#ThisWeekInWYHistory: Hot Tamale Louie

A statue dedicated to Tamale Louie was unveiled.

In 2015, when a mosque opened in Gillette, many people were surprised that Wyoming had a Muslim population at all. Some were angry. As a result, Wyoming, and the nation, came to respect and honor the all-American legacy of Sheridan resident Zarif Khan, known as “Hot Tamale Louie,” whose descendants have called Wyoming home for over 100 years.

Anger directed toward the idea of a mosque in Wyoming came primarily from a group called Stop Islam in Gillette, founded by Wyoming native Bret Colvin, who made threats against those who organized and funded the mosque, including members of the Khan family. The FBI eventually got involved and, in the end, the mosque opened without incident.

The controversy got the attention of national news media, and a 2016 New Yorker article titled “Citizen Khan” explored the story in depth.

Born in Afghanistan around 1887, Zarif arrived in Sheridan in 1909. By every account, the people of Sheridan welcomed and accepted Tamale Louie.

Zarif opened a restaurant featuring cheap tamales and hamburgers and worked hard keeping his restaurant open every day. He had a reputation as an honest, fair man who welcomed everyone and only refused service to brawlers and drunks. He was known to give those down on their luck food on credit.

Zarif married, had kids, and became a fixture of the Sheridan community. He also learned about investing and eventually made a small fortune (though no one knew about it until they read his will). Eventually, Zarif became a naturalized citizen, against all odds. According to the New Yorker article, he was initially stripped of citizenship because he was not a “white person.”

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In 1964, on a trip to visit family in Bara, Afghanistan, Zarif was murdered by his great grandnephew, who was angry Zarif wouldn’t share his money.

Zarif’s family and the town of Sheridan mourned.

Time passed, memories faded, and now the Khan family numbers in the hundreds living all around the Rocky Mountain region.

After the events surrounding the Gillette mosque, Dana Arbaugh, retired Lt. Col. of the U.S. Air Force, was inspired to honor Khan with a statue placed in Sheridan’s Grinnell Plaza adjacent to where “Hot Tamale Louie” once served food. Others were eager to raise funds for the sculpture and approached the Wyoming Community Foundation for help.

“Louie’s story is quintessential rags to riches, self-made individual,”Arbaugh told the Wyoming Community Foundation in an interview. “With dedication, he was able to build his life.”

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The sculpture was unveiled to a crowd, including many of Khan’s descendants, on April 28, 2018. His grandson Bhadshah Khan played “My Country ’tis of Thee” on the saxophone to begin the program.

“Anyone who has empathy or believes in the pillars of our country can relate to Zarif’s story,” Arbaugh said. “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.”

It wasn’t just locals who were inspired by Khan’s story. Professor John Rapson of the University of Iowa School of Music’s Jazz Studies Program read the New Yorker article and developed a multimedia performance piece titled, “Hot Tamale Louie: The Story of Zarif Khan, a tale told through Jazz.”

A series of performances will be presented throughout Wyoming this week.

The first performance will be held April 10 in Gillette at the Cam-Plex at 7:30 p.m.