The Swiss tacos were born 71 years ago in Little Water, N. M. Or rather, Elva Henderson was.
Her journey to Midway was far from ordinary. Raised by her Navajo grandparents, Elva spent her early childhood herding sheep on the reservation. In the ninth grade she followed her two younger sisters to what she calls an Indian boarding school in Ignacio, Colo.— a place where she was taught not only academics, but also the life skills required for life off the reservation. Her sisters returned home shortly after Elva arrived at the school, leaving her alone and far from home — a young Navajo in a school full of Ute Indians.
After graduating high school, Elva made her way back home and landed in a Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Shiprock, N.M. She wanted to join the Air Force, but a bad hip precluded her from service. Instead, she was given a $20 one-way bus ticket to west Los Angeles.
“For me, it was the reservation to the big city,” she laughs, as she describes the culture shock of LA in the 1960s.
Elva went on to become a nurse at the University of Southern California Medical Center, or the “General Hospital” as she affectionately calls it. While working at USC, she met an Apache Marine through a friend and co-worker, and in 1969 her daughter Veda was born. Elva was 23.
A few years later, her bad hip required surgery and a long recovery — an ordeal that made it impossible for her to walk, let alone care for a toddler by herself. Elva’s local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ward stepped in and placed Veda with a temporary foster family in Midway, of all places.
After a couple of months of recovery, Elva was back on her feet and Veda returned to California. Though she had been very young at the time, Veda treasured her time with her foster family and carried with her fond memories of the valley that had quickly felt like home.
In 1977, Elva and Veda reconnected with their Utah foster family and moved into a house on Main Street in Midway — the same home they live in today.
Swiss Days Service
Like most Heber Valley residents in those days, the Hendersons attended Swiss Days every year. Wanting to contribute — and with no foresight of what was to come — Elva went to the bishop of her local ward to offer a service that was both a natural extension of herself and unique to her heritage.
“I said, Bishop Kohler, we should have Navajo tacos at Swiss Days,” Elva recalls. “And he says, ‘What is Navajo tacos?’” she mimics with a laugh.
After she explained, Bishop Kohler asked her to make her Navajo tacos for the entire Swiss Days Committee. “So, I made a taco for everybody,” she explains. “I made a lot. A lot.”
Stuffed with chili con carnes, diced tomato, onion and shredded lettuce, and topped with mild picante salsa and shredded cheese, Elva’s Navajo fry bread is what made these tacos so special. Not exactly a secret recipe, the fry bread is simply a mix of flour, baking powder, salt and lukewarm water. “You just make it by hand, like tortillas,” she says, making the process sound easy.
The only problem? Elva was — and still is — the only one who knew how to make the dough. “‘Oh, my gosh,’ I thought to myself,” she laments all these years later. “‘What did I do?’”
Navajo Tacos Go Swiss
As Swiss Days drew close, Bishop Kohler delivered bags and bags of flour to Elva and Veda’s front door. For two days straight, Elva made bucket upon bucked of dough and an army of volunteers took the buckets to where the bread was to be fried on-site.
Elva showed the volunteers how to make the bread: roll the dough into a ball, pat it out to about the size of a paper plate — don’t make it too thick — and poke a hole in the middle. Once formed by hand, the dough is then dropped into oil until it is golden brown on each side.
The Navajo tacos were an instant hit; year after year the tacos only grew in popularity. “Lines started showing up,” Veda says. “People lining up wanting to have this Navajo taco.”
To try to keep up with the growing demand, Elva’s operation was moved to the town hall kitchen where there was an industrial mixer. She had to share the mixer, however, with Beverly Prince, who was in charge of making the scone dough. They would alternate turns, mixing one batch of scone dough and then one batch of Navajo dough.
As the years went by and Elva’s Navajo tacos became the most popular booth at Swiss Days, it became impossible to keep up.
“Finally, they said, ‘You know what, we can’t do this. Switching off with the dough is slowing the process down; we’ve got to make it quicker,’” Veda explains. The decision was made by the Swiss Days Committee to only mix the scone dough and use it for the tacos as well.
“We’re going to drop the Navajo out of it and just call it Swiss tacos,” says Veda, explaining the committee’s thinking behind the switch.
And thus, “Swiss tacos” were born.
A Tradition Remains
The Hendersons haven’t worked a Swiss Days since the switch. “If you guys are going to do it that way and you’re going to call it a Swiss taco…” Elva trails off.
Today, Elva only makes her famous Navajo tacos for family and friends. After years of feeding the masses at Swiss Days, countless county fairs and even a few Soldier Hollow Sheepdog Classics, she now spends her time handcrafting one-of-a-kind jewelry fashioned with the sterling silver, deep turquoise and vibrant coral of her Navajo roots.
As for the Swiss tacos, you can still find them at the end of a long line of hungry — albeit sometimes confused — patrons at Swiss Days every year.