A Down Home Meal for These Dif­fi­cult Times

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Meron Hadero

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.

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