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.