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Guest Post: Arizona Pioneer Discovers Mexican Fast Food in 1873!

By: Kevin Folkman - March 11, 2011

Part of the fun for me in history research is learning a lot of unexpected bits of information along the way. As I have read journals, letters, and articles, I have often run across information that is just too good to ignore, even if it has nothing to do with what I am looking for.

In my article about the 1873 Mission to the Little Colorado, I had a few of those moments, but perhaps one of my favorites comes from the journal of Andrew Allen, one of the colonists at Moencopie. The 1873 colonists were spread out at several different locations near Moencopie, owing to limitations on the water supply and to avoid creating conflicts with the local Hopi Indians of Chief Tuby. After the group had determined that the Little Colorado basin they had explored that summer was inhospitable, the colonists found themselves waiting for an answer from Salt Lake City and church headquarters that never came. That left them with a lot of free time on their hands, and not much productive work to do before they finally retreated back to Utah.

My great grandmother Charlotte King entertained herself with caring for her year old toddler, Mary, the only child on the trip, and apparently a point of interest for some of the Hopi women. Charlotte gave a woman and her child a red nightgown belonging to Mary, which Charlotte said “pleased them both very much.” [1]

Some men played checkers, the equivalent, I suspect, of playing Angry Birds, and may have contributed to some of the bad feelings towards the 1873 group. Some actually tried some light gardening, but it was too late in the year to really try growing a real crop. Many interacted with the local Hopis in other ways. Andrew Allen, though, rises to the top of my list with his account.

First, he watched an older Hopi spin wool thread, and provided some wool from an old sheepskin he had with him and let the Hopi show him how the process was done. Allen divided up the resulting thread with a few of his other colonists to bring home to Northern Utah on their return.

A couple of days later, he makes this observation while watching some Hopi women preparing food:

He obtained “some … fresh cid meet [goat or sheep meat]. I got some and appreciated it verry much also … some (what they cal peake) it is made from corn ground fine on rocks and roald out thin yes as thin as paper and then cooked then roald up in to roals, as large as a mans rist and would way about one ounce. I got one of them and brought it home with me. I gave them some I had with me onions, squash, beens, etc.” [2]

And thus, Andrew Allen, Mormon pioneer and failed Arizona colonist, discovered how to make tacos, paying for it in produce. I haven’t read the rest of Allen’s diary to see if he records ever making tacos for his family back home, so I’m not sure we can credit him with starting a fast food revolution. But it is fun to imagine a drive up window with horse drawn carriages and wagons loaded with families, children eating their tacos, before going to the Draper Ward harvest social and dance. And if little Heber or Eliza started making trouble, Father could always lean back and say “If you don’t stop that right now, you’ll have to clean up after the horses first thing in the morning! Don’t you look at your brother like that!”

[1] Charlotte Emma Senior King, “A Short Sketch or Biography of Incidents in the Life of Charlotte Emma Senior King,” typescript, nd, LDS Church History Library, 3.

[2] Andrew Allen’s journal was brought to my attention by fellow Keepaninny Curtis Allen, a direct descendent of Andrew. The date for this reference was June 19, 1873 in his diary.



18 Comments »

  1. I always attributed my love of Mexican food to my mother who taught school in LaSal and made tamales at our Idaho home before anybody except the single Hispanic family in town knew what they were. She had learned to make them from one of the mothers of the kids she taught at the school in LaSal. Now I will give G-grandpa Andrew and the Navajos more credit. Mom also made what she called tamale pie, a casserole with cornmeal and hamburger with lots of peppers. My wife uses her recipe and it is great treat.

    Comment by CurtA — March 11, 2011 @ 8:41 am

  2. Recipe! Recipe! We demand the recipe!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 11, 2011 @ 9:26 am

  3. Got to love pioneers creative spelling.

    Comment by Clark — March 11, 2011 @ 9:34 am

  4. Wonderful bit of fun history. Thanks Kevin. Yes, Recipe, recipe! PLEASE…. :-)

    Comment by Cliff — March 11, 2011 @ 9:41 am

  5. Curtis,

    Glad to see the tradition lives on!

    My wife makes tamale pie as well, but I have no idea of what her exact recipe is. I just know she makes it with some corn meal mixed up and layered in the bottom of a baking pan, covers that in ground beef (or chicken or pork, I guess), some salsa or tamale sauce (we used to use just tomato paste years ago), then another layer of corn meal, topped with grated cheese, and baked. We would then add refried beans on the side, and top the tamale pie with some sour cream. One of those easy comfort foods.

