As part of an ongoing series, The Rail will be visiting dinner tables throughout the borough to examine how economics, culture and taste influence what for most remains the principal meal of the day. Whether expense or convenience, diet or tradition, access or ideology, What’s For Dinner aims to enrich our understanding of the diverse local factors that inform our decisions about the food we eat. These are the politics of the plate.
Librada Rodriguez, 80,
born in Puerto Rico, raised in East Flatbush
Household Income: Fixed Social Security
Weekly Food Costs: $50
What’s For Dinner: Salad (cucumber, tomato and lettuce) with Wishbone French, Ranch or Italian dressing; chicken in adobo spices over yellow rice; steamed carrots and broccoli; tostones; iced tea; and homemade apple strudel.
“I cooked the first meal at the soup kitchen—this very same meal,” says Libida Rodriguez, who goes by Lee.
Lee is 80, and the soup kitchen is Neighbors Together—a nearby community group that has been advocating for the hungry in Ocean Hill-Brownsville since 1982, and where today Lee serves as a board member.
Lee is always cooking. She makes dinner for two at home most weekday evenings—for herself and one grown son—but the dinner table is often crowded with her children (she raised 9), grandchildren (she has 22) or friends (she has many).
“On the weekends I cook for everybody,” she says.
But Lee’s health, and the number of mouths she helps feed at home and at Neighbors Together, present certain challenges to how far her social security check can be stretched each month. Her children help, and Lee has her tricks. She says she learned many raising nine children in Brooklyn without government assistance.
“You manage,” she says. “You know what you have to cook for. Instead of steak you have two steaks ground up and you make meatballs. And always the vegetables and fruits. I’m big on vegetables and fruits.”
Lee shops for meat in bulk at Western Beef on Myrtle Avenue, about 2 miles from her home near Evergreen Cemetery. Usually a friend takes her, or the neighbor, who runs a taxi service. She buys $20 worth of sirloin, and “from those $20 I get close to 6 meals,” she says. Lee makes bread pudding with leftover bread. She makes beef patties with leftover bits of chicken and meatballs. “You add all these spices to it and it’s a meal,” she says.
For vegetables, Lee shops occasionally at the local C-Town but prefers a Mexican grocer around the corner from her home. There she purchases a 10-pound bag of white onions and grinds them together with cilantro, ajies dulces (little green peppers), recao (an herb much like cilantro) and garlic, to make a sofrito sauce that she stores in her freezer. “You put it in your yellow rice, your beef stew, your beans, your everything,” says Lee. “It costs me $4 and lasts a month, or even longer.”
In the summer, Lee grows tomatoes, string beans, basil, rosemary and mint in the back garden, where the neighbors have asked her not replace her fence with the higher one that currently occupies her front hallway, since it would be much harder for them to say hello—and harder for Lee to pass across an extra apple strudel when she has baked too many. Lee is famous among friends and neighbors for her apple strudel, and she is equally known on the block for baking too many. Her son tells her he could make a fortune if she’d only let him sell them in the neighborhood.
Lee loves to bake, but with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, and after surviving four heart attacks, health now dictates most of what she cooks for dinner. “I used to eat more pork, more fatty foods,” she says. That’s “how it used to be.”
“I use olive oil to cook now, and I use as little as possible. I cook very lean meats, fish or shrimps once a week, and plenty of vegetables, because everybody here loves them. I make baked potatoes, pasta or rice and beans. I don’t fry now—I used to. Of course I love fried chicken, everybody here does. So every once in a while I make it. And my son loves bacon on his day off. I love to eat it when I’m cooking it, but you learn. I use very, very little salt. And if I have white bread, then I have only one slice.” Lee serves iced tea with dinner since “you can drink a soda outside anytime.”
“When you see yourself so sick, in open heart surgery, and the doctor is telling you, ‘You have to change your way of life,’ you do,” says Lee, who lost her husband and one son to heart attacks. “Once you’re conscious of how easy it is to eat the things that are healthier for you, it’s not that much more expensive. Instead of buying a TV dinner, buy something fresh. Everything you cook fresh is cheaper and is healthier,” she contends.
Chicken, rice and tostones are a regular for Lee, and she seems happiest when her kitchen, and her table, are full. “I’m a very Puerto Rican Puerto Rican, but I love Brooklyn,” she says. “My thing is to see people eat and enjoy.”