In preparation for this paper, I thought about my favorite Mexican dishes: burritos, quesadillas, tacos, nachos. And I noticed one common occurrence- queso. I love cheese, so how could I turn down the opportunity to write a paper about cheese?! Cheese is cultural and unique to the area where it is created. The cheese picks up flavors of the environment and that is why cheese is a native and an important culinary item to most places. It can either be the whole meal, or an accented flavor to a bigger star on the plate.
There are also so many different types of cheese that vary from country to country or even city to city. For this paper, I am going to focus on Mexico and their quests especiales. For some of my research, I referred to Karen Graber’s “ A Guide to Mexican Cheeses”. She goes over many different types of cheeses, but I found these most relevant to this research. Queso Oaxaca (or quesillo) is a big one that is commonly used in Mexican restaurants. It is “stretched cheese curd that is kneaded and wound into balls” and is similar to mozzarella or string cheese (Graber). This is a good melting cheese that is commonly used in quesadillas.
Another common cheese that is used in Mexican dishes is queso fresco. This is a “spongy white cheese” that tops tacos, taquitos, and enchiladas* (Graber). Queso fresco is comparable to feta cheese. The cheese that I will be mainly looking at for this paper is queso asadero. This cheese is a very good melting cheese and used for queso fundido or what we may call queso dip.
Cheese can come in many forms. There is the hard cheese like Gouda or Parmesan and, there is the soft cheese like queso fresco and queso Oaxaca. And if you are an avid cheese lover, like me, we all have our favorites. It is not uncommon for me to find myself craving “Mexican queso”. But what exactly is Mexican queso?
Once upon a few family vacations ago, we went to California. We did all the typical attractions- Disney, the beach, etc etc. But, we also went just across the border to Tijuana, Mexico. I remember that we were at a restaurant and we wanted queso after a long day of visiting. And when the waiter came up, I remember my dad trying to order a queso dip but the waiter wasn’t exactly sure what we were speaking of- whether it was the language barrier or just different cuisines that we were discussing. But I remember my dad having to explain it to him and something along the lines of him going back to the kitchen to help prepare it. Granted, I was very young when this happened, so take what you will from that story. But now, as I sit here researching queso for my “taco class”, I couldn’t help but think about this story and think of how far I have come! (Started as a taco novice and working my way up!)
Queso fundido, or just queso as I call it, is a staple for many when they go to Mexican restaurants. And in America, we say that “we love anything deep-fried or with cheese on it”. With that being said, who couldn’t love the perfect blend of sweet and creamy cheese with spicy jalapenos? I know I sure can’t…
Looking for some research on American influence of queso, I relied on our taco friend, Gustavo Arellano who wrote Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. He quotes Major League Baseball reporter, Jesse Sanchez, putting his gluttonous but not hidden love of queso into words, “‘It’s our bacon: it just makes everything better,’ says Jesse Sanchez… It’s also great if you are not worried about your waistline or the front of your shirt. If you don’t like it, don’t eat it. It just means there will be more for us to dip our entire worlds in” (Arellano, 137). The things people do for the love of queso!! Another way that Arellano eloquently describes queso is, “it’s melted ecstasy- milky, thick and served stemming, so be careful ego let it cool lest it coat your tongue and burn… it stands as its own condiment in Texas- sluiced with jalapeños, used as a dipping sauce more often than salsa” (Arellano, 137). If I could, I would dip everything in queso! But, then I might end up with the body that Sanchez warns us of.
Now, when we think chips and queso, we think nachos. Nachos were interesting to research. I had no idea how they came about and it is actually a pretty funny story. The story takes place in Piedras Negras, Mexico, which is just south of Texas, right on the border. It takes place during World War II and involves a group of soldiers’ wives who took a trip from their homes (in Eagle Pass, an army base) and went to Piedras Negras, Mexico. While they were there, they stopped at a restaurant named, The Victory Club, to grab a bite to eat. When they arrived, the hostess, Ignacio Ayala greeted them and tried to find the chef. But, the chef of The Victory Club was nowhere to be found. So Ayala, being the ‘hostess with the mostest’ that he is, took it upon himself to feed these ladies. So when he went back to the kitchen, all he could find were some tortilla chips, cheese and jalapenos. And thus, nachos were created with a little heat!! The dish was soon branded nachos after Ignacio- who was nicknamed Nacho (Thomson).
