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The Old West's Muslim Tamale King

Society & Culture  (tags: Hot Tamale Louie, Americans, society, culture, religion, Muslims, Wyoming, interesting, rights, politics, government )

- 1112 days ago -
How a South Asian immigrant became a Wyoming fast-food legend and received American citizenship ~twice.


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Carrie B (306)
Tuesday May 31, 2016, 9:26 pm

The first person in Sheridan, Wyoming, to learn that Hot Tamale Louie had been knifed to death was William Henry Harrison, Jr. The news came by telegram, the day after the murder. Harrison was the son of a member of Congress, the great-grandson of one President, the great-great-great-grandson of another President, and the great-great-great-great-grandson of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Hot Tamale Louie was the son of nobody knows who, the grandson of nobody knows who, and the great-great-grandson of nobody knows who. He had been selling tamales in Sheridan since Buffalo Bill rode in the town parade, sold them when President Taft came to visit, was still selling them when the Russians sent Sputnik into space and the British sent the Beatles to America.

By then, Louie was a local legend, and his murder shocked everyone. It was front-page, above-the-fold news in Sheridan, and made headlines throughout Wyoming, Colorado, and South Dakota. It travelled by word of mouth across the state to Yellowstone, and by post to California, where former Sheridan residents opened their mailboxes to find letters from home-town friends mourning Louie’s death.

That was in 1964. Two years later, the killer was tried, found guilty, hanged, removed from the gallows, then hanged again. Within a few years after that, Louie, his tamales, his murder, and everything else about him had faded from the headlines. A half century passed. Then, late last year, he wound up back in the news.

The events that propelled him there took place in the town of Gillette, ninety minutes southeast of Sheridan. Situated in the stark center of Wyoming’s energy-rich but otherwise empty Powder River Basin, Gillette grew up around wildcat wells and coal mines—dry as a bone except in its saloons, prone to spontaneous combustion from the underground fires burning perpetually beneath it. Because its economy is tied to the energy industry, it is subject to an endless cycle of boom and bust, and to a ballooning population during the good years. The pattern of social problems that attend that kind of rapid population growth—increased crime, higher divorce rates, lower school attendance, more mental-health issues—has been known, since the nineteen-seventies, as Gillette Syndrome. Today, the town consists of three interstate exits’ worth of tract housing and fast food, surrounded by open-pit mines and pinned to the map by oil rigs. Signs on the highway warn about the fifty-mile-per-hour winds.

A couple of hundred Muslims live in northeastern Wyoming, and last fall some of them pooled their money to buy a one-story house at the end of Gillette’s Country Club Road, just outside a development called Country Club Estates, in one of the nicer neighborhoods in town. They placed a sign at the end of the driveway, laid prayer rugs on top of the wall-to-wall carpeting, and began meeting there for Friday worship—making it, in function if not in form, the third mosque in the state.

Most locals reacted to this development with indifference or neighborly interest, if they reacted at all. But a small number formed a group called Stop Islam in Gillette to protest the mosque; to them, the Muslims it served were unwelcome newcomers to Wyoming, at best a menace to the state’s cultural traditions and at worst incipient jihadis. When those protests darkened into threats, the local police got involved, as did the F.B.I.

Whatever their politics, many outsiders, on hearing about Stop Islam in Gillette, shared at least one of its sentiments: a measure of surprise that a Muslim community existed in such a remote corner of the country. Wyoming is geographically huge—you could fit all of New England inside it, then throw in Hawaii and Maryland for good measure—but it is the least populous state in the Union; under six hundred thousand people live there, fewer than in Louisville, Kentucky. Its Muslim population is correspondingly tiny—perhaps seven or eight hundred people.

Contrary to the claims of Stop Islam in Gillette, however, the Muslims who established the mosque are not new to the region. Together with some twenty per cent of all Muslims in Wyoming, they trace their presence back more than a hundred years, to 1909, when a young man named Zarif Khan immigrated to the American frontier. Born around 1887, Khan came from a little village called Bara, not far from the Khyber Pass, in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. His parents were poor, and the region was politically unstable. Khan’s childhood would have been marked by privation and conflict—if he had any childhood to speak of. Family legend has it that he was just twelve when he left.

What he did next nobody knows, but by September 3, 1907, he had got himself a thousand miles south, to Bombay, where he boarded a ship called the Peno. Eight weeks later, on October 28th, he arrived in Seattle. From there, he struck out for the interior, apparently living for a while in Deadwood, South Dakota, and the nearby towns of Lead and Spearfish before crossing the border into Wyoming. Once there, he settled in Sheridan, which is where he made a name for himself, literally: as Hot Tamale Louie—beloved Mexican-food vender, Afghan immigrant, and patriarch of Wyoming’s now besieged Muslim population.

When Khan arrived in Sheridan, he and Wyoming were roughly the same age—the man in his early twenties, the state nineteen. At the time, the idea that anyone at all would move to the region was a novelty. Although Native Americans had lived there for millennia, Europeans didn’t visit until at least 1743, and they didn’t linger. As late as 1870, scarcely nine thousand people lived in the entire territory. The coming of the railroad, which was supposed to solve that population problem, temporarily exacerbated it instead. “Hundreds of thousands of people had seen Wyoming from train windows,” the historian T. A. Larson wrote, “and were spreading the word that the territory looked like a barren wasteland.”

