America’s Contribution to Mexican Cuisine

Being raised in Texas I’m no stranger to Mexican food, as it’s readily available in just about every town and community, large or small, in the Lone Star state. From school cafeterias to mom and pop cafes, to regional chain restaurants and fast food joints, to food trucks and street carts, the abundance and variety of this popular cuisine is practically endless. From a very early age, my love for these spicy, earthy foods was as pronounced as that for the southern country favorites prepared by my mom.

During my time as a traveling chef for an international senior living company, one of my favorite on-the-road snack food was chimichangas—easy to eat while driving, not too messy, and a nice change from fast food burgers. Like many people, if not most, I always associated this deep-fried burrito as just another Americanized Mexican dish. Then while visiting one of my Arizona communities I was surprised to discover that the chimichanga is actually a hometown invention.

That’s right, the chimichanga is said to have been created not in Mexico but right there in Phoenix, Arizona U.S.A. . . . or, maybe it was Tucson. Then there’s the theory that Chinese immigrants from Baja are actually responsible for their existence. And like so many of our foods in America, exactly where and who invented the chimichanga is totally dependent upon which of these legends you choose to believe.

Legend 1 – Macayo’s Mexican Restaurant

According to family members, in 1946 Woody Johnson was looking for a way to extend the life of some unsold burritos at his first restaurant, El Nido, so he tossed a couple of them into the deep fryer. Wanting an opinion as to the success of this experiment, he gave one of the resulting crispy, golden brown burritos to a customer who immediately proclaimed it so good that he placed an order for the new item. When Johnson opened Macayo’s in 1952 his “fried burro” was prominently included at the top of his menu.

Today, the 14 Macayo’s in Arizona and four in Las Vegas are famous for their many varieties of the original chimichanga. And to celebrate this long-standing chimichanga legend, Macayo’s holds an annual “Chimi-Fiesta,” during which a dollar is donated to the Diamondbacks Foundation for each and every chimichanga sold.

Legend 2 – The El Charro story

As the story is told, in 1922 Monica Flin founded a small Mexican cafe called El Charro on North Court Avenue in Tucson, Arizona. One morning in 1951while preparing bean burritos for dinner service, Flin accidentally dropped one into the deep fryer. Her first reaction was to yell out chingada, a Spanish explicative cognate to the f-word, but because children were in the area, she called out “chimichanga” instead. When she fished out the burrito it turned out to be crispy and delicious, and a new dish was born.

Today El Charro, with five Tucson locations and a USDA-certified food factory, has the honor of being America’s oldest Mexican restaurant continuously owned by the original founder’s family.

Legend 3 – Enter the Chinese

This story comes by the way of Professor Francisco Paz, a geology instructor at the Universidad de Sonora. According to the Professor, chimichangas (or chivichangas as known in that state) were the results of the Mexican wives of Chinese workers trying to recreate Chinese food—namely egg rolls.

This legend becomes a bit more plausible when one considers that the word chimichanga has absolutely no roots in the Spanish language. However the Cantonese phrase “Gee May’s chun geen” (Gee May likely being the name of a food vendor and chun geen, Cantonese for egg roll) when said slowly certainly sounds roughly similar to Chimichangas, especially to the Mexican peoples ear and their tendency toward elision.

Without a doubt these are’t the only players laying claim to having invented the chimichanga. Others include Club 21, Mia Ranchito, and Micha’s, all in Phoenix. And then there are the claimers in Nogales, just across the Sonora-Arizona border—The Chimi Chango bar and La Frontera Restaurant.  But the three most legendary claims are those described above.

So the next time your travels take you to Phoenix or Tucson we hope you’ll have an opportunity to visit one of these restaurants and enjoy a plate of the crispiest, tastiest chimichangas ever to pass between your lips.

And for those unable to make the trip to Arizona, you can take pleasure in knowing that those chimichangas you’re eating just might be as American as baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie.

Shepherd’s Pie: Winter’s Quintessential Comfort Food

There’s probably no other dish more homey and comforting on a cold winter’s night than a well-made Shepherd’s pie. The origin of this simple and hearty casserole is somewhat obscure, if not downright confusing, with many historians laying its creation to the English. Then there are those who bestow the honor upon the Irish, and even others who say it was the Scots. But on what it seems they all agree: shepherd’s pie came about in the late 1700s as a way for frugal peasant housewives to use their leftover lamb, mutton, and other meats.

The first Shepard’s pies were likely made with pastry crust since the potato, while brought to Europe in the late 16th century, was first looked upon with suspect, charged with everything from leprosy to syphilis, to sterility, and even death. But the potato’s acceptance grew steadily, albeit slowly, and by the early 1800s had become commonplace throughout the continent.

Actually the term Shepherd’s Pie wasn’t coined until the mid-1800s, technically referring to the dish being made with minced lamb or mutton, while a similar dish made with minced beef called Cottage Pie (so named because the peasants who invented it lived in cottages) appeared almost eighty years earlier. Over time however, the distinction between the two was lost and “Shepard’s” pie became synonymous with both, regardless of the protein used in its preparation. This is evidenced by the following recipe from the 5th edition of The Practice of Cookery and Pastry, a book by Mrs. I. Williamson, “teacher of those arts” and “authoress,” printed in Edinburgh, England in 1854.  

“Take cold dressed meat of any kind, roast or boiled, slice it, break the bones, and put them on with a little boiling water, and a little salt, boil them until you have extracted al the strength from them, and reduce ti to very little, and strain it. Season the sliced et with pepper and salt lay it in a baking dish, you in the sauce you strained, and add a little mushroom ketchup. Have some potatoes boiled and nicely mashed, cover the dish with the potatoes, smooth it on the top with a knife, notch it round the edge and mark it on the top the same as paste. Bake it in an oven or before the fire, until the potatoes are a nice brown.”

As the British, Irish, and Scott’s migrated to the United States, they brought with them their love for this dish. In fact, so popular was shepherd’s pie with these early colonists that the recipe was included in one of America’s premier cookbooks: the 1886 edition of Mrs. Rorer’s Philadelphia Cook Book (Arnold and Company) written by food writer and America’s first dietitian, Sarah Tyson Rorer.

Here in the States, shepherd’s pie has, for some unexplainable reason other than perhaps Ireland having some claim on its origin, become synonymous with St. Patrick’s Day. in the Jewish community where, in addition to occasionally being served on Shabbat, it has become a favored Passover meal.

Variations of this delicious casserole includes the use of leftover Christmas turkey and ham, making it St. Stephen’s Day Pie. Or if you top the potato crust with breadcrumbs and cheese, it becomes Cumberland Pie. There’s a vegetarian version of this popular dish referred to by many simply as Shepherdess Pie or Gardeners Pie.  Finally, there’s a modern version that calls for a tater-tots topping instead of mashed potatoes, known merely as Tater Tot Casserole

Other cultures have their versions of mashed potato topped casseroles, too. The British mariners have fish pie, made with various kinds of seafood in place of meat. The French-Canadian version, pâté chinois, has a filling made with ground beef and canned corn. Spanish-speaking South American countries call theirs pastel de papa; prepared with layers of chopped hard-boiled eggs, back olives, and raisins. The Indonesians make their version with chicken, called pastel tutup, to name just a few.

So now that you know a little of the history behind Shepherd’s pie, we hope you’ll give our recipe a try. And whether you use beef, lamb, or chicken, top it with mashed potatoes, pastry crust, or tater tots, load your filling with plenty of root vegetables, celery, and peas for a delicious, satisfying one-pot cold weather meal . . . or anytime for that matter.