Santa Fe’s Frito Pie, a real American food

The controversy is over. Fritos pie (aka Frito pie) a mix of Fritos, chile, cheese, lettuce and tomatoes, was invented in Santa Fe; at least according to food writers Jane and Michael Stern. This food term is one of many featured in their new book, the Lexicon of Real American Food. It’s an A to Z compilation of  local, regional and more wide-spread foods found throughout the United States. Besides food terms this fascinating book includes culinary history, trends, recipes and profiles of American food influencers. Some mentioned are household names; others may be new to you.

Frito pie, a Santa Fe, NM originalFrito pie still served in the bag at the Five and Dime in Santa Fe, photo/courtesy Rob Higgins

Frito Pie was first served at the Five and Dime (formerly Santa Fe’s  Woolworth’s),  in the early 1960s. The Sterns credit lunch counter cook, Teresa Hernandez, with creating the dish. She made it right in the Fritos bag, layering the ingredients on top of the corn chips. Although many local dining spots offer the pies, most serve it  on a plate. The Five and Dime still serves Frito Pies right in the individual-sized packages. Mike Collins, partner in Five and Dime General Store, a small chain, managed the Santa Fe Woolworth’s prior to its closing. “If any food dish qualifies as ‘venerable,’” he says, ‘it would most certainly be the Frito Pie.”

The Sterns are uniquely qualified to write this lexicon. The duo has been traveling and eating on the road together since the late 1960s. According to Michael Stern, they’ve logged tens of thousands of meals in their travels. That’s a LOT of food.

Jane and Michael Stern

Jane and Michael Stern at O'Rourke's Diner in Middletown, CT photo/courtesy Jane and Michael Stern

Their first trips were made while playing hooky from Yale. They were both in grad school studying art; she painting and he art history. When they graduated, they realized, according to Michael, that they were “outfitted to do nothing”. After a few jobs that didn’t hold their interest, they took to the road and discovered truck stops and truckers. In the pre-CB days these men who made their living driving the lonely American highways would meet at these oases and swap poems, stories and great places to eat while on the road. The Sterns listened and ate. They tracked down the eateries they heard about and then ate some more. The result  was their first book, Trucker: a portrait of the last American cowboy, published in 1976. Their hugely successful book, Roadfood, first published in 1977 is now in its eighth edition. A succesful career, yielding 42 books, was born.

Sopapillas at Maria's, photo courtesy Maria's

A basket of sopapaillas at Maria's New Mexican Kitchen, Sana Fe, NM, photo/Brad Bealmear,

Jane and Michael Stern first discovered Santa Fe in the early 1990s when researching their book, Way Out West, an exploration of the popular and distinctive culture of the western region of the United States. They fell in love with The City Different. “The iconography of Santa Fe and New Mexico in general is so clean and it epitomizes the essence of the west,” says, Michael Stern. “And there’s so much more to it than that.” Not surprisingly, one of the draws for them is New Mexico’s rich culinary heritage. To Stern, the food of New Mexico has a very strong identity as compared to a place like Connecticut where they live. His favorite thing to eat when in Santa Fe is sopapaillas. “I eat them morning, noon and night when I’m there,” he says. He’s also a fan of Carne Adovada, green chile stew and Bobcat Bite’s green chile cheeseburgers.

If regional food interests you, check out the Lexicon of Real American Food. You might even find your hometown listed with a common or quirky food term. The lexicon goes from food as common as Buffalo Chicken Wings to a dish you probably know only if you live in St. Louis, the “St. Paul”. Want to know what that is? Read the book.

Jane and Michel Stern wrote the monthly Roadfood column for the now defunct, Gourmet magazine and have been sharing their food finds with PBS listeners since 1997 in a weekly segment on Lynne Rossetto Casper’s long-running radio program, The Splendid Table. They have written 42 travel and food related books. Their new book, the Lexicon of Real American Food, was published by Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut. We received a review copy of the book from the publisher. Their generosity has not affected this post in any way.

Authors’ note: We interviewed food and travel writer Michael Stern at his Connecticut home via phone.

You can buy the Lexicon of Real American Food locally at Garcia Street Books and Collected Works. You can also purchase it on



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