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"You make tuna casserole? Someone with your job actually eats tuna casserole?"
My friend is incredulous. If I'd told her I whip up a mean Crescenza-cheese-filled pasta pillow with rosemary, white asparagus, garlic and Parmigiano-truffle butter, she'd be nodding knowingly. Yet I'm sitting in front of her at the lunch table, admitting that not only do I like to sometimes make boxed macaroni and cheese, then mix in a little canned tuna and peas, but that once or twice a year, I must, in order to remain grounded. This is a revelation she can't handle.
"It sounds gross," she groans.
480-924-6665. Hours: Breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Then again, she's never had the casserole. Somehow, this 35-year-old has managed to make it through life never having tasted that down-home noodle-fish dish. Incredibly enough, she insists she's never even had macaroni and cheese before last week. It took new motherhood, and being in a rush to produce dinner, to convince her to crack open a packet of Kraft Easy-Mac (she dines now like most moms, snacking on her child's leftovers). It wasn't bad, she decided, and her kid loved it. But I can tell she's not fully converted, and possibly a bit embarrassed to admit she served the neon orange goo.
She's not a likely candidate to join me on a trek to Jagne's Corner Cafe in far east Mesa, home of everything basic like corned beef hash 'n' eggs; ham 'n' cheese; spaghetti 'n' meatballs; and liver 'n' onions. It doesn't serve mac 'n' cheese, but pretty much everything else involving an 'n', they've got. This three-month old cafe has got my heart, 'n' then some.
Okay, so this isn't cutting-edge cuisine. But what my friend doesn't realize is how important such places are for periodic visits, especially to someone so constantly surrounded by such complicated foods as I am. I love wood-roasted guinea hen with white polenta, morels, fiddlehead ferns and herb sausage as much as the next person, but in between, I've got to break it up with egg salad. Yes, ordinary egg salad such as is served at Jagne's, simply combining hard-boiled egg 'n' mayo on toasted white bread, fancied up with lettuce 'n' tomato.
Such foods bring -- and I currently hate this word, abused as it's been since that tired time capsule called 9/11 -- comfort. Jagne's makes me think of dinner at my grandparents' home: the place spotlessly clean, cozy with lazy ceiling fans, prettily lighted with stained glass chandeliers, calm, quiet and cheerful.
And when I've had enough of glitzy bistros, I can reconnect by sitting at one of Jagne's plastic tables, sipping a brown cafeteria-style ceramic mug of hot chocolate and spreading a fluffy homemade biscuit with jelly or jam plucked from a bright red bowl. Even the directions that are printed on the takeout menu read like the ones my grandparents would have given me: "Next to the Wells Fargo bank machine in the shopping center." Sure, it would've made more sense to say it's between the Fry's grocery and the Big Kmart, but I'm guessing that the neighborhood clientele visiting this place have lived in the area so long they could track it down by noting a specific oleander decorating the parking lot.
I hope the place makes it. It's no surprise that most of the folks gathering at the Corner Cafe are senior citizens, raised on everyday egg salad, BLT, grilled cheese. I'm sad to admit that asking most of my friends to accompany me to Jagne's involves rolled eyes -- I find myself apologizing that the place isn't fancier, and bribing them with promises of future visits to places that serve things like veal carpaccio rolled with foie gras alongside baby greens, apple curls and Saba vinaigrette. It seems like periodic hankering for this homey stuff is too yesterday for the hip crowd, and it makes me feel old, though I'm just over 30 myself.
Am I the last of the kids to be raised on plain old PB&J? Another first-time mom I know takes her infant with her to nice restaurants, trucking him along to dinners at Rancho Pinot. He's growing up being fed bits of Niman Ranch pork chop instead of hot dogs. Sushi bars these days are infested with kids squeaking for another California roll, instead of filling their faces with frozen fish sticks. And I know a woman who makes her own baby food, puréeing organic ingredients for each and every feeding. I think she even grows the fruits and veggies in her backyard. My own sister, still a baby though she's advancing on her second year of college, surprises me when she can argue the technical points between "mashed" and "riced" potatoes. Whither thou Tater Tots, or what I survived on in college, ramen noodles?
It makes me worry about our future. If perhaps classless yet undeniably core American foods like casseroles aren't introduced at an early age, a child's culinary heritage may be forever stunted. Things like Jagne's humble tuna melt loaded with Cheddar can be really good -- if only now 'n' then -- yet if we weren't introduced to it as youngsters, we probably wouldn't eat it.