A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times
The Riverside Church was like no house of worship Jazarah and Yeshi had ever seen. It had a gym, it had a view, it had a labyrinthine underbelly and an information desk that displayed notable moments like MLK, Jr.’s famous speech about Vietnam delivered from its pulpit. And in one of the many rooms in the basement, every Sunday there was a children’s Amharic class to attract the Ethiopian community that was trying to establish itself in makeshift ways in the American ’80s. The immigrants attended early morning services at Greek, Russian, or Armenian Orthodox Churches, which were much closer to their own Ethiopian Orthodox tradition. The Eastern Europeans would stare at them huddled in the back pews, praying incomprehensible prayers, but otherwise seemingly at home with the dark hall and the low-toned chanting and the incense and the long service. Afterward, they’d make their way to the Riverside Amharic classes. “Who could ever get anywhere this way?” Jazarah said to Yeshi, who she met standing in the back of the classroom, watching their sleepy children struggling to learn the language of their ancestors, another concession made to life in America. Jazarah shook her head thinking of how she herself had moved through air thick with these words, breathed them in, let them course through her, then exhaled them in some innate, effortless way. “It’s too hard for them to learn like this.” “They’re children, they’ll pick it up,” Yeshi said, proud, in fact, to hear her language in such an esteemed establishment. Yeshi and Jazarah talked about their experience as refugees, their assimilation, and all the fretful things they were learning to dread as they resettled in the States. Looming large was the PTA bake sale. They’d already just attended the PTA potluck, where, to their horror, everyone had to bring a dish to a party they’d been invited to. When the potluck was done, they watched in confusion as everyone took back their leftovers. “It’s like no one wants to be indebted to anyone else in this country,” Jazarah said. Yeshi added, “This is America, where everyone wants to be independent.” They hated the idea of a bake sale almost as much as they hated the idea of a potluck, almost as much as they hated to cook at all.
Yeshi was the first to confess that she was clueless in the kitchen. “Truth be told,” she said, “I’m a terrible cook. I trained in the sciences, and I never had any taste for domestic duties back home.” It was a relief for Jazarah, who’d never felt guilty that she was a negligent homemaker until she came to the U.S. On account of being seriously rich back home, she had maids, cooks, housekeepers. She’d often gone weeks without stepping foot in the kitchen. Jazarah admitted, “As a cook, I’m catastrophic. I’d much rather window shop, which must come as a surprise to some people. When I first got here, the man who met me at the Refugee Welcome Center in Albany was surprised to see I had shoes and a coat, even more so that they were leather. He told me, ‘We didn’t know Ethiopians had access to those.’ The way he said it, it was like he meant clothes at all.” Yeshi asked, “Does your husband cook?” Jazarah replied, “Never. Yours?” “Wouldn’t be caught dead in the general vicinity of a stove.” Yeshi asked, “Want to learn to cook?” Jazarah said, “Not at all. You?” Yeshi asked, “Is it a requirement?” It did, though, seem like a requirement to them, somehow entangled in the American view of womanhood and femininity. They’d always been outliers of sorts, but they’d assumed coming to the U.S., they’d be able to completely reinvent their identities as women in a wholly liberated way. It didn’t work out like that at all. In America, there were no extended families who were constantly inviting them over to eat, tending to maybe four, maybe five dinners a week. In America, there was no Aunt Adanech who would make weekend lunches while Yeshi tutored the kids in biology and geometry. There were no great-grands and cousins thrice removed to look after their kids when Jazarah had to catch up on work, and no doting neighbors to look in on the kids in the yard when Yeshi was having afternoon coffee with her husband. The pressure of their task as women, as mothers, as homemakers just seemed so much more burdensome here, and yes, somehow cooking every meal for just their small families felt not only like a waste of energy, but a national prerequisite. As Yeshi and Jazarah stood in the church’s classroom watching their kids go through the Amharic alphabet and mispronounce their own names, they decided they’d make something together for the upcoming bake sale, combining forces the way they would have back in old days.
