Dipping Into Queso, a Texas Potluck Classic

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Do you know the story behind this cheesy potluck favorite? [Photos except where noted: Vicky Wasik]

In 1976, Lady Bird Johnson contributed a recipe for chile con queso to the San Antonio Symphony League's community cookbook. It called for "1/2 pound of pasteurized cheese and 1/2 can of canned tomatoes with chilies," to be melted together and served as a dip with corn chips, spread on toast or crackers, or to serve as a filling for hard boiled eggs or celery. While it's not the first recorded recipe for this iconic Texan dish, Mrs. Johnson's version also indicates that this dip can be served with warm tortillas, which hearkens to the Northern Mexican tradition of queso flameado or queso blanco, a gooey, stringy blend of white cheese (typically asadero or chihuahua) meant for scooping onto warm flour tortillas.

There's a lineage to the (now) microwaveable queso dish of which Mrs. Johnson may not have been aware. When you get together with friends for a cocktail party or potluck, there's probably a cheese board bearing products with a rich history, from the entrepreneurial teenage girl behind the chevre to the monks who've coaxed this aged cheddar to maturity beneath the cliffs of Dover. While we like to romanticize small-batch foods like cheese, jam, and pickles, industrial foods often have fascinating stories behind them, too. Perhaps even more compelling than the narrative of the cheese plate is the story of how Mexican food emerged in the United States, as well as its inevitable corporatization, particularly as it concerns the unholy-but-delicious pairing of Velveeta cheese and Ro-Tel tomatoes.

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While it's possible to trace the movement of Mexican agricultural products and foods back to the Columbian exchange in the 16th century, let's pick up the thread at 1850, two years after the Mexican War, when the United States acquired the territory encompassing New Mexico, Arizona, and California, and established the Rio Grande river as its southern boundary. With the establishment of this official border, the movement of people from Mexico into the Southwestern United States increased exponentially, according to Arnoldo de Leon of the Texas State Historical Association, due to a confluence of pressures not limited to war at home and a quest for economic opportunities. Naturally, the foods of home traveled with them.

"Tex-Mex" as a descriptive term didn't appear in the Oxford English Dictionary until 1963, but the market for American-friendly Mexican and Tejano foods was well established in Texas long before the folks in Oxford got a whiff of it. Taco and tamale vendors operated in the streets of San Antonio and Austin as far back as the 1850s.

Keith Geunther, Jr., writing in "The Development of the Mexican-American Cuisine," presented at the 1981 Oxford National and Regional Styles of Cookery Symposium, argues that Mexican foods as a commercial enterprise really took hold in San Antonio in the mid-1800s. Some women turned parts of their homes into ad hoc restaurants, while street vendors, many of them women, set up stands in the various city plazas, selling tortillas, tamales, and chili con carne, encouraging a precursor of the types of culinary tourism reserved today for Central Texas barbecue or wine country excursions. Gustavo Arellano, in Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, describes the origins of the vendors who would come to be known as the San Antonio "Chili Queens":

Each brought tables, stools, lanterns to light the booth, and their fetching selves. It wasn't just Mexican food on sale, but rather the romance of a vanquished people, a slice of Old Mexico in a state that hadn't yet fully joined the Republic.

And thus the commodification of Mexican food, mediated through a fantasy of conquest and the exotic other, was born. The chili queens inadvertently helped boost chili con carne's national profile, as visitors to that city, many of whom came specifically to sample the novel cuisine thanks to word of mouth from respected travel guides, carried their perceptions of the dish with them from the Alamo City to New York, Hawaii, and beyond.

By the 1890s, according to Arellano, chili was widely available outside Texas, favored for its cheap, protein-rich ingredients, even if it lacked the potency of the chili queens' spicy brew. Ironically, the increased availability of chili con carne beyond San Antonio did not improve the chili queens' status. In fact, while ambitious mayors like Maury Maverick recognized the cultural value of the chili queens, requiring the queens to register with the Health Department and serve chili from screened tents effectively sanitized them for the tourist masses. The masses did not respond positively. According to Arellano, the chili queens, having been "domesticated to a sad imitation" of their spirited 19th century foremothers, were extinct by the advent of World War II.

As watered-down imitations of the chili queens' iconic stew made its way into cans and the bellies of northerners, turn-of-the-century food manufacturers began to take notice of other Mexican foods. Packaged chili powder blends, popularized by the Texas-based German immigrant Willie Gephardt in the late 19th century, helped to standardize the flavors of Mexican food for home cooks, and the incipient popularity of tacos in the Southwest led to mass production of tortillas. (Dallas-based Luna's Tortilla Factory marked 90 years in business in 1924.) Corn chips were produced en masse as early as the 1930s, when a Dallas-based entrepreneur launched Fritos into the marketplace (repped by the deeply problematic Frito Bandito mascot). And while recipes for chili con queso appear in regional cookbooks as early as 1949, it really took the restaurant industry to raise the appetizer's profile.

The American restaurant industry boomed in the postwar era, and Tex-Mex joints were no exception. More disposable income and mobility meant more opportunities for dining out and more opportunities for restaurateurs to start or expand their businesses. In the years following World War II, the food we think of now as "Tex-Mex" gained more of a toehold in the country's culinary consciousness. And some restaurants' fame revolved around queso.

