The Food That Makes You Cry

"What food makes you cry?" my friend Papa Joe asked me the other day.

"What do you mean exactly?"

"Well, something when you eat it, evokes an emotion, takes you to other parts of your life."

"Interesting question," I replied. "What food makes you cry?"

"A turkey sandwich," he said matter-of-factly. "The day after Thanksgiving, when I was growing up, my mom, who's since passed, would make me a turkey sandwich, thinly slicing the meat right off the bone. While she sliced the meat, she'd explain to me how to make a turkey sandwich, and I never really paid attention. Since she died, whenever I eat a turkey sandwich, I think about her, and I now remember everything about the way she made it: The soft bread. The turkey, thinly sliced. The mayonnaise. The salt and the pepper."

"I know it's simple stuff, just a turkey sandwich," he added.

In my mind's eye, I traveled to a few places and moments along Memory Lane- the milkshakes and hand-cut French fries my father (who died 25 years ago this month) would make for us kids. I can see the half-gallon box of Breyer's chocolate ice cream and the Hershey's syrup from a can (not a squeeze bottle), sitting on the orange formica counter of the kitchen on Penarth Road.

I mention this to Joe, but I keep going, eyes closed, headed back a few years when I spent a week in Zambia with a family in a small town bordering Malawi. Josephine and Godfrey Sithole, younger than me, have five children, two whom are AIDS orphans, and they live in a thee-bedroom house. Including me, we were a party of nine at the dinner table.

One night, at their request, I cooked dinner, a one-skillet meal called "Joe's Special," a legendary dish with San Francisco origins, a scrambly kind of concoction comprised of ground beef, spinach, onions and eggs. Seventeen-year-old Audrey, the eldest daughter who often cooked for the family, wanted to learn something other than the same ole nshima, a stiff white porridge made cornmeal that is the staple of southern African diets. I thought Joe's Special would be ideal -- not only would it be easy to replicate but it would feed the whole gang economically, for about five dollars. It's also a comforting dish, filling and satisfying.

So we ventured out to the vegetable market, where we buy spinach, onions, garlic and eggs, and then we head to the butcher, owned by a white South African family, where I ordered a few pounds of "mince."

Once at home, we began to prep dinner, with Audrey at the stove listening to my how-to. Forty-some minutes later, the food is ready, and everyone is excited to try the new and exciting dish. I'm feeling good because we have made enough to feed 10 people (in case a neighbor is hungry) on just five dollars. We sit down, and the kids are scarfing up supper, "mmming" and "aahing." Godfrey, whose head is down, as he eats, shovels the food with his fork, seeming very pleased.

And then he looks up, and looks at me across the table.

"Kim, thank you for making this dish. It's quite delicious. But I'm afraid we would only be able to have this on special occasions, perhaps Christmas, because we can't afford the mince."

The sound of his words made my heart swell. Five dollars to feed 10 people was an impossible feat for this man, who had a decent job by Zambian standards. And here I had assumed that this dish was such a bargain, that I shared such a great little secret with the Sithole Family.

So, yes, Joe, there's a dish that makes me cry: It's Joe's Special, and the name coincidence is a little too weird.

For about a year, the Sitholes and I stayed in touch, but I admit, it's been a while. It might be time to check in and wire some special dinner funds, or better still, host a Joe's Special fundraiser at home in Arlington.

Do you have a food that makes you cry? Share in the comments area below.

Joe's Special

Adapted from "Saveur Cooks: Authentic American"



Ingredients


1 1/2 pounds fresh spinach, trimmed and washed thoroughly

Salt

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

1-2 cloves garlic, chopped

1/2 pound ground beef

3 eggs, lightly beaten

Grated parmigiano-reggiano

Black pepper to taste



Method


Blanch spinach in a pot of boiling salted water over medium heat for 1 minutes. Drain in a colander and cool under cold running water. Squeeze out excess water, then coarsely chop spinach.

Heat oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook, until soft, about five minuts, followed by garlic, for another minute. Add beef and cook, breaking meat up with the back of a spoo, until brown, about three minutes.

Add spinach, cook for two minutes, then add eggs, cover and cook, without stirring, for one-two minutes. Remove from heat, stir, and season with grated cheese, salt and pepper.

Makes 2 hearty servings.

