Scene from a Research Trip: Ish Sauce

I grabbed my wallet and followed Jen into MaMa BaBa’s Deli, half of a small cinderblock building standing next to Boston Post Road somewhere in Milford, Connecticut. Though all its signs were new, the deli’s cracked parking lot needed a fresh coat of blacktop and its front windows sported ads for Boar’s Head Meats, the Connecticut state lottery, various brands of cigarettes, and a bus to the Mohegan Sun casino. It reminded me of the Conrad Market and Deli at the end of the street where I grew up in Philadelphia, a place so dirty that my mother had told me I could only buy candy and soda there. I brushed aside this thought.

We were hungry and lost, after all. We’d set out from our hotel to search for a Starbucks, avoiding the ones in New Haven because Yale was holding its reunion that weekend and the city was jam-packed with alumni and their families. Google Maps had led us as far as Boston Post Road, but then we’d somehow gotten lost—not realizing until later that the address numbers restarted every time the road cut through a different town. We were in Milford when we actually wanted to be in Orange.

 

It was nearly 2:00 in the afternoon. Jen hadn’t eaten anything all day; I’d grabbed some coffee and an egg sandwich at Dunkin Donuts that morning, but I was starting to feel a twitch of hunger, too. So when she steered our rental Dodge Avenger into MaMa BaBa’s parking lot, lured