Nachos (Food History Ep. 2)

Nachos were invented in Mexico, by a Mexican,
but they’re not exactly Mexican food. They’re enormously successful, available in restaurants
around the world, but their creator wasn’t even a chef. Confused? Me too. All the time.
Let’s go back to the 1940s. Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya was working at Club Victoria in the
border town of Piedras Negras, Mexico. A group from the neighboring Texas town of Eagle Pass
came in looking for something to eat (in his son’s version of the story, it was a group
of army wives from the nearby Army base, but Nacho himself was less specific). As the restaurant’s
maî·tre d, Nacho’s job was normally limited to attending to guests, but on this particular
occasion, the cook was nowhere to be found. Instead of turning the customers away, Anaya
ducked into the kitchen to whip up a quick dish using the few ingredients he could find.
The resulting plate of tortilla chips topped with grated cheese and sliced jalapeños was
a hit. It needed a name, and Nachos Especiales—an homage to its creator—stuck. Or at least
the first half of it did, anyway. Hi, I’m Justin Dodd. Welcome to Food History.
The story of nachos doesn’t start and end with a resourceful restaurant employee assembling
a few basic components. From the chips, to the toppings, to the molten yellow cheese
that’s become synonymous with the dish, the history of nachos can tell us a lot more
than their simple ingredients list might suggest. Before we get into all that, I want to say
a huge thank you for the response to our mashed potatoes video from last month. We received
a ton of awesome ideas for future episodes of the show. Shout-out especially to kujmous
and boboom66 who sent us down a wild rabbit hole that led to nachos. Because we got so
many great ideas for future episodes, we thought this could be fun, too: If you have one particular
question about food or drink history, leave it below. We’ll pick one question from the
comments to research and then answer in our next episode. For now, though, let’s jump back thousands
of years, before Nacho was a nickname, let alone an appetizer. *INGREDIENT DEEP DIVE
HEADER* Corn, or maize, was first domesticated by
the indigenous people living in what-is-now central Mexico around 7000 BCE. Maize would
become a vital part of the Aztec and Maya diets. But the first maize crops didn’t
produce the sweet, golden kernels that are sold by the can in supermarkets today. Early
corn grew on tiny cobs and was trapped in tough casings that made it hard to eat. By
the way, “Early Corn” & “Tiny Cobs” are actually the nicknames my girlfriend and
I have for each other. I’m kidding! She doesn’t exist. To turn maize into something more palatable,
Mesoamericans developed a process called nixtamalization, probably around 1500 BCE. In addition to being
an absolutely killer move in Scrabble, nixtamalization involves drying corn kernels and then soaking
them in warm water mixed with an alkali, like ash or slaked lime. The high-pH solution is
caustic, and it partially breaks down the tough cell walls of the corn, making it easier
to chew and digest. Nixtamalized maize has the added bonus of
being more nutritious. Corn is high in niacin, or vitamin B3, but it’s bound to other chemicals
in the raw version of the grain. When the bound form of niacin passes through the digestive
tract, the small intestine can’t absorb it, so it passes through the body without giving
us any nutritional benefits. Many people who relied on unprocessed maize as a primary food
source suffered from niacin deficiency, which caused malnutrition and a disease called pellagra.
Pellagra is characterized by symptoms like sores on the skin, diarrhea, and delusions.