That was particularly true in northeastern Wyoming. The rest of the state could be daunting, with its successive mountain chains rising like crests on a flash-frozen ocean. But at least it had grandeur, and verdure. In the east, by contrast, you could travel five hundred miles and not see a tree. Precipitation was similarly scarce. The Homestead Act offered Western settlers a hundred and sixty acres—not enough, in that landscape, to keep five cows alive. In winter, the mercury could plunge to fifty degrees below zero. People froze to death in blizzards in May. Frontier Texas, the saying goes, was paradise for men and dogs, hell on women and horses. Frontier Wyoming was hell on everyone.

Perhaps because it so desperately needed people, Wyoming was, from the outset, unusually egalitarian. Beginning in 1869, women in the territory could vote, serve on juries, and, in some instances, enjoy a guarantee of equal pay for equal work—making it, Susan B. Anthony said, “the first place on God’s green earth which could consistently claim to be the land of the free.” Despite resistance from the U.S. Congress, Wyoming insisted on retaining those rights when petitioning for statehood; in 1890, when it became the forty-fourth state in the Union, it also became the first where women could vote. On the spot, it acquired its nickname: the Equality State.

At statehood, Sheridan was a tiny settlement, just across the line from Montana, just east of the Big Horns, and otherwise very far from much of anything. But two years later, following rumors of coal (true) and gold (overblown), the population began to boom. By 1909, when Khan arrived, around eight thousand people lived there and, on the evidence of the local business pages, the town had developed a kind of frontier-cosmopolitan chic. It had seventeen Blacksmiths, one Bicycle Dealer, and five purveyors of Buggies and Wagons. It had a Clairvoyant—one Mrs. Ellen Johnston—and a great many Coal Miners. Residents could go Bowling, or to the Opera House, or visit a Health Resort. They could get a Manicure from a Mrs. Rosella Wood, who was also available for Massages. They could read two different newspapers—one Republican, one Democratic. They could buy Grain and Guns and Horses, Books and Stationery and Coffee, Camping Outfits, Driving Gloves, Musical Instruments, and Talking Machines.

But perhaps the most striking entry in the Sheridan business directory was the one tucked in between “Tallow and Grease” and “Taxidermists”: “Tamales.” When Zarif Khan first began selling them, he shouldered a yoke with a bucket swinging from each end and walked to wherever he could find customers: outside the bank at lunch, outside the bars at closing time, down at the railroad depot when the trains came in. Business was good enough that he soon bought a pushcart. By 1914, the Sheridan Enterprise was referring to him, inaccurately but affectionately, as “the well-known Turkish tamale vendor.” (In fairness, nearly all references to Khan’s nationality were inaccurate, including his own. Although he identified as Afghan and official documents pertaining to his life reflect that, his natal village was ceded to British India before his birth, and today belongs to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.)

In 1915, or maybe the year after, Khan opened a restaurant—a hole-in-the-wall on Grinnell Avenue, around the corner from Main Street. The hand-painted lettering on the façade said “Louie’s,” and, forever afterward, that is what both Khan and his restaurant were called. It had a service window that opened onto the street for customers who wanted their food to go, and a counter lined with stools for those who preferred to eat inside. In addition to the tamales, Khan served hamburgers, chili, pie, and ice cream—any flavor except chocolate, which he avoided because it sullied the cuffs of the white button-down shirts he liked to wear to work.

For nomenclatural purposes, however, none of these other menu items mattered. To the town of Sheridan, Khan would always be Hot Tamale Louie, or Tamale Louie, or, because it sounded best, Louie Tamale. He could have served steak tartare and the name would have stuck. Purists insist that it was apt, because nothing Khan or anyone else ever served was as delicious as his tamales. He made them at home, from chickens he kept in the back yard and killed in halal fashion. Everett McGlothlin, who last tasted one of Louie’s tamales when he worked there as a high-school kid, in the nineteen-fifties, said, “I love tamales, and I still haven’t found anything that comes close.”

For another faction, however, it was Louie’s hamburgers that dazzled. Sixty years on, locals who hear someone talking about Khan will cross the room and interrupt the conversation to say that he made the greatest burgers in the history of burgerdom. Five generations of Sheridan residents ate them, and those who are still around go into a kind of blissed-out cholesterol-bomb reverie when attempting to describe them. Some claim that he used only bull meat, and rendered his own tallow to fry it in. Others say he cooked the burgers in chicken fat, or sizzled bay leaf into the grease, or mixed in hearts and tongues.

Whatever his secret, Khan was particular about how he served his hamburgers. Cheese was unheard of, and woe betide those who requested ketchup. A burger from Louie’s came plain, or, if you chose, with mustard, pickles, and onions. (Several former repeat customers, now in their seventies and eighties, pointed an imaginary knife at me and said, “You wan’ onions, keed?”) He sliced the pickles the long way, with a rapidity that mesmerized his customers. On a good day, he went through a hundred and fifty buns. On a really good day—when the rodeo came to town, say—he would fire up a second grill and bring on an extra high-school kid, and tour buses would pull up and order a hundred burgers at a time. By 1919, the restaurant was doing so well that Khan opened a Ladies Annex, “fitted with tables for the convenience of women,” as the Sheridan Post reported. The place was still a hole-in-the-wall—those tables numbered precisely three—but it was the most popular hole-in-the-wall in town.