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In the 1940s and '50s, Austin was home to a thriving Mexican food industry, from taco vendors and tortilla factories to Tex-Mex restaurants that evolved into dynasties. In 1952, Matt and Janie Martinez opened Matt's El Rancho in a tiny downtown cafe, just a few blocks away from where Matt's parents had made their living selling tamales from a cart on the steps of the Capitol building. Janie, who learned how to cook from her mother and grandmother, worked in the kitchen churning out enchiladas and chile con queso from scratch. Their signature dish was the Bob Armstrong Dip, a concoction of the restaurant's chili con queso mixed with taco meat, guacamole, and sour cream. The combination was assembled on the fly one night in the 1960s when the dip's namesake, an influential politician, made a request to be served an off-the-menu dish. In the following days and weeks, more and more of Armstrong's friends requested the dish, warranting its permanent addition to the menu. To date, it's the restaurant's most famous offering, synonymous with the Matt's El Rancho brand.

The foundation of that famous concoction: that bright-yellow processed cheese that likely doesn't pass foodie muster beyond the context of Tex-Mex restaurants or ballpark nachos. Ask for a side order of cheese at any given Tex-Mex restaurant and what you'll likely get is a mound of soft, slightly sweet curls of shredded pasteurized cheese-food, a blend of at least 51% cheese with whey, salt, emulsifiers, and food coloring, perfect for melting under a salamander atop a plate of enchiladas. It's this ingredient in particular that helped move queso from the restaurant dining room into American kitchens and, inevitably, into dip bowls at countless potlucks.

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Perhaps the most easily recognizable version of processed cheese is Velveeta, which emerged on the food landscape in the 1920s. According to Natasha Geiling, writing for Smithsonian.com, Velveeta is the result of tinkering by Emil Frey, a cheesemaker at the Monroe Cheese Factory in New York. Charged with the task of finding a way to reduce product loss, Frey discovered that when he melted down broken bits of cheese and added whey, he could devise a smooth, eminently meltable product. He named his product Velveeta and established the Velveeta Cheese Company in 1923; Kraft purchased the company in 1927 and began marketing a variation on Frey's recipe right away. By the 1950s, Velveeta, which comes in a squishy, vacuum packed block, was marketed as the crowd-pleasing, economical cheese of choice for all manner of sandwiches, dips, and spreads.

Meanwhile, in Elsa, Texas (29 miles from the Mexican border), Carl Roetelle and his family started a small canning plant in 1943, packaging products including what would become the iconic brand of tomatoes mingled with green chilies. Originally a Texas-only product limited to the major cities of San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas, by the 1950s, it was available in the bordering states of Oklahoma and Arkansas. But when Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, went to Washington, DC, they brought with them the joy of canned Ro-Tel tomatoes, giving the product a significant signal boost. (Queso made from Velveeta and Ro-Tel was also a staple at the Johnsons' famed barbecue parties at their ranch in Johnson City, Texas, where they fed everyone from local families to visiting foreign dignitaries.)

Over the next 40 years, this tasty slurry of cheese-food and tomatoes became the culinary wallpaper for generations of Texans and folks in surrounding states, probably via the time-honored practice of swapping recipes on index cards or via community cookbooks. It wasn't until ConAgra bought Ro-Tel in 2002 that the food giant partnered with Kraft for a brand awareness campaign in 2004. Robb Walsh argues in The Tex-Mex Cookbook that the midcentury rise of television influenced the way people ate at home, claiming that Johnny Carson's on-air consumption of Fritos and bean dip in the 1960s kicked off a snack-food fad. It's somewhat surprising that it took another 50 years for Kraft and ConAgra to take their queso blend to the airwaves to spread the gospel of queso, airing a series of silly TV ads starting in 2008. Despite the full-blown queso-awareness campaign in markets beyond Texas, people from northern California to West Virginia are even today pleasantly flummoxed by the magical concoction now considered "classic" queso among those who went straight from baby food to Tex-Mex.

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Queso at Torchy's Tacos. [Photo: Melanie Haupt]

Expatriate Texans sometimes complain that it's hard to find good queso—or really, any queso—outside of Texas. And while it's hard to screw up the dish, there is a difference between "eh, that'll do" and truly exceptional queso that perfectly executes (and balances) queso's varying textures and toppings. (What's exceptional, of course, also depends on a diner's individual preferences.) Old-school Tex-Mex joints like Maudie's in Austin offer a runnier version of queso flecked with bits of tomato and chili pepper. Modern taco purveyor Torchy's takes a thicker queso, adds in green chilies, tops it with hot sauce and cotija for a powerful appetizer dip that could stand in as a meal. Other restaurants, like Magnolia Cafe specialize in queso compuestos (queso dip with added components like beans or meat), dubbed "Mag Mud" and beloved by generations of late-night diners. Ultimately, though, you're not looking for big flavor in a queso, just a nice balance of the creamy cheese, a bit of heat from the chilies, and the salt and crunch of sturdy tortilla chips.

These days, you can get chips and queso at national chains like Chili's and Applebee's, even though the dish remains heavily regional in its popularity. Visitors to Texas who are interested in recreating the various renditions of queso they encounter have myriad resources at their fingertips: Matt Martinez of Matt's El Rancho published his recipe for chile con queso in Matt Martinez's Culinary Frontier (1997). Robb Walsh included a recipe for chile con queso from San Antonio's Mi Tierra restaurant in The Tex-Mex Cookbook (2004). What's more, the diaspora of Texans across the country and the globe have helped to ensure that, eventually, everyone will have tasted Velveeta and Ro-Tel queso at least once in their lifetimes. Even if you live in areas bereft of decent Tex-Mex, if you can find Velveeta and Ro-Tel (or any canned, diced tomatoes with chilies) at your grocery store, you're in good shape. Throw everything in the slow cooker for an hour or so (or microwave it for a few minutes) and you've got satisfying queso—and a story to tell about how it arrived on your plate.