That story took place in the 1940s, the primitive age of nachos. With something that good, it couldn’t be contained in just one area for too long. The great dish had to be shared, so the great flavors can be enjoyed! Arellano lays out the migration of nachos into the United States really well in Taco USA. He says that…
It wasn’t until 1959 that they migrated west to California, where Carmen Rocha form San Antonio introduced the meal at El Cholo, where she worked as a waitress. Recipes filtered into magazine and newspaper articles over the next two decades, but nachos didn’t become nationally accepted until another San Antonian, Frank Liberto Jr., and his Ricos Products set up a nacho stand in 1977 outside Arlington Stadium before a Texas Rangers game. Liberto was a concession stand supplier for the Rangers who sat down at the end of 1976 season with the city of Arlington, which ran the stadium. They wanted a new snack; they wanted nachos. (210-211)
But, Liberto was nervous about his business venture due to the complexity of preparing the nachos. He said that back in the day you could go to a restaurant, order nachos, but you would have to wait along time for them to be prepared and it would be pricey. But, Liberto wasn’t a rookie when it came to food. He knew how to manipulate the cheese recipe to make it easier to store and heat up for ease and quickness (although it may not be the freshest or 100% real milk/cheese). And another key factor in Liberto’s stadium nachos was that he made sure to include jalapenos, which later helped sell other items at the baseball games as well (so customers could cool soothe the heat). And just as a testament to how quickly these spread around the country, “three years later, Liberto tested the nachos at five other baseball stadiums; toady every Major League Baseball and NFL stadium stocks the snacks, and they are the third-largest concession seller overall in the United States after popcorn and soda, outselling even hotdogs”(211). I can’t got to a UK game –football, baseball, basketball, etc.- without seeing Liberto’s stadium nachos.
But, not all nachos are the same. They can come in many different shapes and sizes. For example, you can go to a sporting event and get nachos like the ones pictured above. Or, you can go to somewhere like El Toro and they will hook you up. The chicken nachos that I ordered were covered on every single possible inch. The tortilla chips were piled on by a white queso, refried beans, lettuce, sour cream, and jalapeños.
There is a restaurant in Louisville that is called Mussel & Burger Bar and it is one of my favorite restaurants, hands down. The owners are of Hispanic origin and have a fun and colorful menu. They have an appetizer called short rib nachos. It is their take on nachos. The chips are similar to house-made potato chips which build a great foundation for all the toppings. There is obviously braised short rib, pico de gallo, queso fundido, guacamole, cilantro, and artful drizzle of sour cream and jalapeños chips. It is plated on a cast iron skillet. These nachos were the first thing I ever had there during their “soft opening” a few years back. They are so delicious and just the perfect amount of flavors all going on. I would definitely recommend these! And these two examples are just two examples of the many different nacho variations there area out there.
Overall, queso is used widely throughout different cuisines and specifically Mexican. For research, I figured I would get to full experience and go to a Mexican grocery store. (Because I thought what a better place to find the cheeses that are used in Mexican cooking than a grocery store) I went to Super Mercado Aguascalientes on Nicholasville Road in Lexington, KY. There were so many different cheeses. One observation that I made was that there was a lot of white cheese, which I found out, is very typical of queso de Mexico. I even found a little American influence on their cheese. Below, I have Kraft American cheese slices (I guess everyone loves a good grilled cheese with Kraft slices!) pictured that was nestled amongst all the queso fresco, cojita, and Oaxaca just to name a few.
One thing I learned from this history lesson is how nachos were created, but also new types of cheeses is should try! Cheese is one constant that you can find in almost every cuisine. And as I said before, each cuisine/culture has its own type of cheese. Cheese is localized and for a good reason. But, it is fun to go out and try new quesos.
PSA: I tried to write this paper without making too many cheesy jokes 🙂
Roots and extra explanations (words that are *) From the online Etymology Dictionary
*Queso– meaning cheese; Old English for cyse or cese meaning cheese
*Especiales– meaning special; from old French, especial meaning special, particular, or unusual.
*Oaxaca– a state of Mexico that is located on the southwestern side and borders the Pacific Ocean
*Enchiladas– past participle form, Spanish meaning “enhilar” that means to season with chile.
*Fundido-from French term “cheese pudding” or melted and meltian