Yikes. Nixtamalization releases the niacin from those other chemicals. Following the
development of nixtamalization, cases of niacin deficiency dropped, and the region’s first
major civilizations began popping up. Fun fact: a 1997 article in the Journal of
the Royal Society of Medicine suggested that pellagra could’ve been responsible for the
rise of vampire myths. As corn became a major part of European diets, many peasants consumed
un-nixtamalized corn as if it was any other grain that could be treated with powerful
mills. This led to widespread niacin deficiencies and rampant cases of pellagra. The article’s
authors suggest that the disease‘s symptoms, such as the sensitivity to light that accompanies
dermatitis, could be tied to the rise of vampire legends. Whether this is true or not, it did
inspire me to write a horror fantasy novel about an undead ear of corn. Instead of a
bat, of course, he changes into a uni-CORN. *VO: I vant to shuck your corn* This is why
I don’t have a girlfriend. SECTION HEADER: *DO THE DISHES* ?? Now, you may be wondering, what does soaking
corn in lime have to do with nachos? Well, nixtamalized corn comes with one more perk—one
that’s of particular interest to us. When it’s nixtamalized, corn can be made into
masa— basically a corn dough. It’s the basis for tacos, tamales, and pupasas, along
with many other amazing dishes. And in the modern era, that includes Tex-Mex favorites
like nachos. People in Mexico have been flattening balls
of masa and cooking them to make tortillas for thousands of years. And for many of those
years, cooks would fry up extra hunks of tortillas to make chilaquiles. The fried tortilla pieces
are covered in salsa and served with delicious toppings like cotija cheese and meat. It may
be one of the closer analogues to nachos you’ll commonly find in Mexico, and guys—it’s
really good. When whole corn tortillas are fried in fat,
they’re called tostadas—which literally translates to toasted in Spanish. Tostadas
are often topped with tasty ingredients, from seafood to beans, but at their core, they’re
basically giant tortilla chips. And the history of fried tortillas probably goes way back.
According to a doctoral thesis written by Vanessa Fonseca, there is an account from
the 16th century of “pedazos fritos de tortilla,” or fried tortilla strips, though those may
have been dry-toasted, rather than fried in oil. In any case, the modern, bite-sized version
of the fried tortilla didn’t really begin to emerge as a distinct category until the
1900s. Tortilla-making was becoming commercialized around the turn of the century, and factory
owners were looking for ways to repurpose the excess tortillas that would otherwise
go to waste. These scraps were often fried, cut into chips, and distributed to restaurants
in the area. So how did the chips go from tortilla factory
afterthought to snack aisle staple? Credit is often given to Rebecca Webb Carranza. In
the late 1940s, Carranza was president of El Zarape Tortilla Factory in Los Angeles.
She fried tortilla scraps into chips, and after serving them at a family party, she
saw that people couldn’t get enough of them. “Tort Chips,” as she called them, were
initially sold for 10 cents a bag from the factory delicatessen. By the 1960s, the chips
had replaced regular tortillas as the business’s main product. Tort chips. Carranza wasn’t the first person to make
tortilla chips and sell them to the public— in the 1930s a California grocer was advertising
“Mexican Tortilla Chips in cellophane package” and in the 1910s a company owned by Bartolo
Martinez was selling tortilla chips in San Antonio. Martinez is an interesting figure
in the history of corn products—his company, known at various times as Azteca Mills, Tamalina
Milling Company, and B. Martinez Sons Company, had previously patented the so-called “Tamalina
process,” which produces a long-lasting dehydrated form of masa that could be easily
packed and distributed to consumers, restaurants, and even tortilla factories. This innovation
had lasting impact, and the company’s claim to have created the first commercial corn
chip is perhaps the most persuasive account available. Even though Carranza isn’t the inventor
of the tortilla chip, though, she did kick off the trend of manufacturing them on a massive
scale. Frito-Lay took her vision even further. In 1966, the snack company introduced Doritos,
Spanish for “little golden things,” adorable, to the national market. They originally came
in one flavor: toasted corn. That’s right—the first Doritos were just plain tortilla chips
in a bag. It would take another six years for Doritos to roll out Nacho Cheese, the
brand’s most popular flavor of all time. No matter what toppings are on your nachos,
you’ll almost always find cheese in some form. But exactly what form that cheese takes
can vary. Ignacio Garcia’s original nachos were topped
with some type of American cheese, possibly longhorn. Even today you rarely see traditional
Mexican cheeses like cotija or queso oaxaca served on a platter of nachos. A much more
common choice is Monterey Jack. It originated in the Franciscan monasteries of Monterey,
California, in the 1700s. The semi-firm cow’s milk cheese has since become an integral part
of Tex-Mex cuisine. It melts easily, providing that ooey-gooey texture that’s so important
to nachos, and it’s milder than other cheeses, so it doesn’t clash with the bold flavors
found in a lot of Tex-Mex food. But when you hear “nacho cheese,” you
probably don’t think about Monterey Jack. What more likely comes to mind is the semi-liquid
stuff that comes in that particular shade of yellow rarely found in nature. This version
of nacho cheese didn’t emerge until 30 years after Ignacio Garcia’s original creation.