Finding the quintessential American cookbook for the quintessential American woman was a task they took on with relish. They wanted just
the perfect combination of recipes for all their new obligations. They walked into a bookstore by the Riverside Church when the kids were getting their weekly lessons, and they hadn’t expected to find so many options in the separate section that was reserved just for the genre. “What I wouldn’t give to have my grandmother’s recipes written down, just to see them,” Yeshi said. “My grandmother claimed she was allergic to the kitchen, and she’d start sneezing anytime she approached it,” Jazarah replied. “She was also allergic to the broom closet and the wash basin.” “My kind of woman,” Yeshi said. A sales associate walked over, lingered near Yeshi and Jazarah so as not to interrupt but also to make it clear that she was there to help. Jazarah spoke up, “Miss, oh miss. What is the most American of these?” “I mean, American food is just food,” the clerk replied, walking over with her hands folded across her chest. “Of course all food is food,” Yeshi agreed. The clerk laughed a little and said, “But American food isn’t really a thing. It’s like a melting pot of things. It’s everything, and it’s nothing.” “What we mean is, we need a good, popular, pleasing American cookbook,” Jazarah clarified. “This is our bestseller,” the clerk said holding up The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook, adding, “It’s an instant classic, each new edition.” “It has a certain ring to it,” Jazarah said, taking the book from the clerk. “Doesn’t it?” Yeshi agreed. “Who doesn’t want to keep their house?” “I’ve lost two already—one to the Derg in 1975, one to the Derg in 1979—so I’d love to keep mine as long and as good as I can,” Jazarah mused. “I’ve lost three already—one to the floods, one to the Derg, one to the counterrevolution—so I couldn’t agree more,” Yeshi said. “This series is your best bet, then. They go way back,” the clerk said, showing them a ratty, tattered early edition. She opened it to the front, and Yeshi read, “Good Housekeeping: For the Advancement of the American Home.” “That sounds important,” noted Jazarah. “And they have a department of household engineering,” Yeshi said. “I like that, too,” Jazarah said. “Authoritative. This book is an authority.” “It’s right up my ally, the science and mathematics of trying to keep one’s home,” Yeshi emphasized. “A pretty complicated equation, I know from experience.”
They were completely sold. Yeshi and Jazarah picked out the latest edition of The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook, 1980. As the clerk rung up their order, she said, “Don’t start with this recipe,” pointing to an image of a soufflé on the cover. “Maybe you should start with an omelet. Like a Denver omelet is a very American omelet.” “What else?” they asked. “Lasagna is good. That’s a favorite of mine for dinner parties and potlucks.” “Oh good, what else?” They were getting excited, like they were playing a game. “Oh I don’t like meatloaf, but it’s common. And fried rice is a crowdpleaser. And tater tots.” “Tater tots, tater tots. Good, good. What else?” “There are a lot of diagrams in the book,” the clerk said. “So it’s okay if you don’t know English very well.” Jazarah and Yeshi didn’t respond to that, feeling the snub disguised as a helpful footnote. They walked off flipping through the glossy photos in the front section where dishes seemed shellacked, thoughtfully lit, and posed, almost. Indeed, they did not start with soufflé, but they also didn’t start with the omelet. While Richard Simmons was bouncing on the TV yelling at them to “lift, lift, turn it, rumble, round the world,” they were baking a pineapple upside-down cake that they thought was the most fitting of all their options, a reflection of how everything had flipped around, their lives, their identities, and here they were baking a mixed-up dessert to raise funds for a gymnastics meet in Schenectady.
