Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Football And Nachos, The Texan Way

In a marriage otherwise marked by acrimony and the hurling of dishes, my parents always agreed on one thing: that we rooted for the Cowboys. The allegiance was, to say the least, unpopular in Miami, where we moved from Texas in 1973, much too soon after Dallas crushed the Dolphins in Super Bowl VI. I was two then, and some of my earliest memories involve the three of us gathering in front of the TV to watch the star-helmeted men stand around kicking the grass, amble into formation, and then tear across the field, chased by or chasing men in some other kind of helmet. From time to time my mother would leap from her seat and bring her fists down before her in distress and supplication, while screaming, "Git 'ihhhm!"

"Knock 'ihhm down!" my father would echo from his corner chair.

The team loomed so large in our household and in my mind that, by kindergarten, I'd somehow gotten the quarterback confused with Paul Revere. When the principal asked in a school assembly if anyone knew who was famous for shouting "The British are coming!" I yelled out "Roger Dodger."

I can see now how insufferable all the "America's Team" hoopla must've been to loyal fans of other franchises. In my defense, I can only say that the '80s were some mighty lean years in Marino Miami, and, though my team was winning by then, the '90s weren't much better. After Tom Landry and his sportcoat and Stetson fedora were so heartlessly and unceremoniously sent packing, I couldn't find it in my heart to root for Jimmy Johnson's thugs.

Now, living in Giants country, I've rediscovered my Dallas passion, theoretically. The trouble is, my husband loathes football; none of my friends can stomach the Cowboys; and the only person I know who'll root for them with me is my sister, who's three hours away by train (and is, she claims, the only lesbian in the greater Northampton, Massachusetts area whose TV is tuned to ESPN on Monday nights in the fall). To me, football games are a communal activity, so they, and the snacks I associate with them, are mostly nostalgic. This weekend I aim to change that, as far as the food is concerned.

What we often ate while watching those games in my childhood was my mom's version of nachos, made by dressing thirty tortilla chips each with a dab of refried beans, a small square of cheddar, and a jalapeno slice, and putting them into the oven to bake. I thought she and my grandmother had invented this variation, which I've always secretly preferred to the goopy basket of chips and toppings you get when you order nachos in restaurants. In fact, according to Lisa Fain, whose Homesick Texan blog is the best culinary resource I've found for gringo Texan expats, my family's way came first.

"For me, and for every Texan, there is only one kind of nacho," Fain says. Each "is its own entity (and that is key), with just enough toppings to give it flavor and a bit of heft but not enough to make it saggy or soggy. Anything else is an impostor!" She goes on:

Nachos are reputed to have been invented in 1943 by a maitre d’ named Ignacio Anaya who was working at the Victory Club in Piedras Negras, Mexico, which is just across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas. As the story goes, some ladies from Eagle Pass came into the restaurant one evening, ordered some drinks and wanted some snacks. The kitchen was already closed, so Anaya melted some Longhorn cheddar on some tortilla chips and garnished each chip with a jalapeno slice. He presented them to the ladies calling his improvised appetizer "Nacho’s Especiales" as Nacho is a nickname for Ignacio. And the name, without the "especiales," stuck.

Nachos were made only this way until 1977 when a San Antonio businessman named Frank Liberto started selling melted processed-cheese food to Arlington Stadium. You know, the gross stuff that comes out of a pump. (Not to be confused with queso which is far, far superior!) He called it “nacho cheese” and it was served with tortilla chips. As the story goes, sportscaster Howard Cosell tried some, loved it and extolled the virtues of these "nachos" on national TV. And a taste sensation took off, but sadly it was misinterpreted. Instead of the exquisite traditional nacho of one chip with a topping, people thought nachos were a mountain of chips with melted processed cheese. It was a very dark day in the history of this beloved Tex-Mex treat.

