(by Vanessa Stirling)
My childhood as the daughter of a geophysicist in the oil industry covered four continents and ____ countries. I can never immediately recall how many countries, without going finger by finger around the world, enough for faded, old U.S. and U.K. passports to present a welter of smeared visa stamps. However, my practical mother documented each place chronologically for me. She, by her nature, supplies the quantitative structure of Chronos to my personal history, compared to whimsical, moment-driven, Kairos. Chronos (as in chronological) can be measured, but not by my mind. Kairos is qualitative, a moment, the right moments.
I keep that where-when-was-I paper in my jewelry box. That organized list of years and
places detailed out by my mother keeps me grounded and combats the peculiar memory time-shift connected to what psychiatrists refer to as Global Nomad Syndrome. As I trawl the aisles of my suburban Costco in search of sanity and bulk-sized packages of toilet paper (TP, loo rolls), my mind glitches with sparse memories of a sudden wall of a dust storm, how our houseman crushed a roach barefooted, the honeyed twists and turns of English in non-native speakers. When and where things happened? Ask my mum.
The practicality of my mother kept us all grounded, housed and homed, and fed—no matter
the country, our finances, or the ravenous hunger of my two older brothers, my dad and me. My memories are scattered, impermanent shapes, built around orangey Polaroids from the seventies and eighties. And like many families, we have stories that become mythological in our retelling: the legend of my mum’s go-to dish, appearing no matter where/when we were, a save-all, use-all dish named “American Slop.” My mother would require me to say here, in her firm, no-nonsense ESOL teacher’s voice, she would never serve slop, it was a stew.
A disagreement, which continues on to this day. But to my family, it was always American Slop. As its base is ground hamburger meat; this is a likely genesis of its name. It’s an uncomplicated dish to cook, comforting for complex days, though. Begin with a sauteed onion, brown ground meat, and then start the adding. Half the fun comes from poking about to uncover what you’re eating. Mock protesting over the age of the leftovers is de rigueur. Baked beans from Wednesday, crusty potato bits unearthed from a foil-wrapped lump from the fridge corner, and relentless scraps of leftover vegetables. Mum was, is, big into carrots. They make you see in the dark. This quality is, I regret to say, a myth popularized by the British Ministry of Information in World War II. Visit the online World Carrot Museum, if you, like me, need to prove a point with your mother, but not if you’re trying to get your own child to eat carrots.
Slop or stew notwithstanding, it is important to say “American” in American Slop, like John Wayne or Luke Skywalker, a space dusty growl. Important, because this dish connects
to the apple pie fireworks I felt when I found out I was American. Texan specifically.
The only American in my whole entire worldwide family.
My pride in this singularity spurred me to demand all my neighborhood friends play Cowboys and Indians in the sand under an Algerian sun. French, other Brits, Yanks, a United Nations of yee-hawing toddlers. I carried my Americaness with me into every subsequent country and sat in smug pride when we watched American shows and films on treasured VHS cassettes the expat community shared around. There were my people. The A*Team. Modern cowboys.
And there must have been Mum, serving up American Slop around the world, navigating
it all. She had, and has, this superpower of getting on with what’s in front of her, no matter the grey areas of foreign red tape, delayed flight connections, the oil industry’s ups and downs, and the what’s-in-the-fridge on any given Thursday. She knows how to treat non-potable water, chat her way through customs (we may have been smuggling cheese), and arrange for dry cleaning, Christmas turkeys, and liquor.
Now a mom myself, I imagine my mum made this dish when she ran out of steam. She must have done at some point, although I never noticed.
I do wish she’d remembered to tell my 11-year-old self we were moving to the States, my mythical birthplace. Details get lost inside moving boxes. I found out when I glanced at my
plane ticket, and in a panic, cried out to my brothers we were on the wrong plane. Apparently not. Apparently, we’d moved. To this dangerous country, filled with poisonous asp caterpillars, Stetsons, and middle schoolers.
Where no one at all thought I was American.
My mom always thinks I’m special and unique—a few months ago she told Apple Customer Service how wonderful I was. But, when you show up as the new girl with your Lady Di haircut and speak of the “American Revolution” in a class on “The War of Independence,” it
becomes obvious you are Other. The Pledge of Allegiance, as mysterious to me as acid wash
jeans, and judgmental middle schoolers cancelled all specialness of belonging to this large,
wild country. Except, of course, with my family, over a dish of American Slop.
The practicality, stability, comfort found in American Slop are what I struggle to build
today. It’s the part of my mum I want to emulate, rather than our silly unconscious flapping our hands about as we speak. I occasionally pull out that paper list and trace the routes of my geographical timeline through my mother’s sloped handwriting. If I can have ten percent of Mum’s capability, ground meat, and half an onion, I know I can handle whatever comes.
Especially, as I can borrow an onion from my Virginia neighbors; one or another Iranian,
Chinese, Afghani, Filipino, Ethiopian, Armenian, Texan, New Yorker or Buckeye fan will have
an onion or carrot to help out our Greek/German/British/American family on a desperate soccer practice Tuesday.
Vanessa Stirling is a marketing professional who lives in Northern Virginia. She tries to balance her marketing career with creative work focusing on motherhood, the workplace, and why those familiar relationships feel so unfamiliar. She can be found at @vrswrtr. This is her first publication.
American Slop (Stew)
a pound or so of ground beef
an onion if you have one; if not, chalk it up to experience
Dice the onion and begin sautéing it in oil. After a few minutes it’ll become translucent.
Add the ground beef, and as it cooks, break it into smaller and smaller pieces. Cook until
Make a gravy. I prefer to use Bisto Beef Gravy Granules, but the English import can be
pricey. My mom did go through a Tony Chachere's Creole Mix phase, as Houston is, after all, the Bayou City. Stir into the mixture.
Add in any fresh or leftover vegetables or starches you have on hand.
What I sometimes pull from my fridge:
carrots from the weekend. (Like mother, like daughter.)
celery that’s getting to the floppy stage
some pork loin from last night
failed homemade mac and cheese. (I am informed it’s not as good as the blue box.)