The first time I ever had Frito Pie was in Vermont, served by my Texan friends Stacy and Chris. They'd been talking it up a lot and finally on one cold winter's night they invited over a crew to try it. I expected a "real" pie-- a crust made of Fritos perhaps, or some variation of cracker pie made with the classic corn chips. But what I got was much better, a simplified perfection, the genius idea of smothering Fritos with chili, then sprinkling it with your favorite toppings, an inverted chili cheese nachos, of sorts.
Fritos were invented in San Antonio, Texas in 1932 by Elmer Doolin (the same man who would later invent Cheetos). Doolin perfected the recipe in his home kitchen with his mother's help, and began selling the chips under the Frito Corporation name. To this day, Fritos are made with only the three original ingredients: corn, corn oil, and salt. There is some speculation on who invented Frito Pie, but there are references to it almost as old as the chip itself.
Since I'm no Frito Pie expert, I turned to Chris, the one responsible for who introducing me to Frito Pie in the first place. He said, "I have been eating Frito Pie since I was little kid, at my Little League games you could buy it at the snack stand and they would pour the chili into a small bag of Fritos and top it off with cheese and onions. Having changed up eating styles from meat to vegetarian back to meat, I have always loved putting chili over a bowl of corn chips of Fritos. Since there are so many different ways of making chili, I don't think there is a "correct" way to eat it other than to use Fritos, though originally I think it was made with Wolf Brand Chili."
Though it's often eaten as a street or fair food as Chris mentioned, in a cut open single-serving Frito bag, with chili piled atop, here's a version you can make at home. This particular time, I was interested in slow-cooking some chili on a January Saturday afternoon and opted for my friend Morgan's husband Mitchell's prize-winning "Mitchilli". It's crazy good and contains TWO bottles of Dogfish Head and is totally worth the wait (and you'll have leftover chili, for more Frito Pie).
Mitchell's Chili (or Mitchili), Adapted from Mitchell West's prizewinning recipe
Put onions and garlic in a large saucepan with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper. Sautée for about 5 minutes until the onions begin to turn translucent, then add peppers. Sautée for 1-2 minutes more, then add 1 bottle of beer and let cook for about an hour, or until the beer is almost gone.
Move the onions and garlic to the edge of the pan and add the ground beef, chili power, cinnamon, oregano, paprika, and cumin. Add a little more salt and pepper. Once meat has finished browning, add the chicken stock. Let this simmer on low heat uncovered for about 2 hours.
Add tomatoes, tomato paste, and coffee. Let this simmer on low heat then place the lid on the pan. Let simmer for 1 hour then add beans and the second bottle of beer.
Simmer one more hour and then it's ready for Frito pie!
Note: If at any time it begins to look too thick, add a bit of water or chicken stock to thin it out. Makes at least 8 servings.
Place 1 c. (or a handful) of Fritos in each bowl. Top with 1 c. of chili and add desired toppings.
As Chris suggested, "Follow with a Lone Star Beer or Dr. Pepper float made with Blue Bell Ice Cream," other Texas favorites.
Emily Hilliard is the West Virginia state folklorist at the West Virginia Humanities Council. Her work has been published by NPR, Food52, The Southern Foodways Alliance, Design* Sponge, Lucky Peach, and others. She writes about pie at nothinginthehouse.com.