Within the first few years of my move to New York City, I was invited by a fairly new friend to spend a weekend at her parents’ summer home in Vermont. While initially surprised by the invitation, what I came to learn about the East Coast is that the adult children of people with summer homes in Vermont-—or upstate, or the cape, or anywhere else a day’s drive away from Manhattan—have been told again and again by their parents something resembling, “We paid for it, so you may as well use it,” thus making the barrier to entry considerably lower than I expected. Low enough, for example, for me to be allowed in. So I, the newest and youngest and least northeastern friend, joined the others and drove seven long hours in a rented sedan to the southern edge of the Green Mountain state.
The house, which sneaks up on its visitors on a winding, canopied, one-lane road just north of the Massachusetts border, was modest in size and furnishings, but its surrounding autumnal beauty and mere designation as a “summer home” was enough to make it feel utterly palatial. Having grown up in a hot state where second homes were uncommon and, if they existed, filled with guns for hunting deer and almost always known as, simply, “the place,” the whole experience—being in a perfect little place created for the sole purpose of making its rotating assortment of guests feel comfortable—was new and wonderful to me. For those three lovely days, the group of us did a lot of sitting quietly with our books, taking solo hikes through the soggy, transitioning forest, playing a board game called Incan Gold, and getting to know each other a little better over the snacks our host had brought from the nearest Stew Leonard’s.
I had never heard of Stew Leonard’s, a quaint Connecticut grocery store chain whose logo features a cartoon man milking a smiling cartoon cow, until that weekend, but soon became intimately familiar with what I was told was its most famed delicacy: store-made cheddar popcorn. One of those regional obsessions like the Goo Goo Clusters of Tennessee or Tim’s chips in the Pacific Northwest, Stew Leonard’s cheddar popcorn, I was told, had a passionate fanbase who would gladly go out of their way for a taste of home, and its cozy, welcoming saltiness reminded me of a favorite snack from my homestate of Texas: Julio’s tortilla chips.
I remember bringing this up to my new friends as we shared shared one of many bags of Stew Leonard’s cheddar popcorn procured by our host for the weekend—going on and on about these chips that reminded me of home, the grocery store (H-E-B) where they could always be found, and their ubiquity in the pantries of every Texan not told to limit their sodium intake–but waxing poetic over a food to people without being able to share a bite is a pointless endeavor. (At least cooking shows have beautiful visuals—this story just had my own droning voice.) I remember their patience with me as I went on and on about these special chips that existed somewhere far, far away. These snacks that were neither cheddar or popcorn and had no business being brought up in present company (the cheddar popcorn). Everything you could do with them. Everything they complemented. I remember thinking I should never speak of these chips with non-Texans again–that my stories are always minutes too long and contain details even the most reliable court reporter would omit.
I remember that moment so vividly because it’s a monologue I’ve delivered—and forced friends to listen to—more than once. I deliver this monologue all the time. And here I am, 547 words in, doing it once more. For a series on spices in which it barely makes sense to live. Oh well.
A Julio’s chip, like most chips, is a triangle of fried corn tortilla. But what sets it apart from its many competitors—what makes it so much more special than brands like Tostito’s or Mission—is what it’s dusted with while steamy and glistening after its hot corn oil bath. The sparkling (I mean this, the chips actually sparkle) concoction is, per their website, is a magical combination of citric acid, pepper, garlic, paprika, cumin, and MSG. While the company also sells salsa (found in the refrigerated aisle, so you know it’s fresh), the chips are famous for being so flavorful that they’re satisfying even without a dip. Their yellow bags, with branding largely unchanged for nearly three decades, can be found in nearly every grocery store in Texas, but are largely unknown across state lines.
When I first moved to New York City, losing easy access to Julio’s was a topic of conversation between all the Texpats I hung around and drank Shiner Bock and Tecate Light with. I ordered a few bags direct from the company—and, later, from H-E-B’s online storefront—but could never justify the exorbitant cost of shipping for what would inevitably be a bag of crumbs. They would remain a gift when visiting—a welcome greeting in my parents’ pantry they would never otherwise buy unless I was en route.
After coming to terms with the impossibility of having an affordable bag of uncrumbled Julio’s somewhere inside my New York City home at all times, I figured out the best way to satisfy my Julio’s craving without resorting to overpriced cross-country shipments in boxes large enough to hold big-screen televisions from 1995 was to buy just the seasoning. This should have been the obvious solution, but it took years of going without my precious chips to finally make the purchase. Sold in an 8oz bottle that lasts years—my current one is approaching three long ones in the pantry—Julio’s seasoning is a secret ingredient for making not just homemade TexMex infinitely more reminiscent of home, but otherwise bland savory foods considerably more special.
I sprinkle Julio’s seasoning on scrambled eggs. I sprinkle Julio’s seasoning on these easy-baked matchstick fries I always make with burgers and other hot homemade sandwiches. I sprinkle Julio’s on the tater tots that come with my favorite grilled cheese delivery order. I sprinkle Julio’s seasoning in the dutch oven in the final hour of slow-cooking pinto beans, as I was taught by my father not to salt them too early. I sprinkle Julio’s seasoning on a bowl of Fritos before topping them with chili for Frito pie. I sprinkle Julio’s seasoning on the freshly fried corn tortilla bowls before loading them up with shredded romaine, black beans, corn, guacamole, and pico de gallo. And when I sprinkle Julio’s seasoning on any food served to guests, they inevitably say, “What did you put on this? It’s wonderful.”
That’s my cue to begin a story about some cheddar popcorn I once ate in Vermont.