The elementary school I attended in Chicago in the 1960s is within walking distance of the home where Barack and Michelle Obama lived before they moved to the White House. My parents used to take me for ice cream at Baskin-Robbins, the site of their first date, now commemorated with a plaque described in the Chicago Tribune. I still remember how to walk to the William H. Ray School. From my house, I turned left, passed the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club and Wolf’s toy store; then crossed East 55th Street with a “police lady” who wore a shiny cap, blue skirt, and white gloves.
Hyde Park, one of the few racially mixed neighborhoods in the U.S. at the time, attracted families from all over the country and all over the world. That gave the menu at the Ray School’s Parent-Teacher Association’s annual international dinner amazing variety at a time when Tang and Velveeta dominated many pantries. The 36 families who contributed recipes represented France, Italy, Switzerland, Armenia, the Philippines, and Japan. The American entries? True to the time period, the BOMB (beans, onion, mustard and bacon) sandwich, and Bronx Bavarian Cream (ice cream Jell-O mold).
My mother helped collate and staple the collection, and managed to save it long enough for me to list the recipes on our Ray School Facebook page. The one that I made, Msa-a-a, makes an interesting variation on two dishes that I never ate back then: baba ganoush and chickpea salad. With rice, it’s a light vegetarian meal; with crackers or pita bread, a snack. The school demonstrated a concept that we never talked about back then, either: diversity. This gave me the right start.
Msa-A-A [Arabic Eggplant and Chickpea Stew] (1967)
Makes approximately 4 cups
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 green bell pepper, cut into strips [I used red and yellow peppers]
1 medium eggplant, peeled and cut into cubes
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon oregano
2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes [I used 1 15-ounce can, including juice]
2 cups (1 15-ounce can) chickpeas, drained [and rinsed]
- Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a deep skillet. Saute the onion for 5 minutes.
- Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Saute the bell pepper and eggplant for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Mix in the salt, pepper, oregano, tomatoes, and chickpeas. Cover and cook over low heat for 30 to 45 minutes, until the eggplants are completely soft and mixed with the other ingredients. Add a little water as it’s cooking if it looks too dry.
- Serve hot or cold.