PHOENIX » Florida has its key lime pie, Idaho its potatoes and Georgia favors grits as its official state food. Arizona, hungry to lay claim to a state food of its own, is circling the chimichanga.
There is a fierce rivalry here over who dropped the first burrito into a vat of hot oil and thus invented the chimichanga. But evidence supports the contention that the first mouth to savor the fried concoction, and the first stomach to churn in torment from it, may well have been that of an Arizonan.
There is little doubt that chimichangas have become hugely popular here, so much so that a movement is under way to make the chimi the state’s official food. With Arizona’s centennial coming next year, Macayo’s Mexican Kitchen, a Phoenix chain, has launched a petition drive to lobby the Legislature to adopt the chimichanga, as lawmakers have done for the bolo tie (official neckwear), the saguaro blossom (official flower) and the Colt revolver (official firearm).
"It’s just like Arizona itself, a mixture of cultures, all wrapped up," said Sharisse Johnson, the president and chief executive of Macayo’s.
Johnson insists it was her late father, Woody, who was tinkering in the kitchen in 1946 when the chimichanga was born.
"We grew up hearing that story," Johnson said.
Hold up there, says Carlotta Flores at El Charro Cafe in Tucson, which dates to 1922. She is equally adamant that her great-aunt Monica Flin accidentally knocked a burrito (actually, a burro, which is the king-size variety of a tortilla wrap) into boiling lard in the early 1950s and, because there were youngsters around at the time, adapted a Mexican curse into the whimsical word chimichanga.
"This is the story of our family," Flores said from her kitchen.
There are other Arizona restaurants that say they invented the chimichanga, too, and there are other versions of the etymology of the word, one of which suggests that "chimichanga," which is nowhere to be found in official Spanish dictionaries, translates roughly as "thingamajig."
Uncertainty is part of the very essence of the chimi — as connoisseurs refer to it — since one is never sure what a particular chimichanga contains until one pokes through its crunchy flour shell with a fork and ferrets around inside.
There are those who say the chimichanga, which can be stuffed with beef, chicken, pork or even fish and be swamped with cheese, sour cream, salsa and guacamole, might have immigrated to Arizona from south of the border, which raises hackles in this state, where immigration is so contentious an issue.
But Mexicans do not tend to embrace the chimi as their own, even though chimichangas can be found on menus in northern Mexico, usually as chivechangas. Much like the food produced at Taco Bell, the chimi is generally seen as an Americanized take on Mexican cuisine. (Incidentally, Taco Bell, which has tried but failed to establish a foothold in Mexico, does not offer the chimichanga, although it does have the chalupa, which exists in Mexico and is a fried corn tostada with the sides turned up.)
Some state lawmakers see naming the chimi as the official food as a good way of helping Arizona refurbish its tattered image, while others argue that the state has more pressing priorities. Gov. Jan Brewer, who would be the one to sign a chimichanga bill if it cleared the Legislature, has told reporters that she enjoys chimis but has not declared whether she would be willing to immortalize them.
Despite their sky-high caloric count and artery-clogging outer coverings, chimis sell by the hundreds of thousands annually here. In but one sign of their popularity, Donald Beaty, a murderer who was put to death by lethal injection in Arizona in May, ordered a last meal the day before he died that consisted of a double cheeseburger with fries as well as a chimichanga.
"Everything in moderation is acceptable," said Flores, whose restaurant sells them like hotcakes. "If a chimichanga becomes a habit that might be a problem. But I haven’t seen anyone come in who’s addicted to them."
Just in case, El Charro has a vegetarian version, which is still deep fried, and chimichangas are also found on the dessert menu, filled with fruit. One upscale French-style restaurant in Phoenix even offers a lobster chimichanga, an appetizer featuring basil beurre blanc and avocado corn salsa, priced at $18.50.
"You know your chimichanga is authentic if, an hour after eating it, you feel a log gently rolling around in your stomach," Tom Miller, a Tucson author who has tried chimis at dozens of Arizona restaurants and considers himself somewhat of a chimiologist, wrote in "Revenge of the Saguaro: Offbeat Travels Through America’s Southwest."