As a confectioner in San Antonio in the 1930s, Mr. Doolin became obsessed with adding a corn product to the coterie of goodies he was already offering. It’s not known why Doolin developed this obsession but the prevalence of masa in San Antonio food culture may have played a role. Luck and circumstance soon found him in a gas station where a Mexican man was selling fritos, an extruded, fried corn snack sold at lucha libre arenas across the great country.
Doolin saw an opportunity and seized it, purchasing the fledgling business, and the patent from the man along with several of the man’s business accounts.
After some time in his kitchen with his mother (who reportedly perfected the Frito recipe,) and brother, Doolin then hit the ground running, delving into plant genetics to ensure that the strain of corn he was utilizing could provide optimum flavors.
The company maintains that that is what the true secret of Fritos is; Doolin’s own special genetic variety of corn.
I’m buying it. Fritos are absolutely delicious (one of the secret weapons is supposedly pig enzymes,) and the corn flavor is profound.
Doolin’s mom reportedly invented the Frito Pie soon after son Charles made his fateful purchase. Her recipe is really a Frito and Chili casserole with layers of both along with onions and cheese constructed in a baking dish.It sounds wonderful, and is a far cry from the Frito Pie most of us are accustomed to (a torn bag of Fritos with chili and cheese ladled in) that is served at county fairs and rodeos across the great state of Texas.
With a sound, producible Frito now in hand, Doolin set out to conquer the world through masa.
His first Casa de Fritos location opened in Disneyland on August 19th 1955, next door to Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House. It was closely followed by a second store in Dallas.
These two restaurants were the forebears of a hoped-to-be chain, but the concept sputtered, and never materialized into the nationwide presence Doolin had hoped for.
In 1958, Doolin acquired the rights to Ruffles, the then-nascent potato chip-maker.
Sadly, it was to be the last big deal of the salty snack magnates’ career as a year later he was dead.
Two years after his death, his company merged with Herman Lay’s eponymous chip maker, and Frito-Lay was formed
Should you ever find yourself in San Antonio you can drive by and check out the site where Doolin, his brother and parents fried up a lot of early batches of Fritos. It’s at 1416 Roosevelt Avenue.
And whatever became of the man whom Doolin bought the Fritos marque from? Gustavo Olguin, according to lore, returned to his native Mexico to begin a career as a soccer coach. He passed in 1981.
Of course if it wasn’t for Jose Bartolome Martinez we wouldn’t be having this conversation. He was the man who introduced the commercialization of masa to San Antonio in 1896.
His Molino Para Nixtamal (a facility where corn is ground into meal) was opened at 615 Dolorosa Street in 1896, thus starting a tradition that San Antonio carries on proudly to this day with dozens of molinos scattered about the city.
Addendum: I’ll put up the ultimate Frito Pie Recipe to celebrate the lives of Charles Elmer Doolin, Gustavo Olguin, and Jose Bartolome Martinez in the next week or so.
Here it is