Rosecrans Baldwin, also a partisan of the older, simpler variety, jokes that nachos nowadays "are the martinis of snack food: a simple recipe that has been abused to scrape money off drunks. Don't get me started on bars that drench them in sour cream and watery salsas, like burial mounds. Or ballpark nachos, with salt licks disguised as chips and a side of chemicals. Disgusting examples abound—sashimi nachos; salad nachos lacking cheese. I'm sure in Los Angeles you can order a green-apple nacho plate, with Red Bull. Nachos should not be complicated." I can't improve on the elegance of the Homesick Texan's recipe, which should taste as good come football season as it will this Saturday night, when I'm sitting out on the terrace with a Corona during a break in the Mets(-Yankees) game.

Maud Newton is a writer and critic best known for her blog, where she has written about books since 2002.

Photo by Lisa Fain, used with permission.

29 Comments / Post A Comment

Bittersweet (#765)

Loved this, even though it's about the Cowboys.

Funny, I spent Sunday afternoons listening to my dad yelling "Get 'em!!!" at the Redskins, Sonny & Sam blaring on the radio. Some things are universal.

Sat through some mighty uncomfortable dinners too, when my dad was so PO'd at yet another 4th-quarter meltdown that he could hardly behave himself at the table.

Maud Newton (#600)

@Bittersweet, I think we might just broker Cowboys-Redskins peace right here.

Maud Newton (#600)

@Maud Newton Not on your life.

davetar (#1,114)

Chili's (yeah, sometimes I go to Chili's, wanna fight about it?) sells the traditional kind of nachos. I had no idea they were traditional, I just thought Chili's was being cheap by putting an item on the menu that is usually associated with heaping mounds of tortilla chips, cheese, meat and jalapenos and then presenting it as twelve damn chips.

Dave Bry (#422)

This is excellent. And yes, the new-to-21st-century-America-but-actually-older-and-truer-style nachos look much more appetizing than the sour-cream-and-salsa-heaped burial mounds.

Maud Newton (#600)

@Dave, they are! Or your money back!

@davetar I had no idea! The quality of the refried beans is very important, though, and I don't recall Chili's passing muster. (I'm not singling out Chili's for contempt; I've yet to have good Tex-Mex in any restaurant in the entire Northeast. For Texan barbecue outside Texas, though, you can't beat Hill Country, no matter what Brent Cox says!)

brent_cox (#40)

@Maud Newton I do not hate the food of Hill Country. I hate that I have to eat the food of Hill Country at Hill Country.

Maud Newton (#600)

@brent_cox Ah, could've sworn your complaint was with the food — figured it was a preferring-mustard-based-BBQ thing — but I stand corrected.

percolator (#1,721)

As a Dallas native, these two subjects are near and dear to my heart. To me, the perfect nacho contains no more or less than the following: Chip, refried beans, cheese, and mesquite grilled chicken, with a little sour cream or guacamole on the side for dipping. Good luck finding decent refried beans in NYC though. Goya comes the closest, but nothing can touch the frijoles refritos that are made from scratch (with lard!) in kitchens across Texas and Northern Mexico.

As for the Cowboys, I was genuinely shocked to find that everyone didn't adore them when I left Texas. But since I've learned to love being a thorn in everyone's side, I haven't really minded being the only Dallas fan at any given bar on Sundays.

4th and 26 (#10,443)

@percolator I knew only one Cowboys fan when I lived in Packer-land, we used to bowl in the same league. He killed a woman with a hatchet, but I never found out how he liked his nachos-

Maud Newton (#600)

@percolator I guess I need to practice getting comfortable with being a thorn in everyone's side! I dunno, though; I have a bad feeling drinking and rooting for the Cowboys in some of the bars around here could get me killed.

Binkyfofofo (#14,576)

BBQ nachos! seems so wrong in concept. I'd never heard of them before I visited Memphis recently. They are awesome

1. I absolutely empathize with the hollow feeling of watching football alone. I have never had football watching friends, except for one particularly rabid Virginia Tech alumnus, and there's a certain kind of statistics-obsessed, disagreeable and loud fandom that's no fun to be around. We have wasted a lot of potatoes and kitchen-hours on Superbowl parties to which no one comes :(

2. Is a Nacho Pageant more or less digestively challenging than a Deviled Egg Pageant? I feel like a Nacho Pageant (I guess you would butch it up by calling it NachoBowl or something, right?) could provide a great buffet, lots of variety.

