Anthony Bourdain’s CNN series, Parts Unknown.
Others have claimed credit for creating the Frito pie.
The Frito-Lay website says 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.
When Santa Fe’s Carmen Ornelas died, her son told the Santa Fe New Mexican it was his mother who “made the Frito pie all those years and made them famous.” But Edward Duran, an employee at the Five and Dime, said the title of originator belongs with Hernandez.
“Everyone claims their grandma started it, but [Hernandez] is the one,” said Duran. “I never knew her, but she’s kinda famous.”
Hernandez first brought her mother’s Frito pie recipe to the Woolworth’s store, parts of which were replaced by the Five and Dime, when she was just 18 or 19 years old, Gutierrez said. It was during a lean year for sales when Hernandez suggested the store’s lunch counter start selling a chile-based food item loaded with “cheese and onions, of course,” Gutierrez said.
Thus began the popularization in Santa Fe of the Frito pie, some of them handed out through a walk-up window fronting the Plaza sidewalk.
“She really started something here,” said Duran. “We make 30,000 Frito pies a year, so I don’t know how many she made — probably a million.”
Jack Ortega, another one of Hernandez’s nephews, said he doesn’t know much about the origin of his aunt’s iconic Frito pie. “I just know I ate a bunch of them,” he said with a laugh.
“We’d walk into the store and were really proud that it was her creation,” he added.
But the Frito pie is just part of Hernandez’s story.
In the early 1920s, her family first came to Madrid, where her parents worked as coal miners throughout her childhood, Ortega said. In the late ’40s, the family relocated to Santa Fe, and Hernandez began working for Woolworth’s.
Although only men managed the store at the time, Ortega said his aunt became an overseer of Woolworth’s, and later the Five and Dime, for more than 50 years.
Later in life, Ortega said Hernandez was diagnosed with breast cancer. After surgery and chemotherapy, she was declared cancer-free 12 years later.
“She went through that without any complaints,” said Ortega. “She had the attitude of, ‘This is what God has given me,’ and made the most of it.”
Her determination extended to her family; Hernandez served as the caretaker for her brother, Hernando Hernandez, during the last two years of his life until he died in 2011.
“She made it look so easy because of her strength,” Ortega said.
Gutierrez — who invited his aunt to live with him following Hernando’s death — agreed. He said his aunt’s perseverance was perhaps her most defining trait.
“She was a very strong woman,” he said, “very high-spirited, very kind, very giving.”
Hernandez enjoyed crocheting, embroidery and telling stories of growing up in Madrid, the nephews said. But what they’ll remember most is the way their aunt interacted with those around her.
“She would kind of welcome you with an arm gesture like a long-distance hug, gesturing you to come in and sit next to her — almost like escorting you to the chair,” Ortega said. “That’s what I’m going to miss most, I think, because it was unique to her.”
The only times Gutierrez said he remembers Hernandez getting upset is when others would claim they were responsible for creating the Frito pie.
This is certain: The Frito pie remains a snack bar icon at the Five and Dime, where Hernandez’s portrait used to hang above the entryway — until it was gifted to her, employees said.
The recipe is still served to this day, they say.
“Since she’s passed away, the chile has been good,” said Duran. “I don’t know if it’s her spirit or what.”
According to her paid obituary, a rosary is scheduled for 10:15 a.m. Thursday at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, followed by a funeral Mass at 11 a.m.