Hot Tamale Louie

“He was the son of nobody knows who, …and the great-great-grandson of nobody knows who.” That’s how Kathryn Schulz described Zarif Khan in her New Yorker article, Citizen Khan.

To folks in Sheridan, Zarif was Hot Tamale Louie. He was a man known for burgers and tamales at his hole-in-the-wall restaurant. You know his food was delicious. Everyone still talks about it.

But how does a man who owned a tiny restaurant years ago in Sheridan get a write up in the New Yorker? And why in the world did a group spearhead an effort to create a sculpture of him?

It takes a bit of explaining.

Welcome to Sheridan

Born in Afghanistan around 1887, you can bet Zarif had near-to-nothing in hand and spoke little English when he arrived in Sheridan in 1909. Back in those days, someone who wasn’t white wasn’t always welcome. But the people of Sheridan accepted Tamale Louie.

Maybe it was because he was such an amazing cook. Maybe it was because he was a kind man. Or maybe they decided that welcoming him was the right thing to do.

Wyoming is a tight-knit community. You help out your neighbors and welcome new-comers. You do it because you want to. You like people to feel at home. But you also do it because that’s the Wyoming way.

If you talk to Dana Arbaugh, retired Lt. Col. of the US Air Force, and the person who first dreamed up the idea of a sculpture of Tamale Louie, he’ll tell you it’s the American way.

A Self-Made Man

“Louie’s story is quintessential rags to riches, self-made individual.” Dana says. “With dedication, he was able to build his life.”

Zarif was a hard worker. According to Citizen Khan, he devoted himself to his restaurant, working long days and making sure it was open every day. He also learned about investing and eventually made a small fortune.

All the while, Zarif’s family grew. He married, had kids and time passed. Tamale Louie went about doing what he always did as a community member in Sheridan, Wyoming.

Eventually, Zarif became a naturalized citizen. This was not without trial though. As the New Yorker article points out, he was initially stripped of citizenship because he was not a “white person.”

Zarif never protested or complained. He simply continued to work his restaurant and make investments.

Then, in 1964, on a trip to visit family in Bara, Afghanistan, Zarif was murdered. According to Citizen Khan, his great grandnephew, who had made some bad choices, was angry Zarif wouldn’t share his money. He killed him.

Zarif’s family and the town of Sheridan mourned.

Tamale Louie Leaves a Legacy

Stories of Tamale Louie were shared after his death. But like so many things, they began to fade with time. Until an unfortunate event a few years ago.

In 2015 descendants of Zarif Khan helped open a mosque in Gillette.  A small group protested the mosque. According to the Citizen Khan article, lewd language and threats erupted. They were aimed most pointedly at the Khans, a family who had called Wyoming home for over 100 years.

A Tribute

The variety of faces that make up Wyoming’s landscape are as important to building community today as they were in 1909. That’s why Dana and a group of folks in Sheridan rallied for the sculpture.

“Anyone who has empathy or believes in the pillars of our country can relate to Zarif’s story,” says Dana. “The statue is not just to honor Louie, it’s honoring all of his family. A big part of his contribution to community are his descendants. His family.”

People were eager to raise funds for the sculpture and approached the Wyoming Community Foundation for help. Because of support from you, the Wyoming Community Foundation has the capacity to help with all sorts of projects.

The sculpture was unveiled on April 28th. It is a beautiful piece of Wyoming history, and a reminder that the faces of Wyoming’s past and present are colorful.

The people who rallied behind the making of this sculpture know hate is not the Wyoming way. As our ethnic population grows, we’ll continue to welcome newcomers. Because that’s the Wyoming way. Tamale Louie’s sculpture will remind us of that.