It helped that it was always open. Seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, Khan began prepping at ten, opened the window at eleven, and served food until midnight or one or whenever the last of the bar crowd went home. It also helped that he would serve anyone. Sheridan in 1919 was still the kind of place where businesses posted signs saying “No Dogs or Indians Allowed,” but Native Americans were welcome at Louie’s. Some of them, in consequence, became strikingly loyal customers. Joe Medicine Crow, the scholar and Second World War hero, who died this past April, at a hundred and two, loved Khan’s burgers so much that, on his way home to Montana after the war, he hopped off the train during a thirty-minute stop in Sheridan and was still down at Louie’s eating when it pulled out again—much to the dismay of his mother, who had organized a town-wide celebration at his home station.

Kids were welcome at Louie’s, too, as were the women who worked at the nearby brothels and people who were too broke to buy a meal. Khan would hand out a tamale anyway, although the next time he saw you he might say, “Hi, Mr. Ten Cents,” and if by then you had a dime you’d pay him back. The only people he refused to serve were the drunk, the foulmouthed, and the brawling, whom he personally threw out on their ears. He was five feet six and weighed a hundred and twenty pounds, but nothing and no one intimidated him. For one thing, he had got himself all the way to Sheridan from the Khyber Pass. For another, he was the one holding the foot-long knife. Also, he had good aim with an onion.

Khan’s egalitarian attitude raised eyebrows among Sheridan’s snootier citizens. In the end, though, no one could stay away from the food, and so Louie’s gradually became its own little Equality State—an American kind of place, diverse and democratic, where the staff of the newspaper wolfed down post-deadline burgers elbow to elbow with society ladies, and schoolkids counted out their nickels next to stockbrokers ordering large. Meanwhile, Louie himself had gradually become American as well, and in 1925, after nearly twenty years in the United States, he decided to make it official. The town fathers, all of them Louie regulars, were happy to help; when Khan filed his naturalization petition, it was witnessed for him by the general counsel for the city of Sheridan and one of its former mayors.

The citizenship hearing was held on November 6, 1925. Because naturalization examiners showed up in Sheridan only once a year, the event was crowded with would-be Americans from around the county: seventeen from Poland, six from Austria, four from Czechoslovakia, two each from Greece, Scotland, Hungary, and Montenegro, one from Russia, one from Sweden, and one—Hot Tamale Louie, né Zarif Khan—from Afghanistan. On February 2, 1926, the paperwork came through, and Louie became a citizen. Five months after that, he received a subpoena from the U.S. Attorney for the district of Wyoming, ordering him to appear in court in the matter of the United States of America v. Zarif Khan.

The first naturalization law in the United States was passed in 1790, one year into George Washington’s first term as President. It established that only “free white persons” were eligible to become citizens, a constraint designed to exclude Native Americans and slaves. After the Civil War, that law was changed to extend eligibility to people of African descent. As a result, beginning in 1870, those petitioning for American citizenship had to be either black or white.

That left immigrants from Asian nations in the lurch—deliberately, as Congress soon made clear. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act prevented anyone born in China from becoming American. The Immigration Act of 1917 established an “Asiatic Barred Zone”: a region, encompassing dozens of countries, from the Middle East to Melanesia, whose native citizens could not be naturalized. In theory, such laws were plenty clear. In practice, however, Asians petitioning for citizenship simply contended that they were white. Whether that was true was a matter of heated dispute among ethnologists, anthropologists, political scientists, policymakers, and government officials around the nation.

The courts, brought in to clarify the issue, made a mess of it instead. In “White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race,” the Berkeley law professor Ian Haney López provides a tragicomic list of court rulings on racial identity, together with their legal rationales. Among those rulings: that Hawaiians are not white (based on scientific evidence); that Mexicans are not white (based on legal precedent); that Burmese are not white (based on common knowledge); that Japanese are not white (based on legal precedent); that people who are one-quarter Japanese are not white (based on legal precedent); that Syrians are white (based on scientific evidence); that Syrians are not white (based on common knowledge); that Arabs are white (based on common knowledge); that Arabs are not white (based on common knowledge); that Native Americans are not white (based on nothing).

That is the kind of wild inconsistency that eventually compels the Supreme Court to weigh in, and in 1922 it agreed to do so. Instead of resolving the muddle, however, the Court issued two rulings in under a year that made matters worse. In the first, Ozawa v. United States, a Japanese man brought up and educated in Berkeley argued that, for naturalization purposes, he was white. The Court acknowledged that Ozawa’s character was irreproachable, and also that he had a paler complexion than many people whose whiteness went uncontested. But it denied him citizenship, ruling that “the words ‘white person’ were meant to indicate only a person of what is popularly known as the Caucasian race.” A year later, the Court took up the case of Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian man who was, as the Justices reluctantly conceded, technically Caucasian. This time, however, the judges ruled that “white persons” was “synonymous with the word ‘Caucasian’ only as that word is popularly understood.”

Like Zarif Khan, Thind had already been naturalized; upon ruling against him, the Supreme Court stripped him of his citizenship. For most of U.S. history, that process, called denaturalization, was used to revoke citizenship that had been fraudulently obtained, or to remove from the ranks of Americans felons, traitors, and war criminals. The former Auschwitz guard Jakob Frank Denzinger was denaturalized, as was the anarchist Emma Goldman and the alleged Communist spy Solomon Adler. But, beginning in the early twentieth century, the Naturalization Bureau (later the Immigration and Naturalization Service) sought to denaturalize Asians who had been granted citizenship by courts that were either ignorant of current immigration law or deliberately defying it. According to the legal scholar Patrick Weil, this process was so far from systematic as to be scattershot. In effect, it came down to chance: an Asian citizen who’d had the good luck to find a lenient representative of the Naturalization Bureau then had the bad luck to be found by a strict one.

