Becoming a Dish

The incredible journey of nachos

"Food operates as one of the key cultural signs that structure people's identities and their concepts of others"
— Chef Wenying Xu

Although elementary, few understand the extensive significance of food and the cultural weight that can derive from the most simple dish. Americans, and especially New Yorkers, tend to take ethnical diversity in cuisine as a mainstream given. After all, everyone has at some point uttered the sentence ‘Do you feel like having Chinese or Indian?'

But if one were to break away from the triviality of a given cuisine, one would discover that any dish, alone, touches upon religion, history, agriculture, economics, politics, and even psychology. We chose to tell you the specific story of nachos because it is a remarkable one (and also because it is impossible to dislike them). But bear in mind that, as nachos, any given dish tells a story of immigration, amalgamation and assimilation. Any dish can potentially tell you the story of people, their drives, movements and their becoming.

The origin of nachos remains a polemical subject. Many passionately contest its Mexican origins, arguing that it is primarily a Texan dish. Even if it is allegedly Texan, one cannot deny the important Mexican influence inherent in nachos, especially since its most credited inventor, Ignacio Araya, is Mexican. In addition to its creator, nachos are made with Tortillas chips, which undeniably originate from Mexico, but more specifically from the Totopo (the ancient tortilla chips). The Totopo itself is known as originating from Zapotec peoples of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region of the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

As the legend goes, one evening in 1943 in the Mexican town of Piedras Negras (just across the boarder from Eagle Pass, Texas), Ignacio Araya, locally known as Nacho (a common Mexican nickname for Ignacio), invented nachos. Wether this invention was more of an improvisation is a question open to debate.

During World War II, many wives of American military officers were based in Eagle Pass and it was a very common and entertaining practice for these ladies to venture over the Rio Grande on shopping (and possibly drinking) excursions. During one of such excursions a dozen women tired (or tipsy) got hungry and decided to go to the old Victory Club, which Anaya owned and ran. Although it was late and the club restaurant was closed, Anaya conceded to serving the officer's wives. Without his cook in sight, Araya panicked, took the ingredients available to him, and concocted what consisted according to The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink of neat canapés of corn tortilla chips, cheese, and jalapeño peppers. He simply named it Nachos Especiales. The dish was a hit and gained considerable popularity in the region over the next 20 years.

A little more than a decade later, Carmen Rocha, a simple but greatly charismatic waitress, gave Araya's dish precious notoriety by introducing it in California during the final years of Hollywood's golden age. In 1959, Rocha started working at El Cholo a landmark restaurant in Los Angeles and began treating her regular guests with one of her preferred snacks from back home, San Antonio, Texas. Jack Nicholson was noted to be a particular adept. The dish was just a snack from Carmen and didn't prefigure in the menu, but, again, quickly nachos gained popularity and became the restaurant's signature dish, subsequently taking over California, after Texas.

However, nachos' true democratization as a national popular dish owes much to Frank Liberto, who began to sell them as stadium food at Arlington Stadium (home of baseball's Texas Rangers at the time) in the 1970s. Liberto made one major tweak by substituting real cheese (and its limited shelf life) for a concocted industrial version involving melted cheese and other secret ingredients. The new sauce didn't need to be heated, and, when it came to shelf life, could most probably survive a nuclear blast.

Today you can find nachos in both Tex-Mex and Mexican restaurants, as well as in sports bars, movie theaters, gas stations… They are considered both homey and exotic, and are unanimously appreciated by all cultures and generations, for better or worse.