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Investigating the origins of seven-layer dip
Hello, Snackers. Today it’s all about the dip and another SNACK MYSTERY to be solved.
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The best part of a football game is the snacks. This is my opinion, and while reasonable people may disagree and offer alternative preferences like “the action on the field” or “the drama of a coin toss,” I’m confident we can all concur that snacks are an essential component of watching high-stakes playoff football on television. The sport, eh, it’s not my thing but point me to the food table and I’ll be perfectly happy.
I also appreciate the pairing of snacks and football for even more selfish reasons: it gives me something to write about, a timely hook around which I can create content, as countless other scribes have been doing for at least fifty years. Seriously! I checked! We’ve been at this for a half-century or more. Here’s a story I found from the December 31, 1971 edition of The Orlando Sentinel:
There’s a lot to unpack here, including casual sexism (the wives are “little women,” the husbands are “head coach”), a vodka-and-beef-bouillon shot, and all manner of sporty wordplay, including what may be the first published snack pun related to the NFL’s trademarked Big Game:
If your head coach allows the sound of an electric blender during game time, here are some easy super bowls of snacks for the New Year’s Day training table.
It’s all extremely 1970s, distressingly so.
Anyway. That’s not what we’re talking about today. The actual focus of our present investigation is a different cultural emblem of the ’70s (albeit the later years): seven-layer dip, that staple of Super Bowl parties and other events that combine informality, sense of occasion, and hours-long snacking.
Our question today is this: When and where did seven-layer dip enter the culinary landscape, and what’s the cultural context of this origin story? Because as I was doing some initial idle googling the other day, I kept coming across one-sentence claims that the dish started with a magazine recipe, and this bugged me—not just because I was certain the roots must go back further but also because I knew those roots grew within a particular environment. Why did this food arise in this specific moment? There’s always cultural terroir. Always. I just had to find it.
And I did.
* * *
Before we dig all the way in—which, incidentally, is also the correct approach to dipping your chips in this striated snack—let’s take a moment to discuss the name, particularly for anyone who’s never eaten it.
The most common version is seven-layer dip, with the following component parts (per Wikipedia, a source I usually avoid but one that feels fittingly crowdsourced and populist in this case):
Pico de gallo, salsa, or chopped tomatoes
One last layer of something else, e.g. chopped onion, cooked ground beef, shredded lettuce, or sliced jalapeños
The precise number of layers, though, isn’t fixed. The Food Timeline, that essential resource, says that they vary in number from five to nine, but I’ve found recipes that call for as many as twelve. Interestingly, the layer count slowly increased over time, ticking up and up every few years until they finally hit an even dozen nearly forty years after the original dip recipe was published (more on all that in a moment).
Until this post, the one you’re reading right now, the most definitive history of seven-layer dip (and its many-layered cousins) was that Food Timeline entry, the bulk of which consists of a quoted paragraph from the book The American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century, by Jean Anderson:
According to Karen Haram, food editor of the San Antonio Express-News, “This dip is served at NEARLY every party in Texas. I don't know the origin of it,” she says, “but it started becoming very popular in the early 80s, helped in large part by Jo Anne Vachule. She was food editor at the Forth Worth Star-Telegram, and the recipe ran in one of the big women’s magazines [Family Circle, February 3, 1981] as her favorite recipe in a story on food editors’ favorites. The recipe was around before then, but it really took off at that time.” Haram adds that when making the dip, “make sure that you cover the avocado layer completely with the sour cream layer; if you do, the avocado doesn't darken, even if made the day before.” Family Circle editors thought so highly of Tex-Mex Dip, they included it in their anthology, Recipes America Loves Best (1982).
So that’s where our research starts. The dish was published as “Tex-Mex Dip” in Family Circle in February 1981.
* * *
As far as I can tell, the first published mention of the name “Seven-Layer Dip” was in the Tucson Citizen on February 16, 1981, shortly after that Family Circle recipe dropped. The Citizen story was about a fundraiser dinner to benefit the Tucson Museum of Art League; the dip was one of the items on the high-priced menu. It was no mere back-table party nosh, it was fancy.
