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Friday, December 21, 2012

Frito Pie: The Walking Taco!

A recent lunch at one of our best local dining establishments -- okay, it was Local Flavor, whose reputation surely proceeds it! If not, go eat there now! -- brought forth a burst of recollections of my own childhood and the drive-in where my folks took us on Saturday nights. And Frito Pie.

In those days, as now, Mountain View, Ark., had its own drive-in -- one of only three left in the state -- and along with the grind house style B-monster movies and whatever other fare drifted to us weeks sometimes after they opened elsewhere ("The Legend of Boggy Creek" or "Ben," the one with Michael Jackson and the rats, or "The Thing With Two Heads," starring Ray Milland and Rosie Greer), the Stone Drive-In had a fully operational snack bar.

That's where the Frito Pie comes in. The Frito Pie lunch special at Local Flavor was wonderful, as I'd thought it would be, but it lacked the white trash charm that gives the Frito Pie its nickname of "The Walking Taco."

What it is, is, you take the individual bag of Fritos, you rip open the top carefully, and you pour the chili and shredded cheese and maybe jalapenos right into the bag. Actually, whatever will fit: chopped onion, tomatoes, lettuce, sour cream. The only limitation is the size of the bag and how long you can hang onto it before it gets so hot you drop it in the parking lot and have to go crying back to the car with chili all over your shirt. Otherwise, you eat it with a plastic fork if you can find one.

There are dozens of variations of recipes for making the meal as a casserole, with explanations on how to avoid getting the chips soggy while baking, etc. At that point you have already crossed the line from drive-in food to dining experience. You keep the chips crunchy by dumping the ingredients in the bag and eating really fast.

Like chicken-fried steak or putting peanuts in your Mountain Dew, the origins of Frito Pie are lost in the mists of ancient history, possibly as far back as 1932. One legend has it Frito Pie originated with Frito-Lay's founder Elmer Doolin's mother, Daisy Dean Doolin. References to the dish are as old as Fritos themselves.

Another legend claims that true Frito Pie originated only in the 1960s with Teresa Hernández, who worked at the F. W. Woolworth's lunch counter in Santa Fe, N.M. However, our own memories going back to the late 1960s or early 1970s locate Frito Pie at the drive-in in Stone County, so perhaps this is a case of what Charles Fort referred to as "steam engine time," a period when "many inventors all over the world, despite isolation from each other, and with no contact with each other in any way, begin inventing similar things with coincidental common ideas."

So maybe the late 1960s were "Frito pie time." Or not. We'll probably never know.

In the interim, and with the nearest drive-in 46 miles away in Fayetteville and closed until mid-March, we must take matters in our own hands. Sides that go naturally with Frito pie include big kosher dill pickles, fountain sodas, and buckets of popcorn.

To get the full drive-in effect, arrange dinner sitting in the back of your truck on lawn chairs with an ice chest of beverages, and eat your meal while watching a movie on your laptop with the sound cranked. If there are noisy kids in the area or people making out in the car next door, you have succeeded admirably.

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