Pandemic Loco Moco by Shirley Huey
Updated: Aug 8
During the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, Shirley Huey revisits and reimagines a side of the road meal on an escape to Hawai'i that provided comfort and peace to her during another tumultuous and uncertain chapter of life. In this deeply personal essay, Shirley helps us discover the emotional impact of food and the ways in which meals become comfort, recognition, and memory.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Shirley Huey writes at the intersection of place, culture, and identity. Her creative nonfiction has been published in Catapult, Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, sparkle + blink, and Endangered Species, Enduring Values: An Anthology of San Francisco Area Writers and Artists of Color, among others. A past VONA/Voices, Rooted & Written, and Kearny Street Workshop Interdisciplinary Writers Lab fellow, Shirley also has received generous support from Mesa Refuge, Liminal, Left Margin Lit, and Quillisascut Farm. Shirley is a past nonfiction reader for the Rumpus and a co-founder/editor of Lunchbox Moments, a zine presenting stories on Asian American identity through the lens of food.
RECIPE POSTED AFTER THE PIECE!
Fried Eggs and Rice Prompt: In Shirley's piece, a meal that once provided comfort is reimagined to fit the current mood and circumstances. Consider a moment where you had to reimagine and revisit something in your life. In your preferred genre, write the reimagining. This does not have to be food related.
PANDEMIC LOCO MOCO
By Shirley Huey
Today is April 10, 2020. Tonight’s dinner is inspired by the discovery of ground beef in the freezer and a carton of TJ’s portobello mushroom soup way, way back in the pantry. I feel tired and not up to cooking anything elaborate. It’s been a difficult day – so many people gone, friends’ relatives dying, too many things uncertain in the world.
I am alone in my apartment a few weeks after everything closes down here in the Bay Area for the Covid-19 pandemic on March 17th–St. Patrick’s Day. My roommate has gone to stay at her sister’s place in the South Bay and won’t be back for weeks.
Right now, I can control so very few things in my life – not the pandemic and certainly not the fact that my brother is currently in custody in county jail. I am worried about him–what is his mental health like now? Will he be physically safe there? What about Covid-19?
I read in the news that Covid-19 is spreading in jails and prisons because the institutions aren’t taking the pandemic seriously. Or because they don’t have enough staff. Or because their staff and leadership are more concerned about their own health than the health of the people in their charge. Whatever the reasons, I am so worried about my brother.
My brother is in jail because he has had another mental health crisis. I have also learned for the first time that my mother, who he lives with, is afraid of him. She has never said this before. She’s never, ever voiced a fear of my brother; in the past, she has only voiced weariness, deep concern, and shame. But fear–this is a new development.
I am worried about what will happen to him if he remains in jail. I am worried about what will happen to him and to my mother if he gets out of jail. I am worried for us all in the middle of this pandemic with a deadly virus that we don’t yet have a cure or vaccine for. We don’t even have enough masks to go around for everyone. I can’t deal with the many unknowns relating to this scenario. The thoughts go around and round in my head; I am overwhelmed and frozen in place. Dinner is one area that I can move forward on right now. It’s something that I feel I have some control over, and having some control feels like a kind of freedom–a kind of spaciousness in its limitation.
Tonight, I can and will eat. Eating helps fill the emptiness I feel inside me, just as cooking helps fill in the emptiness of my days in the early part of the pandemic. Finding a package of ground beef in the freezer tonight means it’s high time for some loco moco.
I hadn’t had loco moco, the Hawaiian comfort food dish–a mound of rice stacked with a hamburger patty, a fried egg, and smothered in gravy–since a January 2015 vacation to Maui. I left SFO that winter looking for escape and asking questions: What was the value of my work after all?
For years, I had been a civil rights lawyer working on class action cases affecting the rights and conditions facing prisoners in California. By 2013, I transitioned to working at a consulting firm, on projects relating to education, mental health, and criminal justice systems. I continued to be interested in fixing these institutions that affect so many, and was glad to be involved, hopefully, at a point that was more upstream in people’s lives.
I started my consulting job in the Fall of 2013. During one of my first days of work, in the middle of the day, I got a call from my mother. This was strange–my mother rarely called me, and when she did, it was not usually during my work hours. I quickly pick up. “Call me later,” she says, when I tell her I’m working and can’t talk. “I need to talk to you.” I say yes, get off the phone, and return to the focus group that I am helping facilitate. Later, she tells me that my brother has been arrested again. It was a few days or a week or so ago. He’s in county jail.
Fast forward to the day of my brother’s sentencing in 2014, when I discovered the truth about what happened the day of his 2013 arrest, after my brother’s girlfriend called 9-1-1 asking for help, telling them that he was not dangerous, that she did not fear him, that she just needed their help. He had been acting erratically that day, showing up at her workplace and anxiously telling her that he had to get her out of there because people were coming to get them. He couldn’t explain what people, and he was acting strange—paranoid. He made her go to her family’s home, pulled down all the blinds, locked all the doors. But in her call, she repeated that he wasn’t dangerous—that they weren’t afraid of him; he just needed some help. He wasn’t his usual self. What had she hoped for? Some assistance in calming him down.
