Palestine Stew


Contest Winner

Palestine Stew

I don’t care what anybody says, it’s just not easy to be your own personal matchmaker. But, in spite of all the discouragement and failure I’ve faced, I guess I’d still be at it if it weren’t for a mayonnaise jar filled with wheat.

It all happened because my turn to cook for my roommates was coming up fast, and they were fed up with the same old basic casseroles and meat loaf. They always looked to me for leadership—they think the simple fact that I’m the second oldest in a family of ten means I’m pretty smart and experienced. Granted, a family of ten is an experience, and in my own humble opinion, I’m pretty smart, but there’s only so much you can do with food. Nevertheless, I was determined to impress them with my culinary abilities, especially hoping that word of my success would get back to my current heartthrob, Rusty, who happened to be the best-looking guy in our student branch.

So I was racking my brain for something new and different to cook. I’d checked through our entire supply of cookbooks (which consisted of four—two copies of the Joy of Cooking, one Desserts for Two, and one Boys and Girls Jello Cookbook). I’d called my mother who was 1700 miles away, and after $6.49 worth of telephone time, decided it was another dead end. I’d also called my brother’s fiancée. After the conversation with her, I pitied my brother’s stomach, which would face her homecooked delights through all eternity, and turned to my last resort—my own imagination.

As I was sitting in the laundry room downstairs thinking about the food crisis, studying French, and listening to our basketball team trail the visitors by 24 points, the washer to which I had entrusted all my colored washables at once began to drool soapsuds and spit weird blue sparks at me. Soapsuds I can handle, but weird blue sparks are not normal. I raced upstairs to get the manager, not thinking to get my French book out of the potential disaster area. When we returned and the manager gingerly opened the door a crack, I groaned at the sight of my French book floating in the four inches of water that had leaked out of the machine.

In the face of pending financial catastrophe—the purchase of a new French book—I decided no amount of money was too small to save and so followed the manager back upstairs to get a refund of my 40 cents that the monster washing machine had so thanklessly gobbled. While I stood in the doorway and watched her rummage through a drawer for change, I noticed an unusual smell. I glanced around for clues as to its source. There was a strange bubbly noise coming from the kitchen, which I brightly assumed was something cooking. I also brightly assumed the noise was somehow connected with the smell. Usually a shy soul, I surprised myself by asking, “What’s that … (here I hesitated, but only for a second) … terrific smell?”

The manager, Mrs. Smith (honest, that’s her name), brightened by about 50 watts. “Oh, come and see it. It’s an old recipe that’s been in the family for simply generations! It’s called Palestine Stew, and it’s so very good. I personally think it’s what we’ll be eating in heaven.”

As I followed her into the kitchen, I fervently hoped we’d be eating nothing even remotely like it in heaven or on earth. From the smell, I could also guess why the recipe hadn’t left the family for “simply generations.” I stared at the big pot of bubbling brown stuff. In reply to my blank expression, she began to explain. “All it is is wheat and hamburger and tomatoes. It has to cook all day, and it’s delicious! Here, try a taste.”

I shook my head violently. It looked awful. But she had already dug a big spoonful of the mess out of the pot and, with a prizewinning smile, turned and stuffed it in my protesting mouth. What could I do?

I chewed the mouthful cautiously for a few seconds and stopped. It was weird, but the taste kind of grew on me. When I had finally swallowed, I stood thinking. It certainly wasn’t your basic casserole or meat loaf. And it looked pretty cheap—I mean, how much can wheat and hamburger and tomatoes cost?

Mrs. Smith was watching me carefully with a coaxing smile on her face, waiting for my words of praise. After long moments of thought, I took a deep breath and said, “It’s … it’s really good. Now, how did you say you make it?”

An hour later, armed with an index card on which the fateful recipe was written in Mrs. Smith’s eager hand, I combed the aisles of a nearby grocery store that boasted, “We have what you’re looking for,” finally realizing that in my case, they didn’t. Convinced there was no whole wheat in that store, I trudged home dejectedly with two cans of tomatoes and a pound of hamburger. My mind raced furiously, trying to decide where I could get some whole wheat. It wasn’t until I was almost at the door that I suddenly knew just the person to see about my problem.

My sister had lots of wheat. And I’d been planning to meet her that evening on campus to watch her husband of three months who would be playing in an intramurals basketball game. What luck! I raced inside to the phone and made all the arrangements to get the needed three cups of wheat to the gym where I could pick it up. My sister probably didn’t bat an eye when I made my request. She was pretty used to me by then.

Well, as luck or fate or whatever would have it, my own branch basketball team also had a game that night in the same gym as my brother-in-law Brent’s game. Brent’s game was at 6:00, our game was at 7:15, and Rusty was our team’s six-foot-three center.

It took about 15 seconds of pleading to get my roommate Laurie to consent to go to the games with me. She hates basketball but is also in love with Rusty. I thought it wisest not to mention my current obsession with him. She falls in and out of love about every four days, but I knew that with me, it was the real thing. So, at 5:30 we went off to the gym to watch the games, and get the wheat, and admire Rusty in action.

Brent’s team lost their game by about 80 points. But I finally had the wheat, all three cups of it, in a mayonnaise jar. For some reason I felt really dumb sitting there holding the jar of little brown wheat kernels. I mean, how many people on an average college campus watch basketball games with a jar of wheat in their lap? So Laurie and I ran all over the building checking every wastepaper basket for a paper bag to hide it in. We were almost desperate—Rusty’s game was starting in ten minutes, we were missing the warm-up action, and still could find no paper bag—until we got to the women’s locker room and found three crumpled bags in a garbage can. We pulled some waxed paper and orange peels out of the best one, stuffed the jar in, and were back at the game with about four minutes to spare.

It was a great game. One of our guards is about five-and-a-half feet tall, really handy for sneaking between players’ legs and swiping the ball mid-dribble. We won with a score of 35–28, and Rusty made 12 of those points. We were really proud of him—or maybe I should say I was really proud. You see, Laurie had fallen in love during a time-out with a guy named Gordon who happened to be one of Rusty’s roommates. I was ecstatic—I had the wheat, we’d won the game, and Rusty was all mine now. Well, at least he would have been if he’d known I was alive. So, thinker that I am, I began plotting a way to get him to notice me.

I didn’t have to plot long. Laurie had gotten an invitation to ride home with Gordon—in Rusty’s car—and naturally I, as her roommate, was included in the invitation.

It would have been terrific, except for the wheat. See, Rusty has a really far-out car. But I’m kind of a klutz sometimes. I mean, with ten kids in the family, sometimes Mom was too busy to notice my bad manners and lack of finesse. So, when it was time to let Rusty open the car door to let us out, I was a little nervous. At a critical moment, the bag caught on the door handle and tore, and as I jerked it away, the jar hit the door frame and shattered. Those little kernels of wheat flew like bullets—slow bullets, granted, but they did fly. A lot of them simply fell in the gutter, but a lot more fell on the car seat and floor.

I guess it was pretty funny, but I sure didn’t feel like laughing. In the back seat, however, Laurie started to laugh and Gordon let out a guffaw that turned into near-hysteria. I guess being in love warps your sense of humor. I just sat, feeling a little silly.

Rusty looked down at the wheat swimming in the gutter and then at the floor of his beautiful car where the rest of the wheat had gradually settled. Then he looked at me. My face was burning. Rusty offered me his hand and helped me out of the car. I stood on the curb a second, not quite sure what to do. Rusty leaned over and whispered near my ear, “Don’t go away. I want to show you something.” So I stood, red and helpless and speechless, as Gordon and Laurie climbed out of the car, still laughing, and went inside.

I was afraid to look at Rusty. But he took my arm and steered me toward his apartment as he started to talk.

“Don’t worry about the mess. I was planning to wash the car later tonight anyway, and I’ll let you come along and help me vacuum it out. Right now I’m curious about what you needed that wheat for. Were you going to sprout it or something?”

I shook my head, trying to think of some way to explain Palestine Stew. “You see, it was for dinner tomorrow night. I was going to make this stuff that takes wheat and hamburger and tomatoes and needs to cook all day.”

He looked down at me. “It sounds really bad.”

I grinned. “You ought to smell it.”

He laughed as he opened his apartment door. He went straight to the kitchen and opened a cupboard door. There on the shelf were about ten mayonnaise jars filled with wheat. “You see,” he said, “my parents are really big on wheat. My mom even taught me how to make bread once before my mission, but I’ve pretty well forgotten now. But they still keep me supplied really well.” He grinned down at me. “I’ll let you take some if you promise to let me try some of your Palestine Stew.”

Well, Rusty was, after all, really impressed with my stew. And, even though it took a long time before I could stand the sight of wheat again, I have had a good time re-teaching him how to make bread. And I’ve also come to appreciate the many unexpected benefits that can come from food storage.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Chris Collins