Last month, a new art-house theater opened here in Austin, the Violet Crown Cinema. (Our city has several pet names, and one of them is the City of the Violet Crown. Why it’s called that has been completely lost to history.) Local film director and cinephile Richard Linklater picked eight films from the Criterion Collection for a test run of the facility (and as a benefit for the Austin Film Society). Of the films he chose, the one I was most attracted to seeing was Paris, Texas. First, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen the film but always remembered how much I liked it; second, I was hoping to be inspired by something in the film for this post.
Speaking of Wim Wenders and food, if you lived in San Francisco around the years Wenders was making Hammett for Francis Coppola’s American Zoetrope studio, as I did, you probably ate breakfast now and again at Wim’s Restaurant. Wenders was often seen around town in those years, as Zoetrope headquarters is located on the edge of the North Beach district. There’s a triangular building (the Sentinel) right where Kearney and Montgomery streets meet, and at the base of the Sentinel was Wim’s. If memory serves, Coppola bought what was a Zim’s Restaurant (at one time San Francisco’s “largest local restaurant chain) and replaced the Z with a W but kept the good, greasy-spoon diner just as it was. For years, it remained a fine place to get a stack of pancakes and bacon and coffee to nurse a hangover. The location is still owned by Coppola, but now it’s been turned into a bistro, Cafe Zoetrope.
Anyway, on to our movie. I was so pleased at how well Paris, Texas holds up, almost as if it was made yesterday, not way back in 1984. The film takes its time to unfold smoothly and is a joy to watch. Linklater and I agreed that Hunter Carson’s performance is perhaps one of the best child performances ever.
At about the halfway point, Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) and his son Hunter (Hunter Carson, son of the film’s coscreenwriter L. M. Kit Carson) are parked under a Los Angeles freeway interchange. Travis has decided to head to Houston to find his wife, Jane (Nastassja Kinski) and wants to know if Hunter wishes to join him. They are eating lunch while they discuss this. Hunter’s aunt (French actress Aurore Clément of Lacombe, Lucien fame) has packed some cheese for him to take to school, which becomes a topic of their conversation:
Travis: This is not bad stuff.
Hunter: Anne puts it in lunch every day. La vache qui rit. Sticky.
Travis: La vache what?
Hunter: Rit. Rrr. Rit.
Travis: Rit. Rrr. Rit. I like it.
When I got home, I dove into Googling to seek out what the heck this la vache qui rrrrit was and what I could possibly make with it, if anything. Well, while I didn’t know it by its French name (my French is worse than my Italian), I certainly knew it by its American name, The Laughing Cow cheese. Those individually wrapped triangles of pasteurized processed cheese food eaten the world over (at a rate of 4,600 wedges per minute), and invented in France in 1921 by cheese maker Leon Bel. “Aha!” I exclaimed. You know what else is a pasteurized processed cheese food? Velveeta. Created in Monroe, New York, by Swiss immigrant cheese maker Emil Frey in 1919—and the basis of one of the most beloved Tex-Mex dishes, chile con queso. It is impossible to communicate why a bowl of melted processed cheese food with diced tomatoes and roasted chile peppers (preferably from a can—it has something to do with the juices they’re packed in) is so revered, or how mystically it seems to alter your perception. It defies explanation. It just has to be experienced in its natural habitat to be understood.
In the Houston Chronicle, food writer Allison Cook once proclaimed, “If Tex-Mex is our state’s tribal nursery food—a truth that I hold to be self-evident—then chile con queso is our mother’s milk . . . [W]e Texans love our chile con queso of choice with a fierce and childlike attachment that flouts reason. It is consolation in a cup, a sacrament conveyed on a triangle of crackly corn.”
I tell friends when they first come to town, “We have a dish here we call queso, which is Spanish for cheese. And that’s basically what it is. Just a big bowl of hot, gooey, fattening, oozing, melted yellow cheese.” They look at me like I’m crazy, until the bowl arrives and they stick their first tortilla chip in it—then they ask how they can take some home with them as it dribbles down their chin.
My experiment proved successful—melting Laughing Cow with your standard chile con queso ingredients yields a mighty fine, tasty dish. These days, there are a variety of Laughing Cow flavors, but the original, a mix of cheddar, Swiss, and some kind of semisoft cheese, should be used. You’ve got to keep your queso simple. I’ll be bold enough to say it would be welcome as an appetizer in both Paris, Texas, and Paris, France.
Chile avec Fromage (Chile con Queso)
Serves 4–6 as an appetizer
? pound meat (entirely optional—some swear by it and others swear at it. Crumbled chorizo, pork sausage, taco meat, picadillo, and brisket are the typical considerations.)
¼ cup diced onion
1 tablespoon butter (if not using meat)
7 ounces canned green chiles, diced
18 ounces (3 wheels) Laughing Cow cheese, original variety
½ cup nonfat milk (or heavy cream or anything in between—using nonfat milk just makes me feel less guilty if you give yourself a heart attack from eating this)
¼ teaspoon sea salt
½ cup finely diced Roma, grape, or cherry tomatoes
French baguette, thinly sliced, or corn tortilla chips
If using meat, brown it with onion in a nonstick pan, then drain away excess grease. If not using meat, sauté onion with butter until translucent. Add chiles and cheese. Stir slowly and regularly over low heat with nonstick spoon so it doesn’t burn. Add milk and salt and continue stirring. (If consistency doesn’t become gooey, add more milk.) Just as it starts to get nice and bubbly, add tomatoes and stir to combine. Remove from heat. Serve hot in a bowl (or preferably in a fondue pot!), garnished with cilantro. Eat with bread slices (since we’re going all French here) or tortilla chips.
Ron Deutsch also blogs at chefducinema.com.