I had not known this was what happened before the day of sentencing. My brother had been on the verge of going to trial, and as a lawyer, I didn’t want to pose a problem for any witness testimony or for the prosecutor to say that witness testimony had been coached by the accused’s sister. So, I didn’t ask those questions. Ultimately, he pled—as someone with a prior conviction history in a county with conservative juries, he was advised to plea. When I learned the officer lied in the police report, I also learned there was no recourse for him—and there would be no appeal.
That day of my brother’s sentencing, I learned that it was possible for me to be so angry as to want to burn shit down, break things, and howl in uncontrollable sadness and rage.
On that day my heart broke open.
This was my brother who I loved so much and whose life circumstances – the arrest and conviction at an early age (he’d just turned 18)- had shaped so much of my life up to that point. When I went away to law school, I wanted to understand the legal system and I thought that I could help other families who might need assistance navigating what had had such an impact on my own family.
But in that moment during his sentencing, I realized in a lightning flash that the choices I had made, the goal to work for justice, the desire to help prisoners – well, maybe that was all for naught, a career entered into in error. I had always been a believer, and what I learned that day was that Santa Claus wasn’t going to show up for the cookies. The Tooth Fairy wasn’t real. And Jesus didn’t rise on the third day. Justice was an ephemeral notion, and who was I anyway but a girl who’d grown up bookish and sheltered in a middle-class immigrant Chinese family? What did I know about anything after all? Though I knew it already, that day confirmed that the Constitution didn’t protect people who are marginalized or hold criminal records or are mentally ill or black or brown.
I knew that already, I did. But I didn’t feel it in my bones the way I did that day.
It is 2013.
My brother asks the officer if he’s under arrest.
“No,” he is told, “You’re not under arrest. We’re just waiting for my back up to arrive.”
Remembering counsel from defense attorneys in his past that if you’re not under arrest, then you are free to go, my brother asks for clarification.
“I’m not under arrest?” he asks. He’s already provided identification.
The officer assents. “No, you’re not under arrest.”
“OK. Are you a man of God?” my brother then asks, looking at the officer.
“Yes,” the officer replies.
My brother: “Well, then, you must have faith.” He then gets up from the curb where he’d been asked to sit and starts walking away.
The officer proceeds to tackle him.
None of this appears in any kind of court transcript because, after lengthy consideration, my brother, who already had past convictions, pled to charges stemming from an attempt to get him help for a mental health crisis.
We are apparently lucky he did not get a third strike.
That 2015 trip to Maui was my escape from feeling the grief fully – though I did not realize it then. I wanted to be anywhere but here—where I had experienced a shaken faith in the legal system, in my closest relationships, and in my employer who didn’t understand or connect what I was experiencing with the protests in the streets in Oakland and across the country. The idea of taking a little break from it all--relaxing and exploring a beautiful place where I had never been--seemed like a good idea.
Driving from Lahaina on the famously scenic Road to Hana, a 64 mile curvy coastal drive with dramatic cliffside ocean views and lush greenery, I got hungry and decided to stop at a truck by the side of the highway. Standing under the shade of the truck’s green awning, I decided on a plate lunch–the combo plate chock full of meat and carbs– a meal that was already on my “must-do-while-in-Hawai’i” list. I ordered the loco moco plate from a middle-aged brown-skinned lady in a red polo shirt who took orders while looking out the open window down at her customers.
“Call me auntie,” she said to me, with kindness in her eyes, and instantly, I felt better about the world and my place in it. That’s what I came to Hawai’i for, after all–the warmth. Lunch came out in a box--two burger patties and fried eggs smothered in a savory brown gravy with sticky rice and macaroni salad.
I took it with me in the rental car, and drove down the highway a bit further until I reached Hamoa Beach. I parked, walked down a set of stairs towards sparkling blue waters reflecting a cloudless azure sky and dense green tropical growth surrounding the shore. I kicked off my shoes, wiggled my toes in the sun-drenched sand, and wandered down the beach searching for a quiet spot to have a solo picnic.
After spreading out my green and blue striped beach towel on the sand, I sat down and drew the plate lunch box to my lap. With the roar of waves in the distance as the soundtrack to my lunch, I opened the clamshell top, and dug my fork into the rich gravy-covered meat. I savored the first bite while staring off into the sparkling aquamarine water. This was a surfers’ paradise–the north shore of Maui–yet I was merely an observer. I didn’t know how to swim, much less surf. But I could eat. I ate my plate lunch, happy and grateful for the quiet, for the escape.
