Two men loom large in the annals of nacho history: Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya of Piedras Negras, Mexico, and Texan Frank Liberto. The dish’s namesake famously fed a platter of chips, melted cheese, and jalapenos to a group of hungry army wives at his hometown’s Victory Club, where he served as maitre d’. Anaya’s “Nachos Especiales” were recreated in the 1954 St. Anne’s Cookbook, published by the Church of the Redeemer in Eagle Pass, Texas. The published recipe helped spread the creation across the U.S. boarder.

So if Anaya invented nachos, then how did Frank Liberto become “The Father of Nachos”?

K. Annabelle Smith investigates this question for Smithsonian Magazine in “The History of Baseball Nachos,” one of the finest short essays on nachos to date. She first breaks down the initial inquiry into the etymology of the word nachos, which began with the sleuth work of Oxford English Dictionary researcher Adriana P. Orr. While working in the halls of the Library of Congress, Orr had a chance encounter with a young Mexican woman who told her that the only usage of “nacho” was back home was as a pet name for small boys named Ignacio, and it was this tip that set off the investigation into Anaya’s history.

While most popular tales of nacho lore jump straight from Piedras Negras to Howard Cosell’s mouth (the man, after all, put the snack on the map during a 1978 Monday Night Football Game at Cowboy’s Stadium), Smith details the key entrepreneurial exploits of Frank Liberto and his Ricos cheese sauce.

Key points:

  • Concession stand nachos were introduced in 1976 at a Texas Rangers game. That year, Arlington Stadium sold $800,000 worth of Ricos’ nachos.
  • Each can of Ricos contain 107 ounces of cheese concoction, with 32 ounces of water and 20 ounces of pepper juice used to form the molten sauce we recognize at the concession stand pump.

Since 1976, the Ricos style of nachos have become a sporting staple. And, taking into consideration the second key point, the profitability of the product is impossible to argue with, especially considering that the spiciness of the jalapeno was employed to boost drink sales as well as add flavor. Liberto’s innovation made nachos fast—Frank didn’t want customers to wait for more than a minute—and famous. Cosell may have propelled the word nacho into national consciousness, but it was Liberto’s business acumen that made chips and cheese a phenomenon. In the 1970s, Disney animators created trailers feature the characters of Nacho, Rico, and Pepe, helping propel Liberto’s empire beyond the ball park and into movie concessions.

Sure, the gooey Ricos dish doesn’t quiet match the current nacho zeitgeist. But Frank Liberto (and his son Anthony, now in charge of Ricos) deserve to be held in the same esteem we grant to the legendary Tom Ryan, inventor of stuffed-crust pizza—a businessman who drove culinary innovation.

[via Smithsonian Magazine]