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The Birth of the Frito

When we produced our 1999 NPR series, "Lost & Found Sound," we said we were chronicling people possessed by sound. With "Hidden Kitchens," perhaps you could say we are chronicling people possessed by food.

Charles Elmer Doolin is one such man. Possessed by a vision. By corn. By creating snack food. Doolin was obsessed with Fritos, his daughter Kaleta said.

During the Depression in the 1930s, Doolin had a confectionery in San Antonio. Always an innovator, he got a bug to put some kind of corn snack on his counters. Tortillas staled, so Doolin went on a mission. At a gas station, Doolin found a Mexican man making an extruded corn chip out of masa, frying it and selling little bags of the fried corn chips. They were fritos, "little fried things" — the beach food of Mexico.

Doolin bought the patent and 14 customers from the man and began to make the chips in his own kitchen at home, with his mother perfecting his recipe.

"His life was one big hidden kitchen," his son-in-law Alan Govenar said. Doolin had kitchens in his factory, kitchens in his lab, kitchens with test tubes and beakers in his house.

Kaleta Doolin said his kids were his guinea pigs — helping him test new recipes and flavors. Through these kitchen experiments, C.E. Doolin also invented the Cheeto.

Along the way, Doolin started hybridizing his own corn. The secret ingredient in Fritos, Kaleta Doolin says, is her father's own, special corn. He hired farmers throughout Texas to plant his varieties until he found the taste he was looking for.

Doolin and his brother Earl were modern, can-do innovative tinkerers. Soon they were taking Henry Ford's idea of the assembly line and conveyor belt and applying it to the manufacture of the Frito.

C.E. Doolin had big plans for this chip. He opened a Casa de Frito restaurant in Disneyland in 1955, and another one in Dallas. The restaurants were a sort of precursor to fast food, a hybrid between hamburgers and Mexican food.

When he invented the Frito, C.E. Doolin imagined them as a side dish, a handful to be served with soup and salad to complement a meal. He never imagined anyone would consume an entire king-size bag. He rarely ate them.

And if he brought them home, he would have grabbed them off the conveyor belt before they were salted. The Doolins were vegetarians, and barely touched salt. Kaleta Doolin took figs and yogurt in her lunch to school, not Fritos.

In fact, C.E. Doolin was a follower of Dr. Herbert Shelton, a San Antonio vegetarian and healer whose innovative theories on nutrition and fasting permeated the Doolin home. C.E. Doolin, who was overweight and unhealthy and had a bad heart, went to Shelton's clinics several times for 30-day fasts. Doolin ate no meat, no fat, no salt. Shelton, in his heyday, ran for president on the vegetarian ticket in 1956.

C.E. Doolin was an early franchiser and soon began distributing Fritos nationwide. One photo shows a "Frito Fleet" rolling through the streets of San Antonio, accompanied by a local marching band.

Doolin's wife, Katherine, was known for her social work and good relationships with the workers at the company. It was a strong, family feeling that made Fritos a legendary Texas business. Mrs. Doolin developed all kinds of recipes using Fritos, including Frito pie and Frito jets (Fritos dipped in chocolate and laid out on a cookie sheet — "fat on top of fat," Kaleta Doolin says). These recipes were printed on the backs of Fritos packages.

By the time of his death in 1959, C.E. Doolin had partnered with Herman Lay, and the Frito-Lay brand had gone global. But the company lost that family feeling. We now eat our weight in snack foods instead of the modest portions Doolin had in mind.

Kaleta Doolin is busy making a film and writing a book based on the history of her father's groundbreaking work.

We thank all in the Doolin Family who helped us tell this story, and Frito-Lay, which so generously shared its sound and images with The Kitchen Sisters and "Hidden Kitchens."

Next month on "Hidden Kitchens": The story of a kitchen tradition that goes back more than 1,000 years — Banging the Branch, the olive oil harvest on the West Bank.

Notes from the Road
(The Story Behind the Story)

We were in Dallas, recording at Fuel City, a gas station with a taco stand, 26 pumps, a herd of longhorn cattle, and a swimming pool with bikini-clad pool models waving to the truckers as they passed by. It was a story we were gathering for Hidden Kitchens Texas, our hourlong special, narrated by Willie Nelson, with Robin Wright Penn (her mother was a Mary Kay Cosmetics saleswoman in Dallas).

Night came. We were strangers in a strange land. Where to go? Our pal Chris Strachwitz, the founder of Arhoolie Records, had told us to call his pal, Alan Govenar, founder of Documentary Arts in Dallas. Probably half of the music you hear in the "Hidden Kitchens" stories comes from Arhoolie. We call it the hidden kitchen of music. Chris has been documenting secret, below-the-radar, community music all over this noisy nation for some 40 years — sacred steel, gospel, mariachi, zydeco, gypsy, nortena, the blues. You name it, Chris has gone and lived in these communities and recorded their singers and songs. It's a treasure trove, and it seems to fit our stories, hand in glove.

We called. Alan invited us to his archive. Inviting us to an archive? How did he know an archive is our idea of heaven? There is nothing we like more than rustling through the well-preserved past and finding shards of sound that inspire and pepper our stories. The Kitchen Sisters — producers of three archival audio collaborations: "Lost & Found Sound," "The Sonic Memorial Project" and "Hidden Kitchens" — were floored. He showed us photographs, films, recordings, shelves, preservation techniques. We were high as kites.

When Kaleta Doolin, Alan's wife, joined us for a dinner of barbecue and pie, the four of us were becoming fast friends. We talked about hidden kitchens and the kinds of stories and music we were collecting. After the ribs, they brought us to Kaleta's archive. Kaleta is an artist, filmmaker, community activist and Texan. Around midnight, she began to tell us about her family. Her father, it seemed, had invented the Frito.

Kaleta said about two more sentences — and we said "stop." We went and got the tape recorder (it's actually a DAT machine) and she began to spill the beans. It was about 2 in the morning when we left. Since then, Kaleta has been digging up the family story and making her own documentary film about Fritos. She has shared music, family home recordings, her father's personally recorded dictation tapes, the photographs you see on this site and her spirit. She and Alan joined us when we did a Hidden Kitchens Texas presentation at the Dallas Women's Club last fall. We have always relied on the kindness of archivists, Texans and the nation as a whole in the telling of these wild and tender stories. -- The Kitchen Sisters

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva) are producers of the duPont-Columbia Award-winning, NPR series, Hidden Kitchens, and two Peabody Award-winning NPR series, Lost & Found Sound and The Sonic Memorial Project. Hidden Kitchens, heard on Morning Edition, explores the world of secret, unexpected, below-the-radar cooking across America—how communities come together through food. The series inspired Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes, and More from NPR's The Kitchen Sisters, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year that was also nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Writing on Food. The Hidden Kitchens audio book, narrated by Academy Award winner, Frances McDormand, received a 2006 Audie Award.
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