DEBORAH AMOS, host:

Today, a new series of Hidden Kitchens begins on MORNING EDITION.

We start in Texas, where our friends The Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, have been hunting for local kitchen visionaries. Texas is the birthplace of some of America's great pop foods: Dr. Pepper, the Slurpee, the Frozen Margarita.

The Kitchen Sisters follow the saga of another Lone Star pioneer in a story they call "The Birth of the Frito."

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. KALETA DOOLIN (C.E. Doolin's Daughter, the Founder of Frito Company): He was consumed by Fritos. He worked incessantly - at home, on vacation, on weekends. He loved it. He experimented in the kitchen at home. We were his guinea pigs.

I'm Kaleta Doolin. I grew up here in Dallas, and I'm the daughter of Charles Elmer Doolin, the founder of the Frito Company. He had a bakery in San Antonio, a confectionery. It was 1932. He wanted to have chips on the counter. Tortillas staled too easily, so he found a chip in a gas station that was an extruded chip.

He bought the recipe patent and 14 customers from a man who was from Mexico who lives in San Antonio. It's a masa fried in a corn oil, salted. Dad named it Fritos. It means fried thin. That's what they are in Mexico, they're Fritos - the beach food, those little fried stuff. He began the manufacturing with his mother and brother in the kitchen. They were making them by hand, using a potato riser with a (unintelligible) instead of a little round hole, bagging them and selling them by day to gas stations.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ALAN GOVENAR (C.E. Doolin's Son-in-Law): He had lots of hidden kitchens. He had the kitchen off to the side of his office. He had the kitchen at home. He had factories, and on the counter, he had a line of Bunsen burners with little tripods with metal trays on top of them. I'm Alan Govenar. I'm Kaleta's husband. He was always experimenting, mixing up new flavors. He'd call the employees into his office and have them taste the different flavoring for the chips.

Ms. KALETA DOOLIN: Part of the secret ingredients of Frito is that it's his own corn. There were experimental farms where he was hybridizing his own corn and trying to discover ways to use the by-products. He and his brother invented a lot of the machinery, did all of the conveyor belt like, you know, Ford automobiles, the mechanization of snack food.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. CHARLES ELMER DOOLIN (Founder, Frito Company): Here, our ingredient cost had never exceeded 54 percent. We would have added five more months to the…

Ms. DOOLIN: He worked constantly. He had a recording machine in his car.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. DOOLIN: …profitable months. When we add 13 percent of the flavor…

Ms. KATHERINE DOOLIN (C.E. Doolin's Wife): He was big and handsome, and my first impression was, oh my. Our wedding was scheduled for eight o'clock in the morning. The reason I was given is that we have to be on the road by ten, on the way to California and open that plant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GOVENAR: Texas of that era was a hotbed of kind of populist thinking. It was a right-to-work state. It was a can-do kind of place. The East Texas Oil fields were discovered in the midst of the Depression. There was hope that people could make something out of nothing. And I think that he was part of that spirit.

Ms. KALETA DOOLIN: He also invented the Cheetos. He believed in having Fritos and Cheetos as a side dish with a sandwich or a soup. He wasn't consciously making a snack food. That was not his vision.

(Soundbite of Fritos ad jingle)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Munch-a-bunch bunch bunch munch, Fritos go with lunch.

Ms. KALETA DOOLIN: Well, I never brought Fritos to school. We didn't have them at home that much. And when we did, Dad brought them off that conveyor belt with no salt on them. Dad was into health food. He was the treasurer of the Natural Food Association. We always went to the meetings. He was a follower of Dr. Shelton in San Antonio, who had a clinic for fasting.

(Soundbite of recording)

Dr. HERBERT SHELTON (Health Educator): Before I undertake to tell you how to assure yourself at all times an abundance of energy, I'm going to tell you how you dissipate your energy. Because if you didn't dissipate it, you would have an abundance of energy. We do not need to know what nerve energy is. We need to know only the laws of its operation, then we can deal with nerve energy as intelligently and as certainly as the electrical engineer deals with electricity.

Ms. KALETA DOOLIN: Dad was vegetarian. He had a bad heart and bad lungs and weight problems. And he was looking for alternative cures. We were raised vegetarian, and people made fun of me for eating yogurt and figs in my packed lunch.

(Soundbite of song, "The Ballad of Davy Crockett")

Mr. BILL HAYES (Singer): (Singing) Born on the mountaintop, in Tennessee…

Ms. KALETA DOOLIN: He had an experimental restaurant in Disneyland when it was first up, in Frontierland, called Casa de Fritos. He had a little restaurant here in Dallas, also. It was a hybrid of hamburgers and Mexican food. He was on the verge of starting fast food. If he'd lived a little bit longer, McDonald's might be McFrito's or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. KATHERINE DOOLIN: I actually didn't think Fritos were so very different from Mexican tortillas. It's just a little bit different process, very handy and tasty and a great step forward, in my opinion.

Ms. KALETA DOOLIN: Mom would use Fritos in cooking, making up recipes. Frito Key pie was one of her inventions. Recipes were printed on the back of the bag. One of the most strange ones is called Jets - melted dark chocolate with Fritos, dropped onto a cookie sheet to solidify - fat on top of fat.

(Soundbite of music)

AMOS: "The Birth of the Frito" was produced by The Kitchen Sisters, whose book "Hidden Kitchens" is now available in paperback. Photographs from the Doolin family archive and recipes for Frito pie and Frito chocolate crunchies are at npr.org.

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