    Comment by kevinf — March 11, 2011 @ 9:56 am

  6. Great story, Kevin. But how do you know it wasn’t a burrito? :)

    Comment by Mark B. — March 11, 2011 @ 10:10 am

  7. Provenance, Mark, provenance!

    Comment by kevinf — March 11, 2011 @ 10:22 am

  8. I’m a real expert on Hopi culinary traditions since I saw some Hopi make Piki on Sesame Street or something once ;-). It’s almost translucently thin, like rice paper or phyllo. I don’t think you could use it to hold a filling unless you stacked a hundred sheets. Nevertheless, some goat and corn paper sounds kind of good right now. Maybe I’m low in goat and corn minerals and need a multivitamin. Here’s a nice pic of piki: http://www.sedonasoulcounseling.com/viewarticle.php?ID=42

    Comment by Moniker Challenged — March 11, 2011 @ 10:29 am

  9. You makin’ fun o’ me, kevinf? Hm? I brought you into this blog; I can take you out …

    Before Kevin sent this in yesterday, I had just made a batch of cornbread stuffed with jalapenos (and made with about six ingredients I’m not supposed to eat). We’re on the same wavelength.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 11, 2011 @ 10:33 am

  10. Moniker, I just checked your link, and it looks like your Sesame Street trumps my Man Vs. Food, and I have to admit that Mark may be right. They look much more like burritos than tacos. And they look awesome! It’s making me hungry, and I’m still at least two hours to lunch here.

    But Ardis, I saw this old daguerreotype of a taco in a second hand shop somewhere once…

    Comment by kevinf — March 11, 2011 @ 10:50 am

  11. After checking the photo, I guess A. Allen wasn’t kidding when he said “rolled out thin, yes as thin as paper.”

    I never know what I’m going to learn visiting this blog. I could call it “the fusion of entertainment and enlightenment,” but the phrase is already taken.

    Comment by Clark — March 11, 2011 @ 11:00 am

  12. Penny’s (Mom’s name) Tamale Pie recipe

    1-1/2 c cornmeal
    6 cboiling water
    1 tsp sat
    3 Tbsp Cooking oil
    1 medium onion
    1 pepper, chopped
    1 lb. ground beef
    dash pepper
    1/2 tsp chili pepper

    Comment by CurtA — March 11, 2011 @ 1:17 pm

  13. Computer hicupped, here’s the rest:

    Fry onions, pepper, meat in oil. Add seasoning and 2 cans tomato sauce. Cook till thick, stirring constantly. Line greased baking dish with half of the mush. Spread the meat mixture and spread the rest of the mush on top. Dot with butter. Bake 375 deg. 30 minutes. (I like the top a with tinges of brown – for crunch). Serves 6-8 or less if I am there when seconds are a tribute to Penny.

    Comment by CurtA — March 11, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

  14. Thanks, Curt. Sounds like good home cookin’.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 11, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

  15. I was out of town today (it’s the Philadelphia Flower Show this week) and return to find a discussion of some interest. Piki bread is, as Moniker Challenged mentioned, paper thin. It is a lovely blue-gray color, has a pleasant light corn taste and its texture is something like the sheets of pastry in spanakopita. It’s crackly but not dry. It’s good stuff. My mother brought some made by a friend and fellow temple worker last time she came to visit. What a treat.

    The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has a permanent display in its Native American Southwest Exhibit showing this little video about making piki. (Watch it! It’s fascinating!)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QqdyRFFtgu8

    The video was made by Victoria Spencer and Marlene Sekaquaptewa, who is the daughter of Helen Sekaquaptewa, whose story is told in the book Me and Mine written by Louise Udall. It is a fascinating look into Hopi life. Helen Sekaquaptewa was a notable convert to the church. Her book mentions her uncle or great uncle, Chief Tuba, who was a notable early convert to the church (1860s?), and who shared a number of sacred Hopi traditions that echoed the stories of the Book of Mormon.

    Comment by Researcher — March 11, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

  16. After learning more about piki, it appears that perhaps I have conflated the meat and the piki into one meal. The link that Moniker Challenged posted would appear to indicate that the piki bread was eaten separately. All of that shows the problems with imposing our interpretation on historical events. But I still like my interpretation as the fun one. And I really would like to taste piki at some point.

    Thanks, all, for your insightful comments.

    Comment by kevinf — March 11, 2011 @ 5:25 pm

  17. When I saw the post title, I assumed you’d discovered a reference to tamales in one of your pioneer diaries. But I am smiling at the thought of a chain of mutton and piki taco restaurants all up and down the route from the Little Colorado to Salt Lake City. (Plus one in Davis County.)

    Comment by Researcher — March 11, 2011 @ 7:17 pm

  18. It was featured on Reading Rainbow I well remember the episode.

    Comment by Dovie — March 13, 2011 @ 8:35 pm

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