It wouldn’t be game day without them, in the opinion of most millennials, but the fact is that tortilla chips haven’t always been an American food staple.
These variously shaped and flavored dipping chips first appeared around 1900, in southern California. Offered in small Mexican restaurants catering to migrant workers, they remained a niche market until World War II, when Charles Elmer Doolin “invented” corn chips.
They sold so well that Doolin (the Frito Co.) went into business with Herman W. Lay, opening up the American South – and East – to the delights of the tortilla chip.
The name, tortilla, comes from the Spanish word “torta”, meaning a round cake or bread. These rounded buns are used in Mexico to create the delicious, multi-layered sandwiches that contain everything from steak or black bean paste, to chicken, grilled onion and avocado.
If the tortas are like an American-style hamburger with more exotic ingredients, tortillas are ubiquitously Hispanic. Variously called sopaipillas, pupusas, and tlayudas, these corn flatbreads are very much like French crepes both in preparation and in purpose.
Tortilla chips were originally just leftover bits of tortilla dough fried and then used to scoop salsa, according to some historians. Called totopos south of the border, the chips were officially introduced in the United States as Doritos, in 1966. The name means “little golden things”. Unfortunately, their resemblance to the real thing was superficial until 2001, when Lay’s introduced Tostitos Scoops.
In 2006, Frito-Lay made the first “game day” connection, launching its “Crash the Super Bowl” competition. Ever since, some football fans have not been able to sit down to watch said game until a bag of tortilla chips and a bowl of salsa – or a plate of nachos – are readily available.
No longer are tortilla chips just small, yellow-corn rounds or triangles. Americans have gotten trendy, even in their snacking. Tortilla chips today are as likely to be blue corn, low trans-fat and sweet chili-garlic flavored as anything.
You will very likely find a bag of tortilla chips at your local Arizona Farmer’s Market. In Yuma (Yuma County), this is held on Sunday at the historic Quartermaster Depot State Park. While you are there, be sure to pick up some regional homemade salsa, the hotter the better, as a pick-me-up for those winter-jaded taste buds.
Better yet, make your own. From scratch (and on the tips you have gleaned from Farmer’s Market sellers), with all the best ingredients, you can create a pico de gallo (fresh tomato salsa) to die for! All it takes is tomatoes, cilantro, onion, a pepper (including seeds), lime juice, and salt. When choosing peppers, however, remember that the seeds are the hottest part of any pepper.
To this day, people dispute the origin of the tortilla chip. Some say the discovery was accidental – a frugal housewife cooking up leftover tortilla dough (as mentioned above). Others insist the inventor was a Rebecca Carranza, a Los Angeles-based Mexican deli and factory owner. However, many people argue that the obvious choice is Jose Martinez, whose Tamalina Milling Company was the first to grind corn so fine it could be mixed with water to make masa, or corn flour.
Whoever gets the credit, the tortilla chip in all its shapes, colors and flavors, is a delightful addition to the American menu of wholesome snacks!
- 10 Things to Do With Avocados (fillyourplate.org)
- It’s Salsa Month – Let’s Heat Things Up (fillyourplate.org)
- Fill Your Plate with Chips and Dip (fillyourplate.org)