Joe's Special
Adapted from "Saveur Cooks: Authentic American"

Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds fresh spinach, trimmed and washed thoroughly
Salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 pound ground beef
3 eggs, lightly beaten
Grated parmigiano-reggiano
Black pepper to taste

Method

Blanch spinach in a pot of boiling salted water over medium heat for 1 minutes. Drain in a colander and cool under cold running water. Squeeze out excess water, then coarsely chop spinach.

Heat oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook, until soft, about five minuts, followed by garlic, for another minute. Add beef and cook, breaking meat up with the back of a spoo, until brown, about three minutes.

Add spinach, cook for two minutes, then add eggs, cover and cook, without stirring, for one-two minutes. Remove from heat, stir, and season with grated cheese, salt and pepper.

Makes 2 hearty servings.

By Kim ODonnel |  October 10, 2007; 12:03 PM ET Kitchen Musings
Previous: Rotten Tomato Blues | Next: Don't Worry, Be Heart-Happy With Walnuts

Comments

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this story made my eyes well up - thank you for sharing

Posted by: Anonymous | October 10, 2007 2:08 PM

onions make me cry

Posted by: Anonymous | October 10, 2007 2:12 PM

A food that makes me cry when I think of it -- that would be my mother's lemon meringue pie. She has dementia and can't remember the simplest things. I have tried to make her pie, but it just doesn't taste the same.

Posted by: Pam McGhee | October 10, 2007 2:20 PM

Busha's stuffed cabbage. My grandmother came to the US from Poland in the 1920s and I never really appreciated her simple, hearty meals. Several years ago I became friends with someone whose family came to the US from Poland after WWII. During the last year's of his mother's life he tried to write down as many recipes as he could, but there were either ingredients which made no sense or vague measurements - "be sure to add some X - how much? You'll know". Every Christmas he hosts a party with lots of traditional dishes from my childhood - hunter's stew, stuffed cabbage, borscht and desserts - which bring back happy memories.

Posted by: Lester Burnham | October 10, 2007 2:52 PM

Hershey's syrup in a can - that made me well up thinking of my grandmother (on City Line).

Please do a Joe's special fundraiser. It makes me so sad to think $5 is too much for a family.

Posted by: md | October 10, 2007 3:49 PM

Surely there must be more that can be done with cornmeal than porridge! We just need to put our thinking caps on.

How about a recipe book for the Sitholes? Something that uses only ingredients that they can afford but provides variety for them?

Posted by: lca | October 10, 2007 5:33 PM

Cowboy and Indian Soup (no real cowboys or Indians involved). My grandmother used to make us a fresh vegetable soup with beef she called "top rib," which may or may not have come from the kosher butcher. I've never been quite able to recreate it, and I've never tasted anything quite like it, and I tear up when I think of it.

Posted by: Mel | October 10, 2007 6:15 PM

Donuts. For a brief period when I was a kid I lived in a group home with 20 other kids. The nearby donut shop would donate day old donuts to us. They were always hard as a rock Whenever I see a tray of donuts it reminds me of that time in my life.

Posted by: Debbie | October 11, 2007 12:08 PM

Lester, your story touched such a note with me. It was stuffed cabbage that made me cry. Hubby and I were honeymooning in Budapest. We stayed at a hostel in the Buda Hills and at night, walked three blocks to the local restaurant. Every night we ate there--never breaking $20 but trying very hard to.

My mother had died the previous year and I remember her stuffed cabbage with great fondness. She was Italian but grew up in a PA mining town with Hungarians, Slovaks, Poles and Germans. Everyone learned to cook everyone else's food. Local cookbooks were a hodgepodge. She excelled at Eastern European cooking--making my Slovak father a very well fed man.

I pointed to the stuffed cabbage on the menu at the Hungarian restaurant. What came to the table was a flood of memories of my mother--the exact smell of our kitchen and the taste of my childhood. I cried like a baby and the waitress and owner stared at me. Two nights later, the owners came over to our table wanting to talk to the American couple that had eaten dinner there for an entire week. Their son translated and I was able to explain what their food meant to me.

Posted by: Sue | October 17, 2007 3:49 PM

My Dearest Sister Kim,
Thank you for such wonderful, precious memories - stirred, not shaken...
blended...from a porch swing in Arlington, a kitchen table in Takoma Park, an orange formica counter in Philadelphia, a village in Zambia...
Such sacred, precious encounters...so nobly expressed! Such a mighty heart is yours...
THANK you so much again...
With love,
Papa Joe

Posted by: Papa Joe | October 19, 2007 11:53 AM

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