Nachos RULE!

If somebody was to put a gun to your head and command you to eat fifty pounds of any one food at one sitting (or until you exploded), what food would you select? For me, the choice is pretty easy. Sausage biscuits would get too filling after only a couple, and pizza starts to get rich on you with a half dozen slices, and a man can't expect to eat many more waffles than five. Instead, I would nominate as my death-food the humble delicacy known as the nacho. Son, I can put them boys away!

I eat nachos for dinner about once a week. Just nachos. Easy to fix yet delicious, light yet satisfying, undoubtedly the finest meal conceivable with neither meat nor a biscuit in it. And an exquisite showcase for the universal topping, cheese, which takes a well-deserved turn as a dish's dominant element. If I perished under the fifty-pounds ultimatum, I expect it would be the tensile strength of my intestinal walls that failed, and not my appetite.

Recently, me and Shea were partaking of an Ultimate Nachos platter at Applebee's. Personally, I like my nachos simple: chips, cheese, jalapenos, maybe a little salsa, perhaps a dash of sour cream. That's it. If I wanted beans and tomatoes and lettuce and guacamole and chili and shit on there, I would have ordered a taco. I have a special distaste for chili on nachos. That heavy, husky chili taste deprives the cheese of its identity, and the chips get soggy tout de suite. But Shea loves chili on 'em, so I can respect that. Anyhow, he asked me what I thought the definition of "nacho" was. Was nacho cheese a type of cheese, like cheddar, or is nacho a flavor, as in "Nacho Cheese Flavor Doritos," or does nacho refer to the kind of corn chip used, or what?

None of the above, I replied. It was my understanding that "nachos" refers to a dish, the synergy of a whole that's greater than the sum of its tasty goodness. Furthermore, the proper cheese for nachos is Monterey Jack, or my own favorite, Colby Jack -- definitely not some cheese called nacho cheese. I don't recall ever learning this. It feels like received genetic knowledge, just as salmon know to spawn upstream and rednecks know to pack their Skoal against the lid before they dip it.

Ever the debate-monger, Shea then asked why Mexicans would invent nachos with an ingredient as unMexican-sounding as Monterey Jack, or Colby. A good question, I admitted. At that moment I resolved to get the straight dope on what nachos are and whence they came, and report my findings in the Lard Letter. I now have the facts in hand, and you should prepare yourselves for a heartwarming surge of patriotic delight.

Nachos AIN'T Mexican! My fellow countrymen, nachos are as All-American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and O.J.!

Read the inspirational words of Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison, from their highly informative work, The Border Cookbook: Authentic Home Cooking of the American Southwest and Northern Mexico (Harvard Common Press, 1995):

"Several cafes along the Texas-Mexico border, as far apart as El Paso and Piedras Negras, claim credit for concocting the nacho. All that's certain is a Rio Grande origin about fifty years ago -- and an inventor blessed with insight into the elemental." [Man, have Bill and Cheryl been reading the Lard Biscuit Style Manual or what?]

"After its introduction about the time of the Second World War, the nacho spread rapidly around Texas. By the time it reached debutante age, the snack made its first big splash at the state fair in Dallas. In the 1970s, the Texas Rangers' ballpark started serving gooey nachos of an indeterminate food group, kicking off a baseball revolution almost as big and controversial as AstroTurf, another Lone Star contribution to the game. When some people outside the border region resisted the treat because of the jalapeno heat, Texas growers developed a mild new variety specifically for the national nacho market. Today, you find the gloppy ballpark version even in Mexico, at least in Monterrey, home of the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame."

The Jamisons provide a recipe for "Nachos El Norte," which calls for cheddar, Monterey Jack, or asadero cheese, or a mixture thereof. The book's glossary explains that "Monterey Jack originated in Monterey, California, and remains a favorite on the West Coast. Now well-known throughout the U.S., its repute comes from a mild, buttery flavor and easy melting." I love Jack cheese, but it's a little TOO mild by itself. That's why I prefer the extra edge provided in the Co-Jack hybrid, which has a cool marbled orange-white color, too. The book lists as optional garnishes refried beans, Pico de Gallo, escabeche, or guacamole. No thanks. But the customizability of the nacho is part and pacrel of its charm, as Cheryl and Bill note:

"Nachos bear some affinity to chilaquiles, but they probably popped into existence in some snacker's fantasy rather than evolved from another dish. The treat is made for tinkering, as the range of toppings shows. At its most basic, a nacho consists of a crisp corn chip cappd with melted cheese and chile, usually pickled jalapenos. From that starting point, anything is possible. Some change the chile -- we prefer fresh jalapenos -- and others change the cheese, even substituting artificial orange glop in ballpark versions."

Mmmmm... artificial orange glop. Even though the real cheese variety is way better, those cheap-ass Circle-K ones are pretty damn good, too! I ain't a snob about my nachos like some people are. In the course of my research, I found that several Mexican cookbooks, especially the hoity-toity "classical cuisine" ones, declined to even acknowledge nachos' existence. I suppose it's like asking the maitre d' at Chez Pierre why they ain't got no french fries. That's how not Mexican they are. And in these NAFTA-saddled, Buicks-Made-in-Mexico times, we Americans owe it to our forefathers to stand up tall and righty claim our true cultural heritage and make it known all 'round the world:

O Beautiful, for chips of corn,
For molten gobs of cheese,
For jalapenos nuclear,
And salsa, if you please:
America, America, nachos was made by thee
Man, that shit's good --
Them Mexicans
Did not make them for me!


(Originally published in The Lard Letter, January 1996.)

D. Trull