If we don’t care about the name—and I’m not sure we do, honestly—a bit more digging in the archives takes us back to May 1978, when this recipe appeared in the Contra Costa Times, in California’s Bay Area:
That’s the earliest version I can find in print (if we’re counting, it’s only five layers, but the spirit of the thing is clear). Similar recipes appeared in other Northern California newspapers over the next couple of years: the Chico Enterprise-Record in November 1979, the Pacifica Tribune in November 1980. While its entirely possible that this layered dip was making its way among the snack-lovers and party-planners beyond the region, the fact that the first three newspaper mentions—again, that I can find!—are all within 200 miles of each other makes me think that this was, at the very least, a key area for its initial growth. That said, it was clearly common enough in San Antonio (where the food editor pitched it to Family Circle) and Tucson (home of that fundraiser dinner) by early 1981, which means it had spread quickly.
Soon, seven-layer dip was everywhere. The Newspaper.com results are wild—just an instant jump in mentions starting in 1981, and they kept going up for years. In those early days, it was often presented as something kinda gourmet—a 1982 story in The Detroit Free Press called it “an easy-to-make appetizer that just looks expensive.”
By 1983, the dip, in its various layered incarnations, had been featured in newspapers around the USA: Iowa, Nebraska, South Carolina, Indiana, and I stopped keeping tabs after a while. The restaurant chain TGI Friday’s put a nine-layer dip on its menu in 1983, although in this case, it neither looked nor tasted expensive—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette critic Mike Kalima called it “glob”-like, in review headlined “Decor brings one wince, the food brings another.” A year later, a restaurant in Chicago called the Snuggery introduced a ten-layer dip, in keeping with the restaurant’s reputation for being both on-trend and over-the-top. (Patricia Tennison’s review for the Chicago Tribune had this lede: “Thigh, thigh, thigh, thigh. Plus the guy with the fine-lined profile. The music pounds. The thighs are blaring. It’s hard to order without staring. This place, good grief, is a sensory workout. And the food’s not bad either.”)
When there’s a recipe in every paper and restaurants are competing to create ever more elaborate versions of a dish, you have a true cultural moment.
But the question remains: Why?
* * *
Nudging the origin story back from 1981 into the 1970s gives us some useful context. Here’s what appeared directly below the five-layer dip recipe that ran in the Chico Enterprise-Record in 1979:
Do you see where this is going?
Do you remember the 1970s or have you seen any cookbooks from the era?
Allow me to summarize: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of … aspic.
Layered, gelatin-based dishes were a hallmark of entertaining. Here’s the Spokane Spokesman-Review in 1976, and please know that these dishes and photos were hardly outliers in that era.
Much like disco, the aspic trend lasted pretty much right through the 1970s.
And as it happens, this was also a decade in which Tex-Mex food became trendy in the broad American culinary landscape. That’s an oversimplification—go read Taco USA—but, again, the newspaper archives show a huge uptick in coverage of these cuisines during the 1970s. The New York Times published its first review of a Tex-Mex restaurant in 1969, followed by another in 1970; by 1983, a Newsday reviewer was observing (though not complaining) about the food’s cultural saturation: “Everybody and everybody’s brother, nowadays, is opening a ‘Mexican’ restaurant; I suspect that some weeks, as many as two open on Long Island.” (Update: you should also go read this helpful explainer on the differences between Mexican and Tex-Mex food, which was also published today.)
Put another way: In 1970, the Tucson Citizen published a story on “South of the Border favorites” that included a recipe for a gelatin-based guacamole ring, along with something called “chili stacks.”
By the end of the decade, a shift was underway. Tex-Mex food was starting to come into its own as a broad trend in American cuisine trend, no gelatin required, but the aspic-and-layers mentality of recipe writers and newspaper and magazine food sections hadn’t quite faded away. My hypothesis is that seven-layer dip was one result of these overlapping culinary cultural moments. It shared some of the visual impact of the earlier appetizers (aesthetics being a critical component of the appeal all around, a way for party hosts to show off their effort and provide a sense of celebration and whimsy), while updating the methodology and flavor profile.
Seven-layer dip was a bridge between the 1970s and 1980s.
* * *
It appears that TGI Friday’s no longer sells a nine-layer dip or anything similar (or at least it’s not on the menu I just checked), but the dish’s place in the snacking canon remains strong. There are thousands of recipes to find online, and at least one variation with twelve layers, in the 2007 cookbook What Can I Bring? Aspic is making a comeback, at least in some quarters of the fine-dining world, but I’m quite content to skip that revival and stick with what’s endured without fading away, the dip sitting next to the bowl of chips on that corner table. Seven-layer dip remains delicious and the next time I’m invited to watch a football game, well, maybe I’ll try making my own.
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