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Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: The Original Navajo Taco

Scott Thybony

People have been arguing about who invented the Navajo taco for as long as I can remember. While living on the rez, I herded sheep for a Navajo couple. Once every three weeks I drove into town to take a shower, and on the way stopped in Tuba City at the Nava-Hopi Kitchen.

The little caféwith a big, dirt parking lot claimed to be the home of the Navajo taco. That’s what I would order. A meal in itself, the golden-brown piece of deep-fried bread came piled high with beans, shredded lettuce, grated cheese, chopped tomatoes, and green chilies. It was a blending of tastes with the core ingredients coming from the Four Corners region. The flour was milled in Cortez, Colorado, and the beans were grown in nearby Dove Creek.

The bread had a flat shape, not folded in a wedge like a taco. But no one cared much about the accuracy of the name since it was good eating. Over time the Navajo taco has kept growing in size to where it’s now almost as big as a full moon hubcap. I don’t remember ever finishing one.

A tribal-owned restaurant in Window Rock also claimed to have invented the original frybread taco and had a stronger case. Dates and circumstances vary in the telling, but it seems the manager of the Navajo Lodge, a Greek immigrant, came up with the idea by chance around 1963. He placed it on the menu, and before long they were serving 75 of them a day.

Some accounts trace the traditional style frybread, a key ingredient of the Navajo taco, to the Long Walk. In 1864, during a time of great suffering, the United States military began rounding up thousands of Navajo and driving them into captivity. The soldiers issued wheat flour to the starving people, and they had to find a simple way to cook it. By then, wheat tortillas had been a staple of New Mexican cuisine for generations of Hispanic settlers and Pueblo Indians. It’s likely many Navajo were already familiar with them.

For me, the real Navajo taco traces back to the outlying sheep camps and ranches. The Navajos I lived with made something resembling a taco without giving it much thought. The grandmother would mix Bluebird flour with water, lard, and salt in an enamel bowl. Taking a ball of dough she would work it and keep working it, using as much time as needed until it was as pliable as putty. Then she would spread her fingers wide to stretch the dough before placing it on the stove in an ungreased skillet. She never deep-fried her bread, having a dislike of greasy foods. They now call the traditional style “drybread,” instead of frybread, and it remains my favorite. When one side was done, she grabbed the edge with a thumb and finger, flipping it over once. A minute later it was ready to eat and went on the stack.

Drybread was used as a plate to hold whatever leftovers were lying around. Fold it in two, and it became a taco. Or tear off a wedge-shaped piece, fold in the pointed end, and it became an edible spoon. Nobody claimed to have invented a new dish, they were just making use of what they had.

The Navajo taco served in restaurants might not be a true taco. But by the strange alchemy of landscape and culture, it has become a regional icon, an indigenous food representing Indian country.