Lincicome on Nachos: The Right and the Wrong
In a recent podcast appearance, international trade expert Scott Lincicome got chippy about nachos. What’s his beef?
“There is a very specific definition of nachos,” Lincicome said: individual chips, individually dressed, with meat, beans, and cheese. “What is not a nacho,” Lincicome stressed, “and what I really take offense to, is these giant bowls of chips that have been smothered in some sort of chili concoction, maybe with a bunch of cheese thrown on top, shoved in an oven, and then brought to you in a steaming pile of sloppy goop.”
It may seem unsporting for a food writer to critique a trade expert’s diversion into food. Lincicome was on the podcast to discuss trade and politics, and shared his nachos doctrine only at the request of host Jonah Goldberg. Lincicome could run circles around me on international trade, and if I were to appear on a food podcast and make a wrong turn into his field, it would be beneath him to set me straight.
But, in this case, Lincicome left no choice. Like a punchable face, the delight he takes in his wrong-headed dogmatism demands correction. Lincicome knew the Twitter mob would come for him, and relished each perceived ignoramus. “I pity your ignorance,” he told one. “Words matter,” he scolded another. “Nachos were corrupted – primarily by east coast gringos,” said the, um, east coast gringo.
More importantly, Lincicome is an old friend. Under the fraternal code, setting him straight is my duty.
What Lincicome Got Right
In defending his orthodoxy, not everything Lincicome says about nachos is wrong. Lincicome is probably right about nacho’s origins, for example, which form the basis of his position. In 1943, the story goes, in the Mexican city Piedras Negras, a group of wives of U.S. soldiers from nearby Fort Duncan was drinking at the Victory Club. They asked for food, but the restaurant was closed, so the maître d’hôtel offered to assemble a snack. Using what he could find in the kitchen, he made a plate of tortilla chips, each individually topped with melted cheese and a slice of jalapeno. His name was Ignacio Anaya — aka Nacho — and one of the ladies enjoyed the snack so much she dubbed it “Nacho’s Especial.” Over time, the apostrophe disappeared, and a platter of dressed tortilla chips came to be known as “nachos.”
Where Lincicome Went Wrong
Seventy five years later, nachos are one of our country’s most popular appetizers. Yet, many of today’s “nachos” bear little resemblance to the dish that Nacho Anaya created in 1943. It is these deviations from the original recipe to which Lincicome objects. “Abominations,” Lincicome calls them. “These crossovers are destroying what was once a pure institution.”
But how pure was it? Under even the slightest scrutiny, Lincicome’s Nacho Doctrine collapses like a mountain of chips. The doctrine refutes itself.
“I’m a bit of an originalist,” Lincicome claims. “I know what a real nacho is.”
Like any good originalist, then, let’s look at the original recipe. First, Anaya says, make fresh triangle-shaped chips from corn tortillas, either by frying in shortening or brushing them with oil and baking for fifteen minutes. Next top each chip with shredded longhorn cheese and a slice of pickled jalapeño. Bake at 350 degrees for five minutes. In short, Anaya’s recipe calls for homemade tortilla chips with melted longhorn cheese and pickled jalapeño. That’s it.
Now, let’s look at Lincicome’s recipe. For starters, it does not even call for homemade chips, a step which Anaya’s granddaughter has said is vital. Next, it piles on ingredients (“abominations”?) that do not appear in the original recipe: steak, refried beans, as well as sides of guacamole, pico de gallo, and sour cream. Finally, he adds a jalapeño slice after cooking, instead of before. If you compare Anaya’s “original” recipe to Lincicome’s, you’ll find far more differences than similarities. Yet, Lincicome still calls his creation “nachos.”
Why, then, are some deviations from the original permitted, but not others? And, who vested in Lincicome the authority to decide? Disguised as an originalist, Lincicome is in fact an activist judge interpreting nacho law to mean whatever he thinks it should mean. Since steak, beans, and Lincicome’s other accompaniments do not appear in the text of the original recipe, he must have found them instead in the “penumbra” of the original ingredients.
Cooking is Experimenting
Lincicome should not be too hard on himself, though, for his deviations. Cooking is experimenting. Once a cook understands the fundamentals of technique and flavor theory, experiment away. This can mean not just making one’s own creations, but also tweaking the creations of predecessors.
True, for the sake of language, there must be limits. Excessive riffs can render meaningless the name of a dish. A cat is not a dog is not a tree. If everything is a nacho, then nothing is. One recent cautionary tale is the bánh mì, and an older one is the martini, whose only distinguishing characteristic at some bars now seems to be the glass in which it is served.
But, even with all of the riffs over the years, “nachos” still has meaning. While definitions vary from one dictionary to the next, the term means roughly ‘tortilla chips dressed with toppings, usually to include melted cheese.’
To insist that only the original version of a dish can properly bear its name is to adopt a snobbery that can give food lovers a bad name. (No one wants to party with the “That’s-not-a-real ____” guy.) Besides, why should what Nacho Anaya happened to find in his kitchen in 1943 dictate how we use words today? Does Lincicome insist on “originalism” in other foods? Before using words like “cookie,” “sandwich,” or “chili,” does he first verify that he is referring to the food’s original version? Does he drive around in a 1885 Benz Patent-Motorwagen smugly grinning at posers in their so-called “cars”?
In trade, economists understand that barriers impede progress, while free markets and innovation help it. This is no less true of food. Take bread, one of the world’s great foods. We are indebted to whoever first thought to grind wheat and use it such an innovative way. But, since today’s palates would be unlikely to enjoy the first bread as much as today’s, we are also grateful that future generations were not bread “originalists,” but instead worked to improve it and help make it the beautiful product it is today.
Likewise, Lincicome’s tweaks to nachos are not abominations. They are what he perceives to be improvements on the original recipe. Lincicome may contend that other nacho tweaks over the years have not been improvements. Most notably, Lincicome extols the virtue of dressing each chip individually, as opposed to smothering a large pile of chips. This, he says, allows for uniform dressing on each chip, and avoids a gloppy mess at the bottom of a chip pile. But, these are just personal preferences, not semantic disagreements. While Lincicome makes a persuasive case for his own preferences, the “glop” at the bottom of a pile that Lincicome calls “disgusting,” others may find delicious. One man’s Air Bud is another’s Citizen Cane.
No Experimenting with an Experiment?
In sum, because all dishes begin as experiments, a strict originalist position would amount to “no experimenting with an experiment!” Adherence to such dogma would have deprived the world of myriad wonderful foods and drinks we enjoy today, like cheese, pizza, ice cream, wine, beer, whiskey, sausage, etc. What all these share is that they are products of: (1) the innovation of those who first created them; and (2) improvements made by their successors. The same is true, of course, of nachos.
“Shouldn’t someone stand athwart food and yell stop?” asks Lincicome. Good thing no one did that to Anaya.