Every time there was a big upset in their lives, big enough a shock to rock foundations, pull at rugs underfoot, threaten to take yet another home away from them, they made a dish from The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook as a sort of superstitious offering to the gods of the Department of Household Engineering, praying that they got to keep what they had, even if they had to promise to strive for no more. In their shaky times, Yeshi and Jazarah picked recipes at random or with intention and made them over and over until they had been perfected. They’d go to Yeshi’s home in Sunset Park or Jazarah’s home in the Rockaways not so much to cook, but to pay homage to this most sacred and difficult task of staying put. When Yeshi’s husband lost his job, they made Classic Chili con Carne four times. They went to the Goodwill to buy kitchen equipment, then hid it from their husbands, who would rather have one new pot and one new spatula than bags of things that had been owned by who
knows who and given away for who knows why. Yeshi carefully leveled the ingredients in a measuring cup like she was in her old chem lab. Jazarah chatted as she burned the garlic and overcooked the meat. They both thought it needed a few extra dashes of chili powder, and both questioned the inclusion of sugar, puzzled over the Worchester sauce and decorative parsley. Yeshi triumphantly finished the dish with grated cheddar and sour cream. Before they took their first bites, they said a few words to the spirit of good housekeeping: “May Yeshi’s home remain prosperous though her husband is out a pay check, and may work quickly flow back in the way it left.” Which it did, until Yeshi’s husband lost his next job, and they made batches of Emergency Corn Biscuits. When Yeshi’s husband left her for a blonde waitress, they made Broiled Hamburg Steak, just the once. When Yeshi’s husband came crawling back, and she had to change the locks, they made Scalloped Ham and Potatoes for a week. When Jazarah had to suspend her education to pay for the car repair, they made Mashed Yams and Buttered Beets for lunch and dinner. When Jazarah’s daughter was hospitalized with a severe case of pneumonia, they made the perfect Apple Pandowdy. When Jazarah’s credit cards were stolen and maxed out, they made trays of Corn Fritters. Once a month, they made the Beef Stew for the kitchen of the Riverside Church. In the weeks after 9/11, they made every recipe in the dessert section, and wearing American-flag pins, brought coolers to the relief workers stationed off the West Side Highway at Pier 92, where every city, state and federal agency seemed to have an outpost: the Mayor’s Office, the intelligence agencies, the Red Cross, the firefighters, the police, the computer engineers who worked on logistical software. The street in front of the pier was lined with garbage trucks to dissuade car bombers, and the river behind the pier was lined with barges to prevent boat bombers. The fences outside the pier were covered with photographs of missing loved ones. People milled around the fences desperately seeking answers or silently holding vigil. Yeshi and Jazarah stood there among them every evening, and for the first time since they came to the U.S., they shared their own stories with strangers, revealing that they had escaped a brutal dictatorship, that some in their families had also gone missing, and that the hope for their return never really goes away. They camped out with their Ziploc bags full of sweets and chatted with exhausted relief workers coming or going. A few times, Yeshi and Jazarah were even invited to watch the game at a nearby bar on those
warm fall evenings in New York as the Yankees made their way well into the postseason. After the recession in 2008, Yeshi and Jazarah got back to cooking in a fit. Their copy of The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook was never more needed, the magic they attributed to it never more urgent. They chose to focus on perfecting the “economy holiday foods,” not to celebrate, of course, but to comfort. They brought plates to their neighbors who were being evicted. As often as they could, they brought whole chickens to the Riverside Church for those in need. They cooked for themselves, too, when they both lost their jobs as receptionists after their companies folded, and they scrambled to figure out what to do next. Their kids were grown and gone, so Jazarah and her husband moved into Yeshi’s cheaper and smaller home as they all tried to make ends meet. In 2009, still having no steady work for over a year, and having gone backward and forward through that cookbook, Yeshi and Jazarah took the last of their savings and bought an old van that didn’t run, towed it next to a parking lot up by the Riverside Church, and opened a stationary food truck selling “Down Home Meals for These Difficult Times.” There was only one item on the menu, The Sack Lunch, and whatever recipes they made that day went inside. One of their regular customers—a construction worker—said it was like being a kid and opening his lunchbox on the playground, while a yogi said it gave her a chance to practice the act of receiving with grace, though a Harlem hipster blogged that the best part was the “authentic, unpretentious approach.” When they handed their customers their brown paper bags, Yeshi and Jazarah would say, “A down-home meal to keep your home good and tied down,” which patrons found endearing, if a little odd. They crafted a small seating area just to the side of the truck, and in streamed the cabbies taking breaks from their shifts, and the Columbia students shuttling to and fro, and the store owners heading over to their shops on Broadway, and the commuters coming in from the GW bridge, and the congregants and the priests and the park-goers and eventually business men and women, too. More tables had to be brought in, of course, more folding chairs, and one patron said it was starting to look like Bryant Park over there, which they took for a compliment. The lines grew long and began to form before they opened. One day, a famous chef with an Ethiopian background even came by and told them it was “great work.” And at that moment, what had been this hobby—this habit, this salvation, not even a passion, but a custom they very much came to need—had become their work. They started to see that what comforted them comforted those around them, too. What fed them fed others.