By that time, nachos had become a popular offering in bars and restaurants in much of
the United States. Carmen Rocha, who waited tables at El Cholo Mexican restaurant in Los
Angeles from 1959 to the 1990s, is commonly credited with popularizing nachos out West.
She was introduced to them in Texas, and while working in LA, she served them as an off-menu
item to customers. The dish was so popular that it quickly earned a permanent spot on
the El Cholo menu and spread to other eateries throughout the region. Frank Liberto saw the potential of nachos
beyond bar food. He was the owner of the concessions company Ricos Products in the 1970s, and he
thought nachos would be successful at sporting events. He planned to bring them to the stadium
where the Texas Rangers played in Arlington, but there was one problem: Baseball fans weren’t
going to wait several minutes for cheese to melt on their chips. Although side note: why
not? Baseball is really boring. It’s like 90% standing around and chewing gum, you can
afford to miss a few minutes, Gary. Anyway, Liberto knew he needed to come up
with a version of nachos that could be assembled quickly, so he developed nacho cheese: a shelf-stable
product that maintained its gooey consistency and was ready to be ladled onto tortilla chips
the moment customers placed their order. How did he do this? MAGIC.. …Not magic, it was
science. *FOOD SCIENCE HEADER* Many brands of nacho cheese owe their perpetual
meltiness to something called sodium citrate. This compound is a type of salt that lowers
the acidity in cheese. That allows the proteins in the cheese to become more soluble, which
means the emulsified liquid and fat is less likely to separate when melted. So when you
add sodium citrate to cheese, it melts more easily and stays melted without getting oily
or clumpy. And if you needed proof we were meant to eat this unholy cheese creation,
just check out the chemical formula for sodium citrate (Na₃C₆H₅O₇). That’s so awesome
I was afraid to send this script to our fact checker! I don’t wanna live in a world where
nacho cheese isn’t made of NACHO. The ready-made nachos were well received when
they debuted at a Texas Rangers game in 1976, but they really took off in 1978. By then,
nachos had made it to Texas Stadium in Irving, and when announcer Howard Cosell was served
a plate of them in the broadcast booth, they became the surprise star of a Cowboys game.
He repeatedly made references to them throughout the night, even using the word “nacho”
to describe plays he liked. By the time the fourth quarter ended, nachos had solidified
their place in American culture. Man I love that story I think it’s very endearing.
That story is NACHO. Did I do it right? Am I sportsman now? Nacho purists may prefer their chips with
cheese and some sliced jalapenos, as they were first served in 1943, but the dish has
evolved far past Garcia’s original recipe. Today, it’s not uncommon to find nachos
topped with beans, guacamole, ground beef, salsa, and sour cream. You can riff on the
template endlessly, for good and for ill. Online you can find instructions to make poutine
nachos, Thanksgiving leftover nachos, and even dessert nachos. At the Park Hyatt in
New York you can order “Russian Nachos” for $110, holy moly. They come with lobster
remoulade, ossetra caviar, and the unshakeable knowledge that you are a very silly person. Nachos are, in a way, a culinary microcosm
of America. They’re the product of traditional ingredients and cross-cultural exchange; they
combine scientific achievement and commerce to create something that now extends throughout
the world. …They’re maybe a little gross, but they’re also pretty awesome. And they
may just be one of history’s most successful examples of fusion cuisine. If you didn’t see our previous episode of
Food History, check it out here. Our next episode drops February 26th, subscribe here
so you don’t miss it. Until then, remember, the bread plate goes on the left, drink on
your right.

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