The Story

Humanity Is Like Stew Beef

What are you going to do with it?

By Lindsay Sterling

It was afternoon. I had just taught a cooking class at Portland High School and was carrying loads of gear out to my car when the school door locked behind me with half my stuff still inside. A black woman, covered from head to toe in flowing dress and headscarf, came up from the street and tried the door. We looked at one another and smiled. Both locked out, I guess. Her English wasn’t fluent, but we understood one another just fine. “Where are you from?” I asked. “Somalia.” She said. When I asked her if she’d teach me how to cook a Somali meal sometime, she said immediately, “Yes. I cook every day.”
The complete absence of waffling was stunning. You mean you’re not busy? You’re not concerned to be hanging out with someone who is wearing Calvin Klein skinny jeans and whose neck skin and hair are showing? Who is, by the look of things, neither Muslim or African? We live in a nation of mutual respect for differences, but personal invitations to interact with people of different cultural, socioeconomic, religious and racial backgrounds are still extremely rare. Let’s face it: we tend to hang out with people who are like us. Maybe that’s because we hate to be judged. To my close friends, my clothes say nothing other than I’m having a good day or a bad day. To a Muslim, my clothes might say I look like an immodest evildoer who is going to hell on Judgment Day. But forget that, this woman said without saying, let’s cook together. And I loved her for it.
She taught me how to make chapati, an everyday Somali dish of beef, root vegetables, and flatbread in her outer Portland condo, while nine of her kids were at school, the oldest was upstairs, and the three-year-old was bowling with potatoes on the kitchen floor. First she cooked a pound of stew beef in water for about forty-five minutes with salt, ground cumin, coriander, and Vegeta, a seasoning blend of dehydrated onions, carrots, and parsnips. When the meat was almost tender and the water almost boiled away, she added carrot rounds and slices of potato and green pepper. Soon the water completely disappeared, leaving a meat and vegetable medley, ready to be scooped up by her family with not forks or spoons, but pieces of homemade flatbread.
The ingredients for the flatbread were simple: flour, sugar, salt, oil and hot water. Mix them together. Knead into dough. Let rest. Break off pieces and make dough balls the size of limes. Roll them out into large tortillas, and then cook them on a dry, hot pan, adding spoonfulls of oil so that the bread turns out toasted, moist, soft and chewy all at once.
As we were cooking we didn’t completely ignore our differences. We had a conversation about a woman covering up being, in this Somali woman’s mind, about modesty. Modesty. It’s not America’s strong point. If Alexis Wright had been covered the whole time in a long dress and headscarf, how many families wouldn’t be ruined? But we didn’t talk about this very long, after all the chapati was done and it was time to eat. Suprisingly, chapati, all the way from a place as different as Somalia, was comfort food even to my kids when I tried it at home. Humanity is like stew beef, I guess. There are just a lot of different ways to make it good.