A brief history of how Rotel became synonymous with queso.

By Meghan Overdeep
November 05, 2020
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Rich, creamy, a little bit spicy, and so very satisfying. There’s nothing quite like the taste of chips and queso.

In Texas, where they’re particularly serious about the Mexican cheese dip, it’s not chile con queso without a can of Rotel. In fact, to some Texans, queso is simply “Rotel dip.”

But why?

Eater’s Kayla Stewart recently set out to learn how the canned blend of tomatoes, chiles, and spices, became such a vital part of any queso.

In the early 1900s, Mexican recipes for chile con queso called for a drawn-out process of roasting, peeling, and chopping chiles, then sautéing them with tomato and onions and mixing them with grated cheese. Phew!

(Velveeta—Rotel’s partner in snack-time crime—was invented in 1918, but we’ll save that story for another day.)

Anyway, by the 1920s, chili con queso was a Texas staple. But according to food writer Robert F. Moss, some cooks found the preparation to be too laborious. They also kept fiddling with ratio of cheese to pepper and learned the hard way that certain cheeses separate and great a stringy mess when heated.

Enter: American innovation.

Carl Roettele recognized a business opportunity in Texas’ love for tomatoes and chiles, as well as the frustration with preparing them. “He saw how popular the combination of tomatoes and chiles were together, so one day, he just had this idea: Why not can those together?” Rotel brand communications manager Dan Skinner told Eater.

Roettele started a family canning company in Elsa, Texas, in 1943. Since Texans had trouble pronouncing his name, he branded his line of canned vegetables “Ro-Tel.”

Rotel became popular in the major Texas cities and made its way into all sorts of dishes, including guacamole, stews, crockpot dishes, and of course, queso.

Hoping to capitalize on queso’s popularity for football games and family events, Rotel began marketing itself as a queso ingredient in 1949 by publishing a recipe for chile con queso that simply required adding it to melted cheese and serving it with chips.

Rotel would have remained a Texas thing if Lady Bird Johnson hadn’t ended up in the White House.

“In 1963, when Lady Bird Johnson was second lady, she gave Rotel its first big PR win when she listed some of her favorite Texas recipes,” Skinner told Eater. “She had a chili recipe that she shared, and Rotel was the secret ingredient.”

WATCH: Introducing Smoked Queso, the Internet’s Cheesy New Obsession

The rest, as they say, is history.

In 2018, “Original” Rotel was the fifth most sold canned good in the United States, with $69.1 million worth of cans sold.

Skinner told Eater that Rotel’s flexibility is what has made it so popular both in Texas and around the nation. “You can take a basic recipe you’ve done a million different ways, but then you add Rotel, and suddenly it becomes spicy mac and cheese,” he says. “I think that versatility appeals to chefs and home cooks.”

It also happens to be delicious!