Have you ever wondered who invented cheese dip? And when? I don’t always ponder these things, but I did wonder why the World Cheese Dip Championship was held in Arkansas. So I looked it up.
Apparently cheese dip was invented in Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1935 by the owner of Mexico Chiquito restaurants. It seems hard to believe, I suppose because it’s so common now (around here, anyway), and it’s the type of dish you just assume always existed.
Let me back up, though, because I realize not everyone knows what cheese dip is (and you should know!). It’s basically melted cheese with spices that you eat by dipping chips into it. It’s important to get the consistency just right so it sticks to the chip while being thin enough to dip into and staying that way throughout the meal. In its most simple form, you can make it with a pound of Velveeta cheese and a can of Rotel diced tomatoes and green chilies. There are countless variations on this, adding various cheeses, spices, meats, chili, etc. The most common chips used are tortilla chips, like Tostitos, or Fritos Scoops. (Doritos works well, too.) Adding lots of spices and seasonings tends to lead to diminishing returns, where it becomes considerably more work while producing marginal gains (if any). At the World Cheese Dip Competition, there are many variations, usually mostly good, but when they try too hard it sometimes doesn’t work well.
At the World Cheese Dip Championship website, there is a video about the history of cheese dip. It is very much amateur in production, but it’s somewhat interesting if you’re interested in such things. (See what I did there?) It’s 19 minutes long, so below are a few highlights if you aren’t going to watch it.
In the video, you meet a chef who trained under Emeril Lagasse and opened a restaurant in central Arkansas after Hurricane Katrina. He said he never even thought of offering cheese dip on the menu because, in his words, “I just don’t even think of it as an actual dish.” Then he started to notice it on menus all over the place, and all his workers started asking about it, so in a staff meeting he asked, “Is there something I need to know about cheese dip?”, and everyone was dumbfounded that he had no clue, because all the regulars here took it for granted. But later on, the chef said he still doesn’t consider cheese dip a “thing”, that it’s just part of nachos. The film director exposed the chef’s ignorance, stating that nachos were invented in 1943 by Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya. (Side note: So it took people 8 years to pour the cheese dip over the chips and consider it a dish?) The story of how nachos were invented is at 14:20 in the video. Nachos aren’t the same thing, even if the ingredients are similar. If you also don’t “get it”, I encourage you to try it. It sounds simple (and it is), but it is awesome. And it complements many other foods well. (And by many, I literally mean many — that’s why most restaurants in Arkansas offer cheese dip.)
The editor-in-chief at the Arkansas Times said, “Cheese dip is the national food of Arkansas.” (Don’t think too hard about that… it just means it’s a big deal.) He also said the uniqueness of cheese dip in Arkansas is its ubiquity. (That’s an unusual way to put it.) Later he talked about which chip he prefers for dipping, based on the tensile strength for scooping up payloads of cheese dip (and chunks in some varieties). It does matter, and I have to agree that Fritos Scoops are my preferred choice, though many options are great (like Tostitos and Doritos).
Regarding the nutritional value of cheese dip, well, it doesn’t matter! 🙂 It’s one of those foods worth eating “right” even if you have to eat it less often than you’d like to. 🙂 Actually, you might be surprised to realize it has some healthy qualities to it. Rotel is basically a can of chopped up vegetables. Of course there’s cheese, but some nutritionists are saying the saturated fat in milk products is not as unhealthy as saturated fat in red meat. And if you use Fritos or Tostitos, those are vegetables. I know, no one believes me, but look at the ingredient list for yourself, and you’ll find: corn, corn oil, and salt. (In a discussion on this someone pointed out that corn can be a vegetable, fruit, or grain depending on what state it’s in, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.) So frame it from this angle and you’re dipping veggie chips into a cheesy veggie dip. (That doesn’t sound good at all, but remember we’re talking about cheese dip. I’m just trying to help you rationalize it in case you’re trying to lose weight and eat healthy, like me.)
I saw a website that lists a “cheese dip trail through Arkansas” that features several restaurants which are “famous” for their cheese dip. I haven’t tried all of these yet, so it sounds like a great idea to do someday.
There are even annual awards for the best cheese dip in the state, and every year that category receives more votes than any other category. It’s a big deal, even though we might take it for granted here.
I’d like to hear your thoughts about it. Are you familiar with cheese dip? Do you eat it regularly? If not, are you going to try it? What state/area/country are you from?