These days, you can buy just about anything to eat at the movies, from doughnuts to pizza to frozen yogurt.
Nachos might seem as if they’ve always been part of the cinema-snacking landscape. But there was a time when theatregoers needed an instructional video to explain what they were. And it took more than 50 years for the snack to find its way north to Ontario.
In a story that may be apocryphal, Nacho was the nickname of the snack’s inventor, Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya. In 1943, while working at the Victory Club in the Mexican border town of Piedras Negras, he combined the ingredients to serve a group of American army wives visiting from a base in Eagle Pass, just over the border in Texas.
Melting cheddar over corn chips is sort of a dumbed-down version of chilaquiles, a Mexican breakfast dish in which the chips are often coated in salsa roja and topped with queso fresco and/or a fried egg.
But the simplified dish was a hit; the recipe went back to Texas with the wives and was later promoted through a church cookbook in Eagle Pass.
By the 1970s, nachos were popular in America, though they had lost the apostrophe in “Nacho’s especiales” and were still mostly found in Mexican restaurants.
The mass-market innovation that made the dish into a movie staple is credited to Frank Liberto, third-generation concession vendor whose grandfather and father had grown their business from a grocery store to a supplier of peanuts, popcorn, cotton candy, and sno-cones. By Frank’s generation, the Liberto empire included a chain of snack bars, Dine-A-Mite Foods, popcorn and hot dog stands in malls, and eventually a concession company that supplied popcorn to Texas theatres.
In 1974, Liberto approached Carey Risinger, the concession manager at Arlington Stadium, with the nacho concept.
“We were building a new concession stand called the Taco Stand,” says Risinger from his office at the State Fair of Texas, where he’s the senior vice-president of food and beverage. “We were gonna sell tacos. He broached the subject of, ‘Have you guys ever thought about selling nachos?’ We said that’d be difficult to do. And he said, ‘I’ve got an idea.’”
The idea, for circumventing the step of melting cheese over each plate of chips, was to keep the cheese melted, by using a cheese sauce and holding it at a liquid temperature.
“We got Cheez Whiz in a steam table — really a warmer for hot fudge. And we used a ladle because there was no pump,” Risinger recalls. Brine from tinned, pickled jalapenos was used to thin out and season the cheese sauce, and mass-market corn chips stood in for the authentic Mexican variety. “We put the chips in a paper bowl, ladled the cheese on it, and put jalapenos on top. Thus the nachos were born.”
This further Americanization was a smash, outselling popcorn at Arlington nearly 10 to one. And within a few years, Liberto had expanded to more stadiums, including in Dallas, where in 1978 nachos got a media bump after announcer Howard Cosell talked them up during a Cowboys game.
Establishing a new family business, Ricos, Liberto promoted his mass-produced version of nachos at tradeshows, quickly making the jump from stadiums to drive-ins to United Artist Theatres.
An animated 1980 ad explained what nachos — “the new star of the snack bar” — were, via talking cartoon chips, cheese, and jalapenos.
But it wasn’t till the mid-’90s that nachos migrated north to Ontario. It was after The Fugitive (1993) but before The Matrix (1999). My former neighbour (and longtime Now magazine film critic) Norm Wilner says it was about 1996. I definitely remember a friend eating nachos during Independence Day (1996).
I recall much discussion about the smell. While popcorn scent is as pleasing as honeysuckle, the smell of processed melted cheese, like cigar smoke, appeals only to the person consuming it. But that was back when theatres smelled only of butter, popcorn, and stale air-conditioner dust.
These days, the nachos at Cineplex are topped with cheese from pre-portioned packages held at 140F to allow greater portion control and less waste.
The packages contain water, coconut oil, modified corn starch, cheddar cheese (cultured milk, salt, enzymes, annatto colour), whey, corn starch, 2 per cent or less of non-fat dry milk, sodium phosphate, salt, calcium phosphate, cellulose gum, yeast extract, casein, monoglycerides, jalapeno peppers, natural flavours, annatto colour, artificial flavour, turmeric colour, FD&C Yellow #6, acetic acid, and maltodextrin. They have a shelf life of 12 months, unopened.
That’s a long way from the culinary creation of Ignacio Anaya, who never saw the profits Liberto did. But like it not, for plenty of Canadian kids, going to the movies and eating mass-produced corn chips with plasticky cheese sauce is their first exposure to the world of Mexican(ish) cuisine.
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