The secret origins of queso


The secret origins of queso

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Andrew Price/Andrew Price
Chili con queso especial at the Santa Rita Tex-Mex Cantina at the 26 Doors shopping Center in Austin, Wednesday afternoon, July 6, 2005.

“Snap.” It’s the worst sound a Texan can hear. 

The “snap” is the sharpest note in a bittersweet state song, and it hits the ear when your tortilla chip breaks off in a bowl of the (un)official state dip, queso. That crisply dispatched disappointment is exclusive to a proper batch of the stuff, made from properly viscous melted cheese. Or, as the case should often be, melted processed cheese product like Velveeta. The snap means you’ll have to fish out a shard of chip from your queso, which as far as disappointments go, hey, ain’t that sad.

But that secret sound is no longer for Texas ears only, because the New Yorker spilled the beans. Food critic Hannah Goldfield explores the mystique of queso, including the lost chip, in a February 22 article, “The Truth About Queso (And How Chipotle Got It So Wrong).” The American-Statesman’s own professional taste-tester, Matthew Odam, tried that orange Chipotle goo and came to a similar conclusion about its illegitimacy.

The New Yorker gets it pretty right, too, on the particulars of a good queso. That’s in large part thanks to citing “Homesick Texan” Lisa Fain’s “Queso!: Regional Recipes for the World’s Favorite Chile-Cheese Dip,” a book the Statesman’s Addie Broyles has dipped her chip into, too. We know the composition of the traditional chile con queso — a block of brick processed cheese like Velveeta and a can of Rotel chilies and tomatoes. The New Yorker looked to the origin story of queso, though, tracking its ancestors through history. Here are a few queso family secrets from Fain’s book:

  • One of the oldest recipes for something resembling queso appeared in 1896. A magazine called The Land of Sunshine taught people how to  make a side dish called “chiles verdes con queso.” According to the New Yorker, it was less cheese-focused. 
  • Anyone who’s familiar with Welsh rabbit/rarebit knows it’s not actually related to Bugs Bunny and is actually a melted cheese sauce served on toast. A 1914 recipe for “Mexican rarebit” in Boston Cooking-School Magazine, contained peppers and was pretty similar to a modern queso, according to Fain’s book.
  • The first recipe called “chile con queso” was published by the San Antonio Woman’s Club in the 1920s.
  • The invention of good ol’ Rotel is the big bang of the classic queso. Introduced in 1943, according to the New Yorker, early ads for the canned tomatoes and chilies suggested making chile con queso with American or processed cheese.
  • In 1964, a recipe for Lady Bird Johnson’s queso appeared in the Washington Post. It used aged cheddar instead of processed cheese.

Now, next time to take a dip of your favorite Austin queso, you can pause and remember all the quesos that came before it.

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