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[Photographs: Adam Kuban]

Where do you draw the line when it comes to fancying-up comfort foods? Sometimes iconic dishes benefit from a studied take, careful technique, and some high-quality ingredients. But what about, oh, I don't know ... 7-layer dip?

A staple of game day parties and casual get-togethers, the stuff is essentially a hodgepodge of Tex-Mex ingredients carefully layered together, the classic combo often comprising refried beans, guacamole, sour cream, salsa, grated cheddar and/or Monterey Jack, black olives, and ground beef.

Can and Wife

My better half and I wrestled with this question on a recent Friday night, as we started considering what appetizer we would bring to a friend's potluck dinner party over the weekend. She hit upon 7-layer dip, since:

  • A) It wouldn't have to be reheated or be kept warm
  • B) It would feed a ton of people, and
  • C) Because as declassé as some folks might think it is, even the mightiest of food snobs usually ends up bowing to the over-the-top awesomeness of seven strata of tortilla-worthy ingredients

She found the classic open-a-can, dump-a-jar take on sites like Allrecipes.com and Kraft Foods. But she also found a high-falutin' version from NYC chef Joaquin Baca (Momofuku, Brooklyn Star) on New York magazine's website. Both were appealing in different ways and for different reasons, and after some back-and-forth we still weren't in agreement on which recipe to make. So, like many a modern couple, we turned to Facebook to help us through this latest marital spat:

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Click for entire thread »

Now you see why Facebook is increasingly cited as a factor in divorce. Our friends essentially egged us into a throwdown. A sure-to-be-delicious throwdown, yes, but a throwdown no less.

After losing such classic Facebook debates as "Do you wear regular underwear under long underwear?"* and "Wife does not like this jacket [photo]: What do you think?" I was ready to finally score a win. Armed with Mr. Baca's recipe, I was sure I had the advantage.

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Also on my side? A pound of midnight black beans from Rancho Gordo, the food snob's bean purveyor of choice,** and a heap of freshly ground beef from the butcher, only minutes out of the grinder. I was sure I had a lock.

A(n Impromptu) Jury of Our Peers

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But it wasn't enough that we taste the dips ourselves and render a verdict. How could we be impartial? We hit upon the idea of bringing along ballots to the party and roping our poor hosts and fellow attendees into our twisted competition, voting on "Dip A" or "Dip B," with only the knowledge that one was traditional and the other a chef's version. (Yeah, I know, it wasn't that scientific a tasting.)

We also asked guests to mark down their state of origin. We had a theory that folks raised on the coasts would be less familiar with 7-layer dip and more likely to go for the cheffy version. The converse being that guests born and raised in Middle America would have a taste-memory of what the Facebook peanut gallery deemed the "real" 7-layer dip. Because, when it comes down to it, this stuff is the quintessential Middle American potluck party dip.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. At this point, we still had a lot of work to do.

Or, make that I still had a lot of work to do. Only two of my layers were hassle-free. Scratch that. I bought some good-quality block cheddar, three-quarter pounds I still had to grate. Thank God that Baca did not call for homemade sour cream.

'Hey Dips***, What Were You Thinking?!?

On the surface, the Baca recipe doesn't seem that complicated. We had a good amount of the ingredients in the pantry already—onions, garlic, long-grain rice, spices, tomatoes, the aforementioned black beans.

Making refried beans from scratch? Hardly difficult or time-consuming. Browning some ground beef? That's the first step in many a recipe. Cooking rice? Most of that "work" is just a pot simmering away while the cook does other things.

But, oh. Oh, no. For a dip, this is a serious investment of time. And fairly labor-intensive. You've got some onions to dice; tomatoes, peppers, and cilantro to chop; garlic to mince; limes to juice; avocados to halve and mash; and innumerable quarter- and half-teaspoons to measure out.

SE'rs, I did not dawdle. The timestamp on my black bean photo a couple pictures up tells me it was taken at 3:05 p.m. This photo of my dip (below), taken just after I finished layering it ...