What grounded them seemed to hold down their customers, who said that a meal at “Down Home” was like being at the timeless American family table, everyone from everywhere coming together to press pause on their long days, sharing the same food: one plate, one fate. The whimsical menus became more planned and plotted, and the care that went into choosing the items each week was the care that went into reading bedtime stories to their kids with the most authentic American accents they could manage decades ago or sewing the best red, white, and blue dresses they could afford for their immigration interviews years before that or strategizing every detail of their escape routes out of Ethiopia to the West even before that. They thought everyone should start the week with a hearty meal, so Mondays’ choices were heavier: more protein, more carbs, sometimes fried pork, sometimes biscuits and beans. By Thursdays, the menu was playfully anticipating the weekend, a peekaboo chicken and Celebration Layer Cake. Saturdays were all about the aroma and warmth of home: cinnamon pastries, ham and bacon, roasting coffee, fries, fresh fruit, stove-grilled meats. They took Sundays off. The care that went into redecorating the eating area was the care that went into buying the best red, white, and blue dresses they could afford for their citizenship swearing-in ceremonies and, years later, personally inviting each of their neighbors to their kids’ graduations and, years after that, personally inviting those same neighbors to their children’s weddings, like in the old days, rounding up the whole village to celebrate together. For the seating, Yeshi and Jazarah chose sturdy chairs that were anchored to the floor with chains and tent pins. They handpainted flowers on the tabletops that always looked fresh. They printed out hundreds of fliers and tucked them under the windshields of the cars parked in the commuter lot, passed them out at the little league games down the block, delivered them door-to-door. They were able to hire staff, start separate careers, rotate in and out of this life that began to run all on its own. Their grown children had anniversary parties at the food truck lot. Their grandkids had christenings and birthday parties there. Friends and neighbors would stop in for old-style American lunches and to catch up with each other on sunny afternoons. Sometimes, chic urbanites and out-of-towners came by holding reviews published in off-the-beaten-path travel guides touting this well-worthwhile, tucked-away spot that takes forever to find, but that makes you feel like you’ve finally landed home. It took all the effort in the world, but it happened without their intention nonetheless that the little vehicle of a truck had sunk several inches and settled into the plot of earth it occupied, had established itself and
them in the city, had supported their lives, had given them purpose, community, deliverance, too. One day after a long, fruitful week, someone suggested they fix up that old van and get it to run, bring their Down Home Dining to Wall Street or Williamsburg, where they’d make a killing, but Yeshi and Jazarah couldn’t even comprehend why—why should all of the energy they’d spent to stay in one place be cast aside so lightly? No, for as long as they could, they’d continue on right there in that stationed van with moss on its wheels, a palm-sized sparrow’s nest under its front bumper, vines growing up its facade and around the spokes of the hubcaps, a webbing of roots. The roots curled around their lives, too, sprouting from seeds they never meant to plant, never consciously watered, but that had taken hold anyway because life adapts, or tries. These roots that cradled their lives were ripped away from time to time, trampled, shook loose, but slowly, slowly pushed through, steadied them, and Yeshi and Jazarah stood ever more firmly on ground that had to be home.