This morning was one of those quintessential winter mornings in Chicago — my alarm clock went off, I rolled over to look outside, and even without my glasses on I could tell it was going to snow. On mornings like this morning, all I want to do is roll back over and sleep. But I headed into work, bleary-eyed and downing coffee.
Sleepily, I found myself agreeing to pick up my office’s lunch order from Miss Lee’s Good Food, a soul food restaurant I had never heard of — “It’s near the Green Line,” my foodie co-worker told me. He went on, “I spent a little extra this week because she told me, ‘You’ve got to get the peach cobbler.'” Still not fully awake, I giggled at my co-worker being talked into buying dessert and got into an Uber to drive over to the restaurant.
If you’re not from Chicago, “near the Green Line” on the South Side stretching from roughly East 51st St down to East 63rd Street is the Washington Park neighborhood. The neighborhood is one of those ones that privileged students at UChicago are told to avoid by their worried parents. Once home to many public housing complexes including the famed former Robert Taylor homes, the neighborhood has lost nearly 75% of its population over the last 50 years, remains poor (39.1% of households are below poverty level and 23.2% of workers are unemployed), and the crime rate is one of the highest in Chicago.
As I pulled up to Miss Lee’s, I was met with the image that I’m sure most worried, privileged parents have in their heads when they envision “a bad neighborhood.” Outside: an unadorned building with a neon welcome sign, no foot traffic. Inside: thick bulletproof glass covering the counter, complete with bulletproof lazy Susan delivery windows.
However, Miss Lee herself changed that impression instantly. A short, spry African-American woman with purple-tinted silver hair, her smile is vibrant and matches her enthusiasm for her food. A strong personality, she proceeded to give very clear instructions on how to best enjoy the massive casserole-sized peach cobbler that she had strong armed my colleague into buying. In a strong Southside Chicago accent:
It has to be eaten warm. It tastes much better warm. I woulda warmed it up, but you gotta microwave? Good. Keep it flat now. There’s lotsa juices in there.
After ensuring her that we had a microwave, she wrapped the cobbler in foil and went to the back to get the rest of the food. While she was in back, I looked closer at the decor and realized how invested Miss Lee is in her community: everywhere were posters highlighting community issues, from local church flyers and Southside-focused newspapers to a poster calling for the Obama library to come to the Southside. This is a lady who cares about her community just as much as her food.
She reappeared from the back:
Oh, and I’m includin’ dressin’ for ya. You had two other sides, but I think you should try it. Yeah, write ‘complimentary’ on there.
The last bit, an instruction to her line cook.
As I left Miss Lee’s, now armed with two huge boxes worth of food (being sure to keep the cobbler flat!), I found my sleepy mood replaced with a strong smile thinking of the care and enthusiasm Miss Lee put into this lunch. Even the snow that had started couldn’t get me down.
I don’t know if I’ll ever see Miss Lee again, but I thank her for reminding me: (1) I should never judge a book by its cover, and (2) I should stay enthusiastic about my passions always because you never know when that enthusiasm is going to make someone’s day.
Slice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.