3. Do not expect people to follow the game and cheer appropriately if they showed up for the food. So, I guess, schedule NachoBowl so that it's over before the game starts.

Maud Newton (#600)

@Charismatic Megafauna A Nacho Pageant! Great idea, the timing especially. Once we've eaten the nachos and drunk the beer, I'll be too tired to care that I'm sprawled out on the couch alone with the cats.

@Maud Newton NUMEROUS FROWNY EMOTICONS! Alone on the couch with cats and a warming-up, unfinished can of Tecate!

Maud Newton (#600)

@Charismatic Megafauna Wait! You're the author of that delightful devil's egg post! I can't imagine anyone not showing up to your parties.

SeanP (#4,058)

I guess my problem with non-traditional nachos isn't the fact that they're piled up rather than individually dressed – that doesn't change the experience all that much to me. What I object to is the horrific gloppiness factor – too often you get a pile of chips sodden with fake fluorescent "cheese", sour cream, pre-fab guacamole, meat, and crappy salsa. Blecch.

But I've certainly been known to intersperse a pile of chips with some grated cheese, dabs of beans, and bits of jalapeno, and just nuke the whole thing.

Maud Newton (#600)

@SeanP I think this is the only feasible method if you've already had more than three beers when preparations begin.

Graydon Gordian (#3,206)

maud, Maud, MAUD: As a fellow ex-pat Texan, I don't know if I can articulate just how happy (and hungry) this made me.

I will stoop so low as to watch the Cowboys with you if we eat actual fucking nachos.

Maud Newton (#600)

@Graydon Gordian Can relate! I've been hungry all week, since I wrote it. Gonna make myself a big pot of refried beans this weekend.

aSaltySalute (#293)

1. My family moved from Houston to Denver in 1978, the year that the Cowboys thoroughly dismantled my (now) beloved Broncos in Superbowl XII.

2. The key to nachos is individual attention per chip. I never realized that this was a Texas thing. If so, the Texans are a wise race.

3. Every time the Dallas Cowboys lose a football game, it is good for football, and good for America.

Maud Newton (#600)

@aSaltySalute On balance I think I care more about nachos being done right than I do about the Cowboys winning, so I "liked" your comment, though I confess, as I sit here reading point 3 again, I wish I could rescind it!

Slowlydoesit (#7,394)

Weird as it may sound, we did the same nachos back in the old country in the mid 80's. How on earth did we get the recipe? Maybe the Texans who came over to help develop the oil business brought more than loud?

Maud Newton (#600)

@Slowlydoesit How funny! Does the method survive there to this day?

johnnyjohansen (#14,813)

Although he may have worn a Stetson hat somewhere at some time, Tom Landry trademark hat(s) were small-brimmed fedoras. I never saw him wear anything else…

Maud Newton (#600)

@johnnyjohansen You're right that Landry's hat is a fedora. My research suggests that it was a Stetson-brand fedora, in the Saxon style, although I admit that I'm not absolutely sure about that. Stetson is definitely manufacturing a Tom Landry fedora now, but that doesn't speak to the past.

For the curious, and courtesy some Simpsons fans, here's ESPN's shot of Landry's actual hat, which was up for sale for $4,000 a couple years ago. And I guess we'll go ahead and change Stetson to fedora unless someone can confirm that the fedora was a Stetson hat.

As a child I was convinced The Cowboys were invincible because they were immutable. The day Mr. Landry was handed his hat transformed both The Cowboys and my perception of the universe. Perception transmuted to reality and the cowboys became a box of interchangeable parts. It's not that I "put away a childish thing", it's that a part of my childhood slowly dissolved before my eyes.

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