What is a Navajo taco?

 

The sign at Ambassador Auto's used-car lot in Moscow, Idaho, is advertising a 1993 Mazda Navaho (sic) in stock for $18,487. Seems like a lot of cash, but then I remember the glossy magazine ads: "Navajo: It knows the land." Just down the street, Taco Time has launched their new "Navajo Taco," for only 99 cents. Now that I can afford.

But just what is a Navajo taco? What is it about this food that makes it distinctly Navajo? Is this like Mormon bread, Swedish meatballs or Jewish rye? Is this a culinary flashpoint in politically correct dining? Maybe Idaho isn't so conservative after all. Maybe the state is promoting diversity. Maybe pigs fly.

Because I want to learn more about different cultures, and I have a journalism degree, I contact both the Moscow and Pullman, Wash., Taco Time restaurants to find out.

I call Moscow first. "Hello, Taco Time!'" Young female voice. Sounds familiar. Talks fast. I actually smell perfume and see a brand sold at Wal-Mart, like Lady Angus.

"Yes, what is a Navajo taco?"

"OK. It's on like a deep-fried scone, and we put beans (in it), and we used to use chili, but now we use like beef, and sour cream and cheese. It's really big." Did she mean to say like beef?

"But why is it called a Navajo taco?"

I detect a giant sigh. She is exasperated. Why doesn't this guy get it? I hear the distant metallic buzz of people in cars ordering into a box: "Does the soft taco come with Mexi-fries?"

"OK. It's like a Mexican-Indian dish? I guess it's from like Texas and Nevada?"

Pause. Deep breath. "Oh, I see ... "

"It's like Navajo bread, and they used to put a lot of stuff in it?" Although her geographic sense of history is weak, she is doing her marketing job well. She will survive downsizing.

"Thanks."

"Thank you!'

My next phone call is to Pullman.

"Taco Time." Male voice, young, without much enthusiasm. His voice says, "This is Spring Break and I'm not in Florida."

"Yes, could you tell me what a Navajo taco is?"

"Sure, well, it's Indian fry bread with sour cream, cheese, onions, lettuce, meat inside."

"What makes it a Navajo taco?"

"Well, they were called ... See, it's an Indian version of a taco. I have some friends over in Puyallup and they say they have something like this there, although things are different over there."

"Sounds good," I lie. "Thanks."

"You bet."

In just two phone calls I have traced this ethnic food from Puyallup, Wash., to Nevada and Texas. I'm still confused.

So I call Steve Bunch, assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice for the Navajo Nation - in Arizona. I ask him if the Navajo government has given permission for the use of their name on cars and tacos. He said he knew about Mazda, but not about Taco Time. Neither have the tribe's consent, he says, nor does the trucking company Navajo Freight, an offender that has used the name for 20 or 30 years.

"As a child I remember the Navajo Freight trucks. I didn't think much about it then, but now I am more attuned to those issues. I don't know where their headquarters are, but there sure are a lot of their trucks on Interstate 40," he says.

He didn't know what the Navajo Nation would do about Mazda or Taco Time. A group in Dallas about to launch "Navajo Jeans" has approached Bunch's office recently, a gesture Bunch says "the people from the Navajo government appreciate."

We move on to the real reason I called. I ask him The Question.

Bunch says there actually is a Navajo taco made locally using fry bread as a base for a variety of meat and beans. But it's open-faced, he says, "like a tostada."

I tell him how the word Navajo is misspelled at the used car lot in Moscow. He says that's not uncommon. "Of course, neither spelling is correct. That's the name the Spanish gave us."

Stephen Lyons writes in Pullman, Washington.

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