As I was eating, someone came up and sat by me. I felt something nuzzling me, a little pressure on my elbow. I looked down to see a dog I had noticed earlier wandering the beach. A friendly beachcomber, he looked like a cross between a beagle and a shepherd--tan, with long floppy ears, and a low-slung body. He was not particularly demanding or insistent, but I knew what he wanted. We were of like minds. Beach time was as much for good eating and building cross-species relationships as anything else. He didn’t look like he belonged to anyone, and I felt a kind of kinship to that –a sense of being alone but in a friendly place. I had more than enough food, and gladly shared my lunch with him.
Before my escape to Hawaii in 2015, I hadn’t yet articulated it in my own mind, but the question that I was struggling with was: what did I have to offer the world when I was working in such a broken system? I thought leaving the practice of law would help with the boundary setting that I never was able to do when practicing. It definitely helped.
The truth was though, that my issues with boundaries were deep. I was raised to be boundaryless - I was a woman, an eldest child who culturally was always being asked to give to the younger ones. I became an attorney whose knowledge was supposed to help people, but I increasingly doubted my ability to save even myself, much less anyone else. But everything started and ended with my family, and the expectation that I could save my own brother.
My brother once said to me, in a fit of anger and resentment, “You’ve never helped me!” At the time, that irritated me and made me so angry. I don’t know that I tried to quantify it, but I certainly had tried to help–conducting an ad hoc intervention while I was home studying for the bar exam and learned of his dependence on muscle relaxants after a car accident (no one had told me before); flying across the country to convince him to get therapy and go to rehab; always at my mother’s request because she “couldn’t handle him”; helping him purchase books when he wanted to learn a new trade or showed interest in pursuing a particular career; giving him pep talks about how it wasn’t too late for him to consider going to college.
But October 2014 and his sentencing brought me face to face with the fact that he was right: nothing I knew or had gone to school for–all those many years–helped him get out of the criminal justice system, or fight his personal demons. Hell, I didn’t even know what the fuck was up. My brother wasn’t totally wrong when he called me square. I was a good kid, a good girl, a good student, and, I had always hoped, a good lawyer. But you can’t be a good lawyer when you have no idea what the truth is about the systems and institutions in which you work. I was angry at myself, I was angry at the system, I was angry at the world. And I was so, so sad and angry for my brother - that he was right.
He made it through the 10 years you need to not get his parole revoked, and then here he was again - back in prison. And there was nothing I could do. Faced with my own ineffectiveness, all I knew to do was to escape to a place where I could connect with nature and begin to hear myself again.
Tonight’s pandemic dinner: one small burger patty, seasoned with garlic salt and black pepper, topped with a fried egg on a mound of steaming white rice. The mushroom soup, heated with a little milk, becomes a tasty gravy. Wok-charred cabbage rounds out the plate. It was a little less rich and a little less comforting than I remembered the real thing to be in Hawai’i.
Still, eating this meal brings me out of the confines of my apartment, breaking down the walls that enclose, the walls that separate me from the world, beyond the boundaries of the Covid-19 shelter-in-place and takes me back to Hawai’i, flying down the side of the Haleakala volcano, driving a little too fast with the windows down, wind whipping in while the local radio station blares punk rock. There are no worries as I drive, switching back and forth down the side of the volcano in a race against the setting sun, clean air in my lungs, the world open to me, my belly full.
Note: this is not an “authentic” recipe; it’s my version of a remembered meal based on what was in my pantry. I have recreated it here for you to enjoy.
½ - ⅔ lb of ground beef (or turkey or meat substitute, like Impossible Burger), formed into 2 patties–your choice ¼ or ⅓ lb each
A container of TJ’s turkey gravy or mushroom gravy
1.5 tsp olive oil, plus 1T. Olive oil
½ cup of milk
8 oz of white or cremini mushrooms, sliced about ¼ inch thickness
½ onion, thinly sliced (optional)
Cooked rice, whatever kind you prefer
Cook or heat up rice. Set aside.
Heat 1.5 tsp olive oil in small pot over medium heat. When hot, add mushrooms (and onions, if using). Season with a pinch of salt and some pepper.
Saute until onions are soft and mushrooms have released their juices, stirring occasionally (about 5-7 min).
Open the container of gravy, and add contents into the pot with the mushrooms and onions.
Add ½ cup of milk to the pan. Stir to combine and simmer until hot. If you prefer a thicker gravy, keep the lid off the pot and simmer until it gets to desired consistency. Make sure you check on your gravy and stir it to keep the bottom from sticking.
While the gravy is simmering, add 1 tsp. of olive oil to a pan on medium heat. When hot, fry two eggs in the pan, ideally not touching each other (but if they do, you can divide up the eggs once they are done cooking). When eggs are done to your desire, remove them from the pan and place onto a plate.
Add a little more oil into the pan, and when the pan is hot, cook your burger patties to desired doneness-about 3-4 min a side over medium heat.
Assemble your plate: Put rice on the plate, then set the burger patty on top. Drizzle the gravy on top of the burger, then place the egg on top.