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... was shot at 6:35 p.m.

Three and a half hours, ladies and gents. Not including shopping time.

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Compare that to my wife's dip, which took all of 15 minutes, partially utilizing the stuff in the right half of the photo above.

Granted, I gave her a leg up by prepping extra guac as I made my own — and by browning her ground beef for her (in a separate pan, minus the special seasonings in the Joaquin Baca version). But that was only about 12 minutes' additional work. The traditional version is super simple, especially when you have someone prepping two of your layers for you.

OK, OK, So Who Won, Already?

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From left: The cheffy fancypants version and the classic.

Yeah, I'm getting a little tired of hearing myself talk, too, and I need to get this post up since I promised our Facebook friends I'd post the results on SE. So let's cut to the chase.

Four hours, two dishwasher loads, and 14 layers later, we set out Dips A and B the party. We were careful throughout the night not to mention who had made which or give any indications of which was the fancy or traditional one. (Though anyone familiar could have guessed the one with black olives was the classic.)

Think the photo above tells the story? Looks like the classic dip, at right, had more of a dent in it, right? But does that necessarily indicate its status with the crowd?

As it turns out, no. The fancy chef-recipe dip won 8 to 2.*** Among the eight votes for the all-from-scratch version was one from a Texan.**** Of the two votes for the classic dip, one — appended with the words "Delicious! Delicious! Delicious!" — was from a Canadian expat. The rest of the votes that included state origins indicated New York. So, clearly, even a sloppy demographic analysis of dip-voting habits would have meant nothing.

Our Own Observations

Besides the differing amount of prep that went into the various layers, the dips differed in one major way. Cheffy version used rice instead of black olives. Personally, I thought this was a great substitution because I loathe black olives. And since 7-layer dip is essentially a big ingredient dump of what gringo Americans think of as "Mexican food," why not stick some rice in there? We noted guests comment favorably on the rice as well.

What did the wife and I think? Honestly, we thought they were pretty similar in flavor.

For the time and labor involved, I don't know if the all-from-scratch version was worth it. Though its landslide victory would seem to indicate that maybe it is. For me, any increase in quality I may have perceived was slight. And it was definitely mitigated by the knowledge of all the time and labor that went into that version. But if you want to take a dip to a party that has some true foodie cred, there you go.

Should Comfort Foods Be Fancied Up?

Let's bring it back to the beginning here. I asked at the top of this post where you draw the line at fancying-up comfort foods. So do you, SE'rs, think it's worth it? This whole thing reminded me of Jennifer Reese's fried chicken cookoff on Slate, where she pitted the Pioneer Woman's chicken (and biscuits and cake) against Thomas Keller's and had her family serve as judge and jury. I quote Reese here [my emphasis in bold]:

Keller's recipes were harder, but they were also, on the whole, better. A lot better. I'm not surprised by that. What surprises me is how little anyone—except me—cared. Apparently, when it comes to comfort food served around a kitchen table, good enough is good enough. What ultimately mattered about the fried chicken was not the seasoning but that there was fried chicken. A middling hot biscuit made with Crisco was as welcome as the perfect all-butter biscuit made with cake flour.

So, is good enough good enough for you? Or do you go the extra mile?

Get the Recipes
Classic From-a-Can 7-Layer Dip »
All-from-Scratch 7-Layer Dip (à la Joaquin Baca) »

* My take was that, no, long underwear is underwear. The wife and our friends disavowed me of that notion.

** That's only somewhat tongue in cheek. Rancho Gordo beans truly are great stuff.

*** Dinner party attendance was about 30 people. We were saddened by the voter apathy on display, what with a measly 33% voter turnout. What does it say about the electorate if even two delectable dips cannot motivate them to the polls?

**** Somehow not surprising, since Joaquin Baca is himself a Texas native and probably created a dip that plays to the palates of Lone Staters.

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