Some years ago, after my mother suffered a stroke I flew from New Mexico to the small Hudson River town near our family home to support her and my siblings during what would be a very challenging time for everyone.
Less than a mile from the rehab center I was delighted to discover a hole in the wall lunch counter called Cuchifritos. Cuchifritos are a kind of Puerto Rican fried soul food that include pork, vegetables, and cheese-based treats, most often eaten as grab and go take out.
I took a seat at one of the eight bright red vinyl covered stools that comprised the entire seating options of the place and was greeted warmly by the owner. She pointed to the handwritten menu on the wall and I knew immediately what I was going to order. Pollo Guisado! Pollo Guisado, a savory chicken stew, seasoned with the ubiquitous Puerto Rican puree called sofrito. Pollo guisado! My mother in-law Belen brought a big offering of it to our Puerto Rican/Jewish pot luck wedding reception twenty-five years earlier.
Usually when I’d come home to visit I’d make a Mecca like pilgrimage to the Hillcrest Deli for a Hebrew National hot dog, matzoh ball soup, and a bottomless bowl of half sour pickles. On this trip I’d be able to satisfy my traditional as well as adopted food cravings.
I was so excited by this good fortune that I told the owner that I had to call my wife right then and there to share the news. Liz picked up and I put her on speaker so that my host could say hello and listen in.
“You’ll never believe what I’m eating right now Liz. Pollo Goose-ado!”
The owner and Liz cracked up at the same time.
“Geese-sah-do Bob. Geese-sah-do! Not goose-ado! When are you going to learn to pronounce Spanish correctly!”
I took the ribbing in good nature. I was already relishing big spoonfuls of the rich stew.
A barriga llena, corazón contento…a full belly, happy heart.
The meal finished, I payed my complements to the chef, who was also the owner, waitress, and dishwasher in this one woman enterprise. I left to go back to the hospital, already anticipating my return to Cuchifritos the next day and the next.
Return I did. I greeted the owner like an old friend and sat down. A moment later a big burly guy walked in and took the stool next to me. He was huge, probably about 300 pounds, thick necked, barrel chested, and ham fisted. He grunted a cursory greeting in a thick Puerto Rican accent and ordered the pollo guisado.
A few minutes later he’s shaking his head and staring at the bowl that has just been set before him.
He calls out to the owner in a loud and almost menacing voice.
“Come here and taste this guisado.”
“Why should I taste it?” You’re the one having lunch,” she snaps back.
“I’m not asking. I’m telling you. Taste the guisado!”
The atmosphere at Cuchifritos has suddenly turned dark and threatening.
“Fuggetabout it. I’m not tasting it.”
I have an elbow to elbow vantage on this unfolding drama and am beginning to feel very uncomfortable. I follow the back and forth like a vertical ping pong game, the big guy seated, looking up at the much smaller but not at all intimidated woman with her arms crossed defiantly across her chest and looking down at him.
“I”m telling you to taste the guisado, Now taste it!”
“And I’m telling you, I’m not tasting it! I made the guisado. I made it the way I always make it. I know how it tastes.”
“I’m telling you one last time.” He leans in close, his jaw clenched.“ Taste it NOW!”
I’m wondering if I should try and intervene in some way, or just get up and remove myself from the combat zone.
Just then, she relents.
“Okay. Basta! Enough! I’ll taste it.”
She pauses, then looks quizzically at the counter. Looks to the left. Looks to the right.
“Wait a minute. Where’s the spoon?”
The question is answered with lightning speed. “Aha!” He wags and waves his huge forefinger in the air.
Instantly they both erupt in laughter. She reaches into her apron and hands the guy a spoon. The storm has passed. He digs in, obviously relishing the meal as much as I do.
Relieved by this sudden resolution I felt like I’d just witnessed a near train wreck.
Suddenly it came to me. I remembered an old Jewish joke that I read in Leo Rosten’s Joy of Yiddish. A guy walks into his regular restaurant, orders a bowl of Matzoh Ball soup, and the rest of the story plays out almost exactly like what I’ve just witnessed. “Aha!”
“Whew! You guys really had me worried,” I say. But you know what’s strange? I read an old Jewish joke one time…”
Before I can finish the thought, the owner interrupts.
“Oh, there was nothing to worry about,” she says with a theatrical wink to her favorite customer. “We do this every day! We picked it up from a scene in that Eddie Murphy movie, Coming to America!”
A Jewish guy walks into a Puerto Rican Restaurant. Is this the beginning of a joke?
Whose story is this, this soup and spoon story? Who gets to tell it in this fraught time of sometimes uncomfortable conversations about cultural appropriation? My Google trip to the folklore archives at the University of California, identifies it as well known Jewish joke-lore. I learn that it appeared in a New York Post column by Leonard Lyon in 1956 but was well known and widely told long before that. Eddie Murphy, an African American actor took it and brilliantly transformed himself into Saul, a Jewish patron of a black barbershop. I was a bystander to a ritual reenactment by two Puerto Ricans at Cuchifritos in Haverstraw New York.
We all get to tell it. We all came to America. Black, Puerto Rican, Jewish and anyone else whose fancy is tickled by the story gets to tell it. We came on slave ships or as economic refugees. We came fleeing pogroms; different routes, different circumstances, different times, but immigrants all.
All of us. We’re all in this Human Soup together. Seasoned, stewed and stirred by personal and collective histories. What do we have in common? We all need to eat, we relish our favorite foods, and we all can use a good laugh. Grab a spoon, pass the soup, and pass the stories please.
Buen Provecho. Enjoy! May the soup and this story serve you well.
Finally, here’s to the two moms in this story. My mother Ruth fought hard, and though she never fully recovered had seven more years before she left us at 89. Belen is well, living close to us in New Mexico. I had some of her delicious Goose-sah do just last week!
Wonderful little story, Bob. I love that they got their routine from Eddie Murphy! Food is such a social and cultural glue. I share your cultural mix: My grandparents fled the pogroms in Russia and came to New York, where I was raised. My wife is from Colombia.
Outstanding story, Bob. Thanks. I, too, had come across the story in Rosten’s book. And I remembered the scene from Eddie Murphy’s film. So I was ready for the punchline. But that the two people knew each other and had ritualized this wee piece of lore was an absolutely unexpected and delightful twist! How lucky for you to have been a witness/spectator to this.
As for the issue of cultural appropriation (i’ve often thought it should be called cultural misappropriation), it is the nature of my work that i encounter this issue and its many tributaries daily. I was on the subway this morning reading about the politics of climate crisis and the horribly differential way that we are affected by it around the world. Our two affluent nations (along with many more) bear, of course, far more responsibility for the crisis than those people in those nations of the global south. But how can we get our fellow citizens here to feel connected enough to those who are suffering now (and whose suffering will assuredly only increase) to care enough to go beyond merely eating organic and eschewing plastic bags and to be willing to sacrifice some of benefits of privilege now and not merely when the crisis lands on our doorstep. The answer, of course, is multivalent. Many things have to happen. But one that is surely central is the sharing and telling of stories. And many of those stories have migrated from their cultures through the pages of scholarly research, the broadcasts of TV and movies makers, and so on. It can be hard know from where a story originates sometimes. So i do think it’s one of the obligations of storytellers to “re-member” the paths these stories have travelled and to point to those journeys, affirm those cultural contexts where some of those stories may still be vital. And to remember that context is everything. I’ve lost track of the number of tellers i’ve met who have pridefully explained to me that they were given permission by this or that indigenous elder to tell this or that story. It is always a difficult claim since the status of “elder” is actually rather complex in our colonized world. I have no doubt that some of the claims i’ve heard are entirely sincere and truthful. Just as i know that some are not and it’s sometimes obvious that someone is wielding cultural wealth that is not theirs to wield. But I have also read thousands of stories in hundreds of collections from dozens of cultures and have often seen the virtually same story pop up again and again. In the Gesta Romanorum (a 14th C collection of Latin anecdotes and reputedly a source for Chaucer, Shakespeare and others) I came across a version of a well-known buddhist story sometimes referred to as “Being Chased by A Tiger.” In this version there are two mice, one black and one white gnawing on a root which is a detail that seems rather insignificant in the european cultural context. But in the buddhist context such imagery is profoundly meaningful. Perhaps only a clue as to the story’s origins. And the Peddlar of Swaffham (well known from Joseph Jacobs’ collection) has many jewish variants (indeed, that’s how i first learned the tale) and also appears in a footnote of one of the editions of the Thousand Nights and a Night. Around and around we go. As I said, i think it’s up to storytellers to also share how these stories are connected across time and culture for we’ve never needed more to be reminded that we are all connected as a species in this time of increasing global crisis.
Thanks, Bob! Your post has warmed my heart and made me smile. This is a story for everyone to enjoy and savor. Best wishes,Glenda
Thanks for those kind and encouraging words Glenda.