No one knows exactly how such a person found Zarif Khan. Perhaps he tried to obtain a passport, or perhaps he was summoned for jury duty, or perhaps someone read about his citizenship ceremony in the local papers and decided to tip off the authorities. Whatever happened, on August 12, 1926, U.S. Attorney Albert D. Walton—best known for helping to represent the federal government during the Teapot Dome scandal—filed a suit alleging that Khan’s naturalization was “illegally procured.”

Khan’s case arrived at a curious moment in immigration history. The year before, an Indian man from San Francisco named Vaishno Das Bagai had been stripped of his citizenship, as had his wife and children—a particularly dire development for a California resident, because, by state law, those ineligible for citizenship could not own property. Sometime later, Das Bagai told his family that he was going on a business trip, booked a hotel room in San Jose, and killed himself. In the note he left behind, he described his suicide as a political protest. “I came to America thinking, dreaming, and hoping to make this land my home,” he wrote. “But now they come to me and say, I am no longer an American Citizen. . . . Now what am I? What have I made of myself and my children?” Das Bagai addressed the note to the San Francisco Examiner, which published it.

Das Bagai’s death marked the beginning of a gradual shift in both public opinion and official policy on denaturalization. In 1927, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case against a naturalized Indian man, thereby sending a message to the lower courts to stop revoking citizenship on the basis of race. By then, it was clear that, as a practical matter, no good would come of judicial wrangling over whiteness, and also that attempting to maintain a white population through naturalization policy was a losing battle. Moreover, immigration laws were rapidly becoming ideologically untenable as well. At the start of the Second World War, the United States was the only developed nation other than Germany to explicitly restrict citizenship on the basis of race—a common ground that became increasingly uncomfortable as Nazi atrocities came to light. Midway through the war, Congress repealed the Chinese exclusion laws. Immediately afterward, it lifted all race-based citizenship requirements.

But all that came too late for Zarif Khan. His citizenship was challenged at a time when the courts had consistently held that whiteness was a requisite quality in a new American, and one that Afghans lacked. At some point, his cause must have seemed hopeless; when his case came to court, Khan did not contest it. On December 30, 1926, a judge declared him “forever restrained and enjoined from setting up or claiming any right, privilege, benefit, or advantage whatsoever” of U.S. citizenship. All told, Khan had enjoyed those rights for under a year. Then his naturalization was cancelled, and the form on file with the court was emended to read “member of the yellow race.” He was ordered to pay the cost of the lawsuit, plus tax.

If Khan was bitter about his loss of citizenship, he didn’t show it. He may never even have mentioned it; no one I talked to, including his children, knew that it had happened. Instead, he set his sights on that most American of goals: making money.

It began in the nineteen-twenties, with the wealthy men who settled into the stools at Louie’s and studied their newspapers. What’s so interesting in there? Khan wanted to know. They laughed at him, but they told him. He began buying the paper every day and asking whichever kid was working for him to take a break from peeling onions to read the business pages aloud. Khan couldn’t read or write English. He had no formal education to speak of. But he was frugal, focussed, patient, and, as it turned out, exceptionally good at picking stocks. The rumor around town was that he’d already made a million dollars by 1929.

Whatever his earnings were, they were wiped out in the Great Depression. But he still had the restaurant, and now he had experience. He began buying up stocks made cheap by the crash—General Motors, for instance, which was then trading at eight dollars a share and had hit ninety by 1960. Also General Electric, Standard Oil, Union Carbide, Northern Pacific Railway, B. F. Goodrich, International Telephone and Telegraph, and Texaco. He favored utilities, the energy industry, and mining companies. He bought thousands of shares in Lucky Friday, a silver and zinc mine in Idaho, for thirty cents each, and sat on them as they rose to thirty dollars.

In 1944, he hired a woman named Helen Ellis as a combination bookkeeper and all-purpose assistant. She worked for him for twenty years, doing everything from handling his correspondence to tying the strings on the ends of his tamales. When his finances got more complex, he hired an accountant—Bill Harrison, of the Presidential lineage—and Ellis began working exclusively in the restaurant. Khan himself kept working there, too. Very few people knew that he had any other source of income, and his day-to-day life betrayed no signs of improved financial circumstances. He still rented the same house on North Scott Street that he’d moved into in 1909. He still rented the same tiny restaurant space on Grinnell Avenue. He still walked everywhere, and he still worked eighty hours a week.

The only way Khan ever displayed his wealth was through his generosity, which had always been remarkable and eventually became legendary. In the nineteen-twenties, for instance, a country kid named Archie Nash began boarding in Sheridan so that he could attend high school there. In the long gaps between visits from his parents, when his money and his tolerance for loneliness ran out, Nash would go to Louie’s to soak up the company and gratefully accept free food. After graduation, he took a job at the Sheridan Press, and began buying a whole lot of meals at Louie’s. Eventually, he and a local woman fell in love; too poor to afford a wedding, they decided to elope. Nash told no one except Louie, who had only one question. As Nash’s daughter later told it: “You got ring for dat girl?” Nash did not. Louie opened his register, took out some cash, and told him to go buy one. That girl wore it for nearly forty years.

Stories like that abound. Khan knew everyone’s name, never failed to ask after sick children or aging parents, never forgot anyone on a birthday or Christmas. The hungry could count on him for meals, kids could count on him for jobs, overseas service members for money and gifts. Yet, as open as he was toward others, Khan was reserved about his own life, almost to the point of shyness. He was professionally close to Bill Harrison, Helen Ellis, and his lawyer, Henry Burgess. Beyond that, he had no known friends.

Perhaps for that reason, no one ever seems to have asked Khan many questions about himself. Any information that circulated about him was largely rumor and often wrong. He was from Greece; he was from Turkey; he was from Mongolia. He was Buddhist; he was Hindu. He had spent some time in Texas; he once owned a grapefruit farm in Arizona. But, of all the questions that went unasked, the most glaring omission was the obvious one: Why was an Afghan man named Zarif Khan making a small fortune plus a whole lot of Mexican food under the name Louie Tamale?

People floated theories, of course. Some thought that Khan, before arriving in the United States, had worked as a cook in Mexico, then gradually made his way north to Wyoming. Others claimed that he first arrived in San Francisco, where a Latino immigrant taught him to make tamales. In reality, Khan never went to Mexico and was not taught his trade by anyone from Latin America. Instead, in becoming Louie Tamale, Zarif Khan also became part of a curious piece of culinary, labor, and immigration history: an entire network of Afghan tamale venders who, from roughly 1900 to 1920, sold their wares on the streets of nearly every city in the West, from small-town Wyoming all the way up to Alaska.

Tamales are old, as food goes; they preceded Columbus, and possibly Christ. They originated in Mesoamerica, likely courtesy of the Maya, and were the carry-out food of their day, much prized by soldiers, hunters, and other hungry people on the go. By the time Europeans got to the New World, tamales could be found, at a minimum, in much of Central America and throughout Mexico. As late as 1884, however, they were sufficiently unfamiliar in the United States that the Associated Press felt compelled to refer to them thus: “A queer article of food, locally known as ‘tamales.’ ”

Ten years later, tamales were the nation’s hottest new food trend, the cronuts of fin-de-siècle America. According to Gustavo Arellano, the author of “Taco USA,” the craze began in 1892, when a San Francisco man named Robert H. Putnam started the California Chicken Tamale Company. Putnam took his culinary cue from the city’s popular Mexican tamale peddlers and his fashion cue from, apparently, pharmacists: the venders he hired wore white from head to toe, with the company’s brand emblazoned on their hats and their buckets—mobile chafing dishes, basically, with fire below, boiling water in the middle, and steamed tamales above. Putnam then took his tamales to Chicago, where they became the hit of the 1893 World’s Fair.

Like other forms of peddling, the tamale business required relatively little up-front money, which made it attractive to immigrants and the poor. In New York City, tamales were sold chiefly by Irish and Italians, while in the South and the Midwest most venders were African-American. But in the Rocky Mountain West the tamale trade was dominated by men from Afghanistan.

Specifically, it was dominated by men from Afghanistan with the surname Khan. (The men were generally unrelated; the name is extremely common.) In the first two decades of the twentieth century, tamale-selling Afghan Khans could be found in Deadwood and Fargo and Reno; in Seattle and Spokane and Wenatchee, Washington; in Butte, Montana, which boasted eighteen such tamale men by 1913, and all over the rest of the state as well—in Flathead, Fort Benton, Silver Bow, Anaconda, Havre, Great Falls, Red Lodge, Miles City, Chinook, Billings. Starting in 1908, you could buy tamales in Alaska from a Buhadin Khan, a Habib Khan, an M. Khan, and a guy called Tamale Joe, whose real name was likely also Khan.

Not every tamale vender in the West was from Afghanistan, of course, and not every Afghan vender sold tamales. A smaller but still significant group, for instance, sold chili, as Zarif Khan later did in his restaurant. (One such vender, Dollha Jaffa Khan, got his start with a pushcart in Seattle, in 1916, before opening a successful chili parlor there. Later, Jaffa Khan changed his name to Joseph Joffrey; his son Robert went on to found the Joffrey Ballet.) But it was the Afghan tamale venders who were so common as to become a stereotype—akin to Turkish coffee-shop owners, Syrian rug dealers, and Jewish pawnbrokers.

With that stereotype went another: that tamale sellers were constantly at one another’s throat. There was some truth to that, but the problem was not limited to Afghans. Throughout the country, for the duration of the culinary craze, headlines about “tamale wars” were comically abundant. “The hot tamale war which has been raging in this city for the past few weeks reached a climax last evening,” the Colorado Springs Weekly Gazette reported in 1895: gunfire had broken out between rival venders and a boy named Harry Risner was shot in the arm. In Montana, in 1901, a man named Joseph Marino was killed by Salvagora (Bull Dog) Demicilli over “a rivalry in the tamale business.” Among the Afghan venders, the worst of the tamale wars took place in Seattle, where the trade was dominated by a Khan with a mafioso reputation: mean, mendacious, scary as hell. Eventually, he was shot in the back, presumably by one of his fellow-peddlers, but, if the murder was meant to ease tensions in the tamale scene, it failed. Nearly a decade later, the Seattle Star was still reporting on “the vendetta of the hot tamale men.”

All of this sheds some light on why Zarif Khan ended up in Sheridan. No one there seemed to know about the Afghan tamale trade, but some people recalled hearing that Khan had been treated poorly by other South Asians when he first came to America, and headed for the hinterlands in search of a place with fewer immigrants—a report that comports with the climate in Seattle when Khan arrived. If you were him—new to the country, new to the tamale trade, by all accounts private and peaceable—you, too, might have gravitated toward small-town Wyoming.

Contrary to family legend, however, Khan did not show up in Sheridan alone with his yoke and pails and introduce the town to tamales. He had a predecessor: one Azed Khan, born in 1871 in the Afghan village of Behbudi. Azed was the town’s first tamale vender; when Zarif first appears in the Sheridan business directory, it is as his assistant. Over the next ten years, three more tamale salesmen and one chili peddler set up shop in Sheridan. All were named Khan, all lived in the same modest house on North Scott Street, and by 1923 all but Zarif were gone. By that time, tamales themselves were also on the way out. Between 1900 and 1916, sales fell from four million per year to just forty thousand, and the once omnipresent tamale vender began vanishing from city streets.

Among those who left the trade during this decline was a German-born Wyoming man named Louis Menge. In 1910, Menge placed an ad in the Sheridan Daily Enterprise: “Wanted: some one to learn hot tamale business.” After finding a successor, he moved with his wife and child to Montana to try his hand at farming. Two years later, a return visit to Wyoming found him in dismal straits: the work was brutal, good help was scarce, and drought was destroying his crops. The Sheridan Post, which reported the visit, reminded readers that they had known the struggling farmer in better days: “Mr. Menge is more familiarly known to Sheridan people as Hot Tamale Louie.”

These days, Mr. Menge is known to almost no one. His farm failed, his wife and child predeceased him, and he died alone at the Yellowstone County Poor Farm. Hot Tamale Louie, however, lived on. In time, the first man to hold that title was forgotten, along with all the other Khans who had come through Sheridan and the entire nationwide tamale craze. Soon enough, only Zarif Khan was remembered, because only Zarif Khan remained. As many immigrants can tell you, sometimes a story about leaving turns into a story about staying.


Fiona O (562)
Tuesday May 31, 2016, 9:45 pm
Quite interesting to me since I learned how difficult it is to make authentic tamales.

fly bird (26)
Tuesday May 31, 2016, 10:12 pm
A good one, Carrie!! I never made tamales in my life.


Maria Teresa Schollhorn (42)
Tuesday May 31, 2016, 10:42 pm
Very interesting article Carrie! Thanks for posting.

Joanne Dixon (37)
Tuesday May 31, 2016, 10:52 pm
I always think of Khan as being a Sikh name rather than a Muslim name - but of course people do convert, as who should know better than I. (Far too many Americans could not distinguish a Sikh from a Muslim anyway.) It is very uplifting that a good man can accomplish so much and do so much good - and really build something. But it's a letdown that someone who would be unworthy to tie his shoelaces can come along after his death and do his best to smear him, his entire heritage, and his entire family and culture - and tear down what he built.

Rose Becke (141)
Tuesday May 31, 2016, 10:53 pm
Amazing Thanks Carrie

Evelyn B (63)
Tuesday May 31, 2016, 11:00 pm
A fascinating read! Thanks, Carrie
*************************************************************** (The Green Star button is misbehaving!!)

The ring leader against the mosque really shows his colours with:
"Like the Khans, Colvin’s family has been in the West for a long time, though it represents a very different strain of the American character. “There’s been Colvins in Wyoming since the wagon-train days,” he told me. “My great-grandfather used to shoot Indians for the cavalry for five dollars a head.”"

Reminds me of another immigrant's pride (in another country) who boasts how his grandfather arrived with a bible in one hand and a gun in the other (leaving no hand for friendship, tolerance, co-existence with the indigenous people!!)

Who are the trouble makers? The Muslims ??????????????????????

"Over and over, we forget what being American means. The radical premise of our nation is that one people can be made from many, yet in each new generation we find reasons to limit who those “many” can be—to wall off access to America, literally or figuratively."
Whatever suits politically ...

Mandi T (367)
Tuesday May 31, 2016, 11:01 pm
Tamales are my hubby's fav thing. Tks the the article, very informative with lots of history.

Evelyn B (63)
Tuesday May 31, 2016, 11:19 pm
Joanne -
Khan as a title (meaning "Lord" or "King") may be used by people around the Sub-Continent & Asian steppes - it was a Mongol title. Remember Sher Khan in the Jungle Book - Tiger King?

It became a very common name in areas that were Mongol lands - particularly among Pushtu/Pakhtun tribes. (Afghanistan, Tribal Areas of Pakistan, NW Pakistan - Muslims)

When family names started to be required by civil administrations, titles were often commuted into family names - among Hindus &, to a lesser extent, Sikhs as well as by the Muslims. Similarly "Shah" (title with the same meaning in English) also became a common family name.

Singh is the very common (middle or family) Sikh name - originally a title meaning "lion" that came from the warrior castes of different religions, but the Sikh Guru Gobind Singh mandated it for all Sikh males

Eleonora Oldani (37)
Tuesday May 31, 2016, 11:44 pm

Thanks for a very interesting article and a great piece of (untold) history, Carrie!! And good to see you back in action ;-).

Evelyn - I have nothing to say anymore; you said it all in your two comments above.

Green Stars to the both of you as well as to Joanne: *********************************

Past Member (0)
Tuesday May 31, 2016, 11:44 pm
Interesting story+man Carrie! Never even had tomales in my life--i may just try some now.

Darren Woolsey (218)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 12:00 am
Lovely story, Carrie, and shared over social media.

Michael Carney (217)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 2:20 am
Very interesting!!

Past Member (0)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 2:45 am
Thank you Carrie, for this informative and uplifting post. Tamale time!!

Alan Lambert (91)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 4:08 am
Fascinating, noted

Sheryl G (359)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 5:40 am
Who the Khans are and where they came from and what they’re doing here is a long story, and a quintessentially American one. The history of immigrants is, to a huge extent, the history of this nation......

One story out of many millions of how the American saga is played out.......

Gloria p (304)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 6:12 am
Interesting. Thank you Carrie. I hope everything is going alright.

Sue L (73)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 6:57 am
What a fascinating story. Tales of immigrants are as unique as they are and they all add to our beautiful, wonderful melting pot.

Hugh Smith (112)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 7:29 am
Great story and very informative , thanks

David C (75)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 8:54 am
what a great story, fascinating! thank you very much for sharing

Nancy M (147)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 10:01 am
Wonderful story- I am SO GLAD! that you posted it, Carrie

Lona Goudswaard (66)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 10:28 am
Thanks for this interesting read, Carrie.

Angelika Kempter (96)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 10:33 am
A BIG THANK you Carrie

Terrie Williams (798)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 10:59 am
Great read. Thanks so much, Carrie. We are all Americans, why is that so difficult to understand or accept......

Gene Jacobson (288)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 12:16 pm
That was quite a read, Carrie. And as Dandelion pointed out, quintessentially American. I would think that going back far enough virtually all of us have a story something like that, though it would have to be very long ago indeed for Native Americans. I wondered though, as I read, if he practiced his religion and stopped work several times a day to use a prayer rug, how it is that no one ever connected him to Islam apart from the good for nothing racist, Colvin? Zarif Khan, to me is far more representative of America than is Colvin. At least until this millennium. We have regressed in our appreciation of our diversity this millennium. There are reasons for that, there always are, but they are not good enough at all, we have lost much as we separate into homogeneous groups hating all who are not exactly as we are. Fear is not a healthy way to feed a country's collective soul. Yet, fear is all one of our political parties has to sell these days. Too bad, we were better when a future shared was our objective. I hope, one day, it will be so again.

Jae A (316)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 12:28 pm
Well stated Gene !

Great read Carrie...thanks for the sharing.

Knud Thirup (53)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 1:23 pm
II cant understand your problems(the same as Nazi -Germany have with the judes)
Signed and noted.

Darren Woolsey (218)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 2:26 pm
The problem can be simplified thus: a contest of egoism and territorial control, always resulting in bloodshed.

Eleonora Oldani (37)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 3:07 pm
Darren - you summed it up in a nutshell!! Can't send you more GS ... so here re some more: ****************

Katie & Bill D (107)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 3:32 pm
What a great story, good reading.
thank you Carrie

Trish K (29)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 3:51 pm
So what does American mean. Born here ? Unless we are native we immigrated from somewhere. I am all of the above.
A good old American Mutt

LaurenBackSoon Kozen (173)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 4:12 pm
Very Interesting article.
Noted & Shared. Thanks Carrie.

Lois Jordan (63)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 4:27 pm
Noted. Thank you, Carrie.

I was going to read this later, but started and was so fascinated I couldn't stop until I finished. Joanne & Evelyn stated it very well above. But, I think Gene's comment referring to that fact that "we have regressed in our appreciation of our diversity this millennium" is the bottom line for me.
In elementary school in the '60's we were taught about "the great melting pot that is America." We took pride in that. Things have really flipped since then, though, much to my own dismay. Tolerance has become intolerance, and too many people seem to be almost proud of that.

It is obvious to me that the turn happened during the most recent Bush administration after 9/11. And, although much good has come from the new 'social media,' I think the flip side of that is helping angry people find other angry people.

When our government did not catch 9/11 prior to its' happening, it allowed people to point fingers everywhere but where they really should have been pointed---the government. The "tough-talking, loud-mouthed, "shoot-'em-up-Cowboy" aggressive-to-the-point-of-stupid-attitude displayed by Bush himself really fueled the anger and made it seem appropriate. Then there was the torture, rendition and Gitmo---sanctioned by our own government.
And, the anger continued after the Bankster Bailout of 2008 and all the job losses created under the Bush admin. The media allowed people to point fingers at everyone and everything EXCEPT where they really should have been pointed. The politicians and wealthiest who profited didn't want fingers pointed at them, with the potential for angry mobs to target them. So, all that simmered just underneath the surface was allowed to explode with the horrible racism and also the misogyny that we now have.
Like Gene, I really hope we can turn this around and rid ourselves of this overbearing and militaristic, divisive and dangerous attitude. Because I truly fear what will happen if we don't.

Janet B (0)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 4:40 pm

Eleonora Oldani (37)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 4:49 pm

Excellent comment, Lois, and very much to the point; you said it all! Can't send you more GS at the moment so here are some more: ********************

Phyllis P (232)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 5:34 pm
I've bookmarked for a later read, but forgive my stupidity, but isn't there a Khan, or Kahn meat product?

Evelyn Z (300)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 7:58 pm
Thanks Carrie. Great & Interesting read.

Roger G (148)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 8:51 pm
noted, thanks

Edith B (146)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 8:59 pm
This was well worth the read. I didn't know that Wyoming was the Equality State, nor that women could vote there so early. Khan's story is one that needs to be shared far and wide, and I have. Too bad we don't have the same mentality now as Sheridan did then.

Carrie B (306)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 9:01 pm
Wyoming isn't the 'Equality State" anymore ~ that's for sure!

Evelyn B (63)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 10:26 pm
Gene & Lois - one GS isn't enough! you merit a cascade for your comments!

Economic crises bring out the worst in society - the "other", being different, is feared - and blamed for all the troubles. And now, crises are global so fear spreads globally (as you say, the social media allow the angry & fearful to get together with others who share their particular fears, which stokes up more hate & "justifies" intolerance of "the other"). This fascinating story shows how intolerance is a growing sickness, the vectors are changing but the disease is reaching pandemic levels.

Will humankind ever reach a point where reaction to difference is systematically to recognise the richness that differences can bring when one can welcome and "rub along" with them?

Colleen L (3)
Wednesday June 1, 2016, 11:38 pm
Interesting. Thanks Carrie

Arild Warud (174)
Thursday June 2, 2016, 5:48 am
Thanks Carrie.

Winn A (179)
Thursday June 2, 2016, 11:29 am
Thanks Carrie

Beth M (138)
Thursday June 2, 2016, 1:30 pm
Wonderful story- education. Why must some Americans be so scared of someone who is different from them? It is what has made America a great place to live. We don't need to make it great again. It never stopped.

Barbara Tomlinson (431)
Thursday June 2, 2016, 2:01 pm
I thot, "What a silly article this is going to be! Tamales! some pop-culture 'humor' piece I guess!"
Then I started reading and I COULDN'T STOP! Like some others here - FASCINATING is too mild a word!
VERY well-researched article on little-known history - I'm from SEATTLE and I would never have known of this CONNECTION with this story! EVERYTHING is connected, WE ALL are connected.... we SHARE a COMMON History, one story impacts EVERYONE'S story...
This was just a GEM, it made my day, for sure!!!!!
A whole bucketful of Greenstars, is deserved!!!

Carrie B (306)
Thursday June 2, 2016, 2:25 pm
I have to admit that I posted this article not only because of its relevance, but because I like many of you, could not stop reading. I wanted to know this man and eat his tamales. What a wonderful account of what our country should be!

Anne F (17)
Thursday June 2, 2016, 4:49 pm
Excellent story from a great magazine. Thanks.

Janis K (129)
Thursday June 2, 2016, 6:14 pm
Thanks for sharing

Darren Woolsey (218)
Friday June 3, 2016, 12:45 am
Evelyn, economics, politics (closely intertwined of course) and religion are the 3 most emotive subjects that trigger human action and reaction in often corrosive ways.

In terms of difference, it's worth bearing in mind that Adolf Hitler wanted a perfect race, and his Third Reich decimated the Jewish population because of a hatred and jealously. Yet, Hitler had the worst haircut and moustache in history, closely followed by the deranged psychopath Kim Jong-Un.

Had Hitler wanted to carry through his idea perfect race ideal, he would have had to have publicly killed himself and most of his own Third Reich minions, given in appearance, they didn't represent anything like looking anything to be aspired.

Human egoism, without one's own innate essential potential, has a lust for power and control, over anyone, and anything. There are HUGE lessons to be learned, and this gets routinely bypassed and forgotten whilst current power-possessors seek to control and gain materiality with land, resources and people's wills.

Evelyn B (63)
Friday June 3, 2016, 1:29 am
Darren - when it comes to bad haircuts, you might want to add another .... :>)

But yes, I agree - and would add to "current power-possessors seek to control and gain materiality with land, resources and people's wills" - and they sell these values to the masses as the most desirable ones, the hallmarks of "success". Thus, they strengthen their control.

Unlike Mr Khan, who quietly supported those in need (applying the values & principles of his religious up-bringing .. which are very close to those of Christian values), matched his services to his community's interests ... and didn't seek to control them

Darren Woolsey (218)
Friday June 3, 2016, 1:41 am
Yes, agreed.

It's worth bearing in mind, that one or two charismatic personalities can sell garbage to anyone, if they market it well enough - picture used car salesmen, which is what Trump reminds me of now - but more importantly, they RELY on mass following, through suggestibility and hysteria - create the fear within someone that they're going to lose their livelihood, their job, their house, etc., and they will immediately magnetize someone's attention more.

What we'd got on our hands with the current BREXIT and U.S Election circus are variations of both the above in operation, fueled by right-wing media manipulating people's emotions.

Darren Woolsey (218)
Friday June 3, 2016, 1:46 am
As you rightly say, Mr. Khan represents that old-style gentle affirmation of caring and cultivation in the community, that has been very slowly and IS being very slowly eroded by the march of Corporate Capitalism.

Evelyn B (63)
Friday June 3, 2016, 2:06 am
*************************************************************** Darren!

Farah H (154)
Wednesday June 8, 2016, 11:24 am
noted, thank you for sharing

Jonathan Harper (0)
Saturday June 11, 2016, 10:04 am
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