To the 'N'th Degree

Two-year-old Camille Unsworth steals a French fry from her great-grandmother Mi Mi.
Erik Guzowski

"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.

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.

I can just imagine the looks I'd get from these kids in a couple of years if I invited them to stop in with me at Jagne's to pick up another childhood classic combo: a sloppy Joe, French fries, a pickle and a Coke. If their palates hadn't been properly prepared, I worry they'd only see the obvious -- that a sloppy Joe is a toothless cousin in the hillbilly hamburger family, simmered beef in lots of ketchup, vinegar, sugar and mustard with maybe some green pepper and onion thrown in. Without the clear eyes of a child, would they be able to appreciate what a sloppy Joe really is -- a glorious celebration of ground beef slow cooked in lots of ketchup, vinegar, sugar and mustard with maybe some green pepper and onion thrown in? How would they know that the real flavor of this dish evolves through memories of scooping it from a soggy paper plate while sitting in the grass at a picnic?

And without proper exposure, how could they know that the sloppy Joe served at Jagne's is not what the sandwich should be? One bite of this dish, served with a generous two Joes to a plate, is vandalism on a grilled sesame seed bun, the meat chalky dry and severely vinegared. These kids might never go back, and that would be an injustice, to Joes everywhere and also to Jagne's. Because in most other aspects, Jagne's (pronounced John's -- the owner of this all-American cafe is, it turns out, from Africa) delivers on those foods that took root in our childhoods and follow us into our adult dreams.

Without having seen a so-called "lite" plate on menus very often while growing up, I'd be snickering at the grilled ground beef patty with cottage cheese and canned peach halves I find at Jagne's. I'd respond to it in the same fashion as my tuna-casserole-deprived friend. But I fondly remember this combo from my early years, introduced to me at what was La Cucaracha Mexican restaurant in central Phoenix (now a gay bar). The dish was recently removed from Jagne's menu, but it still arrives on request. I bet most of my peers don't know there's a specific way to eat it, too. It's a must to lightly salt the cooked patty and pepper the cottage cheese, because this is "diet" food, and that term alone makes it tasteless. Then -- and this is important -- a diner must divide three small forkfuls each of burger, cottage cheese and peach. Eat one bite of each in a circle until the dish is gone, so as to best marry the flavors and forget that what we're eating is simply hamburger, curd and canned fruit.

Perhaps the unfortunate people who never experienced family dinners with grandma and grandpa will be too challenged to find the joy in Hawaiian baked ham (once considered pretty wild since it's topped with pineapple) or a fish stick platter served with crisp French fries and creamy coleslaw. I admit, as good as the preparation is at Jagne's, if this food didn't evoke warm fuzzies for me, I'd pass, focusing instead on the cafe's superb fried catfish, the moist bundles piled alongside slaw, plump hushpuppies and juicy fried okra.

And call me old-fashioned, but every now 'n' then, I've got to trade in that healthful breakfast of cereal and low-fat milk for a big, hunkering piece of chicken fried steak. Jagne's version is sumptuous, the tooth-tender pounded beef coated in peppery batter, swimming in thick cream gravy, paired with scrambled eggs scraped up in thin phyllo layers plus home fries shaved like soft potato chips.

There's no question I'll be diving happily back into my normal food, excuse me, cuisine, like roasted loin of rabbit wrapped in smoked pancetta with crispy artichoke hearts and balsamico. But I'm proud to say that I'll also be finding time to make my casserole, and to fit in a meal of grilled ham 'n' cheese on Wonder bread from Jagne's.

Not every day, certainly, but now 'n' then.

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