The invention of nachos

Happiness is a plate of nachos, just salted, with a liberal amount of cheese (More like the Elizabeth Warren liberal, not like the Hillary Clinton liberal, though), some spicy, juicy jalapenos on the side, and some smokey salsa, and maybe even some french guacamole. Some beans would do good too.

Most restaurants offer their own version of nachos with salsa, and overloaded nachos that’s literally overloaded with beans, cheese, tomatoes, salsa, chilies, olives, jalapenos, corn and so much more. Big brands like Doritos also offer standardized packaged versions. Commonly treated as a Mexican staple starter and even a common bar food, nachos are a favorite among people of all ages. And then there are people like me, who always like to have their favorite nachos with extra salsa along with their Thums-Up when they go to (read: used to go to before Covid-19 happened) see movies at the movie hall. I have also encountered pizzas having nacho crumble being added as a topping (called Mexican Pizza, of course!). People have gotten innovative too, so there are baked diet nachos, there are plain salted nachos, nachos sprinkled with tikka masala or cheese powder. I have also seen nachos made from maida or all-purpose floor, which felt very weird, that’s not really nachos, I think.

It recently got me thinking, how did nachos come about, who invented them, and why were they invented. While Nachos are commonly associated with Mexican food, they feel more American than Mexican to me, though that’s just my feeling. I got to reading and researching, talking to people to find out what I could. Germany has spiced patty of ground beef, but it took years to become popular as a sandwich, hot dogs have their origins in in centuries-old sausage recipes, pizzas started out as ancient Roman flatbread, stews began as ways for peasants to tenderize cheap cuts of meat, every food has a story to tell. Nachos can’t be an exception, can it?

I found a story courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary via Adriana P Orr, who had shared her research into nacho etymology with the OED newsletter in 1999. According to her work, nachos first appeared in 1943 in Piedras Negras, a small Mexican city close to the United States military base Fort Duncan in Texas. A group of about a dozen U.S. military wives whose husbands were stationed at the base, had spent the day in Eagle Pass when they decided to stop for some dinner, but found all the nearby restaurants to be closed. Now, here is where we find differing accounts – some say he was the maître d’, while some say he was the chef, but the sure fact is, the man’s name was Ignacio Anaya, and he worked at the Old Victory Club in the town of Piedras Negras. He took pity on the women and decided to cook something out of whatever was left in the kitchen. He had some tortillas leftover, so he cut them up and fried them as tortilla chips. Then he covered these chips with shredded cheddar and slides jalapeños. He put this mix in the oven for a few minutes, and served it to the women. He named the dish after himself – Ignacio, or his nick name – Nacho, and the dish came to be called ‘Nacho Especiales’.

This recipe for nachos was recorded in an Eagle Pass church cookbook, which confirms the existence of Ignacio ‘Nacho’ Anaya, giving the Victory Club its due for inventing the ‘Nacho Specials’, or the ‘Nacho Especiales’, along with the original recipe that was used by Ignacio. And since then, the nachos have become an international staple, its fame spreading far and wide.

Did you know?

As of 2017, Americans eat over 8.2 million pounds of tortilla chips or nachos with cheese, beans, and avocados during the Super Bowl Sunday event. Football has indeed played a gigantic role in popularizing the nachos.

By 1959, nachos had arrived on the West coast, thanks to a woman named Carmen Rocha. She had just moved from San Antonio to Los Angeles with her husband. San Antonio is less than three-hour drive from Piedras Negras, and Carmen had grown up eating the nacho chips. When Carmen got a job in Los Angeles at the El Cholo Mexican restaurant, she told the chef there about the quick, delicious snack she used to eat in plenty as a teen, called nachos. Who knew then that decades later, El Cholo would become an L.A. institution, thanks to Carmen Rocha and her nachos.

Another man we need to thank who helped nachos achieve the iconic status that they have today, is Frank Liberto, popularly regarded as the ‘Father of Nachos’. He is the man who introduced the ‘fast-food nachos’ or the ‘stadium nachos’, with gooey yellow cheese, to be served in movie theaters and stadiums. A native of Siciliy, Italy, Liberto took over his San Antonio-based family food business from his father Rico Liberto that used to sell concessions. Perhaps, his was the first American concession-focused business and is known to pioneer selling peanuts in circuses. In 1976, Liberto’s company – Ricos, sold their first stadium nachos at a Texas Rangers baseball game in Arlington along with a jalapeno cheese sauce that Liberto had created. The gooey cheese sauce could not only be ladled up quickly, but also had a longer shelf life. Together, the nachos with jalapeno cheese sauce were an instant hit at the game. Incidentally, they also drove up beverage sales, thanks to the jalapenos in the sauce, but it also did not negatively impact the sales of pop corn or hot dogs, the other two stadium favorites. Liberto went on to purchase Associated Popcorn, which was a major supplier to movie theaters in Texas, popularizing nachos across concession stands.

In 1978, the Dallas Cowboys were regarded as America’s team, and were often playing hosts to ABC’s Monday Night Football. One of the announcers for the team was Howard Cosell. One time, trying to fill the dead air during a blowout, Howard was looking for things to talk about and commented on how delicious a snack these ‘new nachos’ were. He even went on to use the term ‘nacho’ frequently in his talk to describe plays, such as, ‘that was a nacho run!’, further popularizing the snack, however we don’t know if this was done intentionally or not. And thanks to Howard Cosell’s near constant promotion, nachos became a staple at stadiums all across America.

I found some sources that say that nachos are called as ‘Totopos’ in Mexico. How true this is, I couldn’t verify, so if you know some facts about this, please do share. I would also like to know what nachos means for you, if you have any special memories about nachos – maybe a first date, maybe a friend who always eats up all the cheese leaving none for you in the tub, or a family member who picks out all the unbroken complete perfect triangle nachos, leaving the broken ones for you. Drop me a line in the comments or find me on Instagram – @banjaranfoodie.

Penny for your thoughts!