There’s nothing quite like a concession stand container of nachos: its cup of orange, oozing, hot nacho cheese nuzzled up against the very tortilla utensils we use to scoop it up and deposit it into our eagerly awaiting mouths. But like so many foods and snacks out there, perhaps we’ve been taking this gooey goodness for granted. Thank goodness not everyone has been so remiss.
Over at the Smithsonian Magazine‘s blog, inquiring minds recently made a foray into the evolution of nachos — the kind you order up at a baseball stadium or a concert arena — and how they came to embody the quintessential partner to beer, soda and other concession stand snacks.
The hunt for the dawning of the nachos era actually began back in 1988 when a researcher at the Oxford English Dictionary was charged with the task of tracing the etymology of the word “nachos.” She poked around and traced nachos through a paper trail of documents and newspaper articles, until she hit gold in the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress:
“As I walked down the long corridor leading back to the library’s central core, I heard a voice softly calling my name. There was a young woman I recognized as a staff member of the Hispanic Division… she told me she had been born and raised in Mexico and there, nacho has only one common usage: it is the word used as a diminutive for a little boy who had been baptized Ignacio. His family and friends call him Nacho… Now I was convinced there was a real Nacho somewhere who had dreamed up a combination of tortilla pieces with melted cheese and jalapeño peppers.”
From there, she found a quote in a 1954 cookbook printed by a church in Eagle Pass, Texas, which featured a dish called “Nachos Especiales.”
It turns out that a group of hungry army wives in 1943 were likely the first to dine on nachos while visiting a restaurant with a maitre d’ named Ignacio, or “Nacho.” The chef wasn’t around, so instead Nacho tossed together whatever was in the kitchen — tortilla chips, cheese and jalepeno peppers (the cheese was reportedly Wisconsin cheddar, I must add, as a native of that state).
From then on, it seems the so-called Father of Nachos, Frank Liberto, popularized the dish with his recipe in Texas. He’s credited with bringing nachos to the concession stand in 1976 at a Texas Rangers baseball game in Arlington, Texas.
He had a new trick up his sleeve, however — a cheese that could be pumped out and easily deposited in snack containers. Most cheeses are now more of a cheese sauce, made of a blend of various ingredients. His ingredients didn’t need to go in the fridge, thus establishing them as an easy alternative for concession stands.
Back then, concession operators didn’t want nachos competing with things like popcorn, hotdogs and sodas, so Liberto says the family had to build their own carts.
“My dad has an old VHS tape where people were lined up 20 people deep behind these concession carts,” he says. “You’d hear the crack of the bat and you’d think that they’d want to see what play was going on, but they stayed in line to get their nachos.”
And the rest is history — people loved nachos, and the industry responded by selling nachos wherever sports, music or other get-togethers are staged.
As for that other burning question — how much cheese is in “cheese sauce” — Liberto is keeping mum on his recipe.
“I will not tell you that,” he explained. ”We’ve got lots of formulas and that is a a trade secret—you never want to give away how much cheese is in your product.”
*(H/T to Parker for the link!)
The History of Baseball Stadium Nachos [Smithsonian Magazine]