How Ignacio Gave Us Nachos

When a group of Army Air Corps wives went across the border from Eagle Pass to Piedras Negras in the middle of World War II, things looked dim for the Tex-Mex lunch they’d been hoping to enjoy. Knowing his kitchen was closed and his chef had stepped out, a maître d’ named Ignacio Anaya Garcia took matters into his own hands.

He, of course, could always put those hands on tortillas and cheese.

The first he fried until triangles he’d sliced were crispy. Then he topped those with cheese and slapped them under a broiler for a minute or two. He topped the whole business with pickled jalapenos. The Air Corps wives loved the snack, and no doubt also appreciated his extra effort. When they asked him what the instant house specialty was called, he answered using the popular Mexican nickname for Ignacio.

“Nacho’s Especiales,” he said.  That apostrophe wasn’t long for this world.

Nachos have been among us, especially among lovers of Tex-Mex cuisine, since that fateful day in 1943. That maitre d’ got slightly famous then and wildly famous now. Long before his death in 1975, Anaya had moved from being an employee in somebody else’s restaurant to being the owner of his own, predictably called El Nacho. He insisted, whenever anyone asked, however, that he’d never managed to get rich creating one of the world’s most popular foods. 

“The only man making money on nachos is the man selling the cheese and jalapeños,” Anaya told the San Antonio Express-News in 1969.

As often happens, the guy who got rich was not really the guy who invented this dish. It was the guy who figured how to produce a concentrated cheese product that could be mixed with water and squirted onto tortilla chips from a spigot. That guy did fine, thanks to nachos taking off at stadiums and ballparks and soccer fields, from kids’ swim meets to very adult clubs and barrooms, not only in America but most places around the world. Wherever cheese that isn’t really cheese is sold.

One guy who loved saying the word “nachos” was sports broadcaster Howard Cosell, who not only had a long-running repartee with boxing great Muhammad Ali but who, along with “Dandy Don” Meredith and Frank Gifford, helped turn Monday Night Football into an American icon. During one TV game in Dallas, he mentioned that he devoured Cowboy Stadium’s nachos every chance he got. This exposure didn’t hurt the reputation of the uber-cheesy treat one little bit.

“This is the late great How-wud Co-SELL, here with the also-late self-proclaimed Greatest of All Tiiime, signing off to go get a very laaaage plate of nachos!”

HATCH CHILE & PINEAPPLE BEEF NACHOS

The original nachos in Piedras Negras (and indeed most nachos made and served anywhere to this day) involve tortilla chips, real cheese or fake cheese, and maybe a bit of salsa. But since we view all foods we love as “delivery systems,” we also like to go the extra mile. This variation not only features one of our more creative salsas but ground beef (perhaps leftover from Taco Night) spiked with caramelized onion and multi-colored bell peppers.

1 pound ground beef

I package prepared taco seasoning blend

Water

1 onion, thinly sliced

½ green pepper, thinly sliced

½ red bell pepper, thinly sliced

½ yellow pepper, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic

Tortilla chips

1-2 cups Mexican four-cheese blend

1 cup Fischer & Wieser’s Hatch Chile & Pineapple Salsa

Pickled jalapenos for garnish

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cook the ground beef in a pot or pan until cooked through. Drain off the fat through a colander, then return beef to the pot. Add the taco seasoning blend with the amount of water called for on the package, typically 1 cup. Heat until the mixture bubbles, then reduce heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Meanwhile, caramelize the three types of peppers in the olive oil in a separate pan over medium-heat heat. Once they’ve softened and just begun to char, stir in the garlic for only 1 minute more. Add the onion-pepper-garlic mix to the ground beef and stir to incorporate. Simmer 5 minutes more.

Assemble the nachos by spreading the tortilla chips in a single layer across a baking pan or cookie sheet. Spoon some of the ground beef mixture onto each chip, then top with the cheese. It’s fine is some cheese spills onto the pan. Spoon a bit of the salsa atop each topping, along with 1-2 pickled jalapenos and set pan in the oven. Let bake until chips start to brown and cheese is melted and bubbly. Serve hot. Serves 6-8 as an appetizer.      

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