The Legendary Tale of Nachos

By Matt Blitz |

© Geoff Peters - Images

Happiness is a plate of nachos. Deep-fried, salted tortilla chips. A liberal amount of cheese (we're talking Elizabeth Warren liberal here and not Hillary Clinton). Spicy jalapenos. Maybe a dollop of guacamole to get fancy. Chicken, beans, chili or pico de gallo - while all good add-ons, add a risk in over complicating the simplistic joy that is nachos, a legend that doesn't date all that far into the past. Here's the story of its invention and how nachos' cheesy goodness took over America.

According to Oxford English Dictionary's Adriana P. Orr, prior to the 1940s, the word "nacho" had two original meanings. One was a simple Tex-Mex slang that combined the phrase "naturally, of course" into a single word - "nacho." The other, which Orr learned from a staff member of the Hispanic Division at the Library of Congress, was a common nickname given to a small boy who had been baptized "Ignacio." Basically, it's like calling a boy who's named William, "Billy."

Now, our nacho story begins in the town of Piedras Negras, Mexico - just four miles across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas - at the height of World War II. Sitting outside of Eagle Pass was historic Fort Duncan, a converted Air Base and wartime flight school. Those stationed at Fort Duncan often traveled the few miles into Mexico simply for a better bite to eat. And, in Piedras Negras, there was a favored restaurant, the enthusiastically-named Victory Club.

This is where the details of this delicious legend vary slightly. There's one telling that says it was a group of officers who came in on a very late night, exhausted, homesick and looking for good food. Another tale says that it was several female shoppers (possibly officers' wives) who were ending their day with a "girls' night out" dinner. Either way, what isn't disputed is who they encountered at the Victory Club - Ignacio Anaya, who was more affectionately known as "Nacho" Anaya. Again, there's a bit of discrepancy on who Anaya actually was, some say he was the maitre 'd or a server, while others claim he was the chef. But whatever role Anaya played and whoever the guests were, it was late and they were hungry. So, Anaya sprung into action. Looking for the most common and easily prepared items in the kitchen, he found freshly fried strips of tortilla (fried in shortening and not oil), sprinkled a hefty portion of shredded cheese and spicy jalapenos. Then, he stuck it in the broiler. Within moments he delivered his creation to the table of Americans. Eagerly, they ate them up and asked Anaya what he called them. He shrugged, saying "Nacho's Especiales," or "Nacho's Special."

Nachos didn't become America's favorite Mexican menu item overnight. Anaya got help spreading the nacho gossip. In 1959, a young woman named Carmen Rocha moved from San Antonio to Los Angeles with her husband. Since San Antonio is less than a three hour drive from Piedras Negras, she had grown up with nachos. When Rocha got a job serving at El Cholo Mexican Restaurant on Los Angeles' Western Avenue, she told the chef's about the easy, tasty snack she used to eat as a kid. Decades later, El Cholo had become a LA institution, thanks in large part to Rocha and her nachos (and margaritas). When she died in 2008, even El Cholo regular Jack Nicholson grieved, telling the LA Times, "Carmen was wonderful, to me and to everybody... It's a community loss."

While Rocha's introduction of nachos to the west coast surely contributed to its popularization, there's no bigger influence on how nachos are consumed today than Frank Liberto. He's the man who introduced fast food "nachos" to American sports stadiums. Liberto, whose family came from Sicily took over the San Antonio-based family business from his father "Rico" Liberto selling concessions at events and movie theaters. In fact, the company was perhaps the first American concession-focused business, selling peanuts when the circus came to town. In 1976, at a Texas Rangers baseball game in Arlington, Liberto's company "Rico's" sold the very first "stadium nachos." Never wanting his customers to stand more than a minute in line, he devised a gooey "cheese sauce" (which was and still is intended to be diluted with water or jalapeno juice) that could be ladled up quickly, didn't need to be refrigerated and had a long shelf life. Despite the sauce not actually being cheese (this according to the FDA), it was an immediate hit and outsold every other product at the stadium in 1976. In 1978, stadium nachos had made its way northeast to the Dallas Cowboys' Stadium. At the time the Cowboys were known as "America's Team" and often hosted ABC's Monday Night Football. The announcing team for those games included the legendary Howard Cosell. The story goes (at least according to Liberto's son) that while trying to fill dead air during a blowout, Cosell remarked how delicious his snack was, these new "nachos." Liking the sound of the word, he began to describe plays on-air as a "nacho," as in "that was a nacho run." Soon, America stadium nachos were in every stadium thanks to Cosell's constant promotion.

Unfortunately, Anaya had died in 1975, so he was never able to see his accidental culinary invention talked about in front of a national television audience. Today, there's reportedly a bronze plaque up in Piedras Negras that honors Anaya's accomplishment. Additionally, October 21st is considered International Day of the Nacho. No matter the day or the place, however, it may be hard to replicate whatever magic Anaya devised decades ago. As his granddaughter told the San Antonio Express-News in 2002, "The chips are different (today). They're not homemade chips like he used to do. Or maybe it's the hands of the chef."


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