Q: When visiting my in-laws in Arkansas, should I speak up when they offer me “cheese dip” and/or “avocado dip”? Oh, the humanity! It’s queso! It’s guacamole! As a Texan in a room full of proud Arkansans, this is a delicate situation. Do I say something?
Jonathan H., Dallas
A: The Texanist isn’t breaking new ground here when he says that interactions with the in-laws can sometimes be fraught. Everybody knows this. But the potential for discomfort is ramped up when the in-laws in question are out-of-staters. Remember an earlier Texanist correspondent, poor Bill Huston from Tyler? His in-laws, Yankees who followed their daughter to Texas, kvetched so constantly about the spiciness of Texas’s world-renowned cuisine that last year he was forced to reach out to the Texanist for advice on how to not blow his top at the dinner table. The Texanist hopes he was able to help.
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Likewise, the Texanist hopes he can help you, too. The Huston fellow’s situation, though, put him at a slight advantage since his out-of-state in-laws now reside on his home turf. You, on the other hand, are at a disadvantage in that your troubling interactions are taking place on the home turf of your Arkansan in-laws.
Nevertheless, you must not let that caveat dissuade you from doing your duty as a Texan. But your mission is actually a bit more complicated than you might think. The real problem here, as you may or may not be aware, is much bigger than the fairly simple matter of regional culinary nomenclature. When Arkansans refer to queso (which, as you know, is short for chile con queso) as cheese dip, they’re engaging in a bit of shorthand. What they’re thinking is, “Arkansas cheese dip,” and by doing so they are, most outrageously, laying claim to the dish’s invention.
Arkansans, you see, are under the preposterous impression that queso—or, okay, cheese dip—is an Arkansas thing. They practically recognize it as an unofficial state dish, right alongside chocolate gravy and biscuits. Arkansans proudly claim that this warm, oozy, and comforting cheesy foodstuff was invented in the 1930s at the Little Rock restaurant Mexico Chiquito, and will often point to In Queso Fever: A Movie About Cheese Dip, a twenty-minute documentary by an Arkansan that makes the same claim while delving into the state’s understandable love of queso.
But the flaws in this scandalous assertion are so glaring that the Texanist is reluctant to legitimize the false claim with a response, preferring instead to let the historical record do the talking for him. In her book Queso! Regional Recipes for the World’s Favorite Chile-Cheese Dip, Texan Lisa Fain, a.k.a. the Homesick Texan, points out that the founders of Mexico Chiquito, W.F. “Blackie” and Margaret Donnelly, were both Texans, and before opening the Little Rock Mexico Chiquito in 1938, they had opened the first Mexico Chiquito in Kilgore, in 1936. The fact is, the Donnellys were responsible for introducing the term “cheese dip” to Arkansas, but neither the Donnellys nor Arkansas are responsible for introducing queso to the world. Fain does a deep dive into the queso bowl and comes up with an origin story that, surprise-surprise, stars Mexico rather than Arkansas.
But you didn’t come here for a lesson in interstate food feuds or the litigation thereof. You came here for help with a problem having to do with how to handle your Arkie in-laws.
So, should you say something? Well, somebody has to say something. And since it’s going to be you rather than the Texanist sitting there in your wife’s family’s den sheepishly wolfing down all that delicious “cheese dip,” it falls on you, as the only Texan in the room, to set the record straight. Simply (and as politely as possible) explain to them, between bites, that so-called Arkansas cheese dip is in fact queso and that it is Mexican and Tex-Mexican in origin and not Arkansan or Ark-Mexican. And, further, explain to them that the regional cuisine known as Ark-Mex doesn’t even exist and if on the off chance it does exist, tell them that you aren’t the least bit interested in exploring it—because you are full from all the queso.
It won’t be easy and the Texanist can’t guarantee that it will go smoothly, but you have no choice. The veracity of the historical record and the honor of chile con queso are at stake here. The Texanist wishes you luck.
Oh, as for the “avocado dip,” the Texanist suspects that you’re probably just the victim of some good old-fashioned Arkansas trolling, or “goat gettin’,” as they call it up there in the Natural State. Don’t give them the pleasure of even responding to that one. A good son-in-law knows how to pick his fights.
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.