In Texas, it’s been a pantry staple for generations: an essential ingredient in queso, nachos and in some cooks’ bowl of red. What many don’t know is that Ro-Tel, a concoction of diced tomatoes and chiles, was born in the Rio Grande Valley – and got a giant boost when a first lady put in in her Pedernales chili.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: You begin your story for Texas Highways by calling Ro-Tel ‘a brand synonymous with Super Bowl parties and southern casseroles.’ Do you have a personal history with those canned tomatoes and peppers?
Omar Gallaga: I have an ongoing love affair with queso, but I didn’t have a lot of awareness of the brand until I started cooking for myself as an adult. And even though I was born and raised in the Rio Grande Valley, I had never heard about the connection to the region, either.
Let’s dig into the history just a bit. Where exactly did Ro-Tel get its start?
Well, the brand was started in 1943 in the town of Elsa by a man named Carl Roettele. He was an entrepreneur who used locally grown vegetables and two local canning companies to start the Ro-Tel brand. According to people I talked to in the town, there was a factory in Elsa and one in nearby Donna. And the ingredients, including onions and tomatoes, were all grown in the area. And one of the people I interviewed said that when the factory was going, you could smell the vegetables cooking in the air.
But it didn’t seem to really become a big thing statewide, I guess, until Lady Bird Johnson picked up on this. And she had a recipe book or something?
She had several recipes that were published. I believe the first one that really made it take off was one for Pedernales chili that was published in The Washington Post in 1963. And the brand was already growing; it was already expanding to other cities in Texas – San Antonio, Dallas, Austin. But that endorsement really is what took it national. That really made the brand explode, when they got the endorsement from the First Lady.
And it still has a lot of fans to this day. But I think of it as almost a mid-century kind of comfort food or something.
Yeah, but it’s always been around, and it really seemed to have a resurgence. The company told me that they really saw a big sales boost during the pandemic when people were relying on slow cooker recipes and doing more food preparation at home. The company that owns it told me that they sold about 172.9 million cans of Ro-Tel over the last year when I talked to them at the end of 2022.
So what is it about Ro-Tel? I think a lot of people would wonder, what’s the thing about diced tomatoes?
I think people just grew up on it. I mean, it was such an easy way to not have to cut or roast your own vegetables – to just kind of dump them into a recipe. Just the ease of it, and it just sort of became a staple.
I talked to Conagra. They’re an international food brand that bought it. They said the brand is just beloved. I mean, a few years ago, they even came out with a Quesobago truck that toured the country, went to tailgate events, sharing queso recipes, kind of doing like a Wienermobile type of thing. So they’ve got a lot of fans, and they’ve done a lot of fun stuff with it.
See, I think the secret here are the green chiles – having those green chiles with the diced tomatoes. They taste stewed together already, right out of the can.
Yeah. And they came out with several variations. There’s a mild, there’s a spicy. I mean, it’s not just the one variety.
But they’ve got a whole website dedicated to recipes just built around Ro-Tel. And as I understand it, Ro-Tel’s hometown still plans to celebrate its connections to Ro-Tel coming up here pretty soon, right?
Yeah, absolutely. They’re going to put up a small water tower that will be painted to look like a can of Ro-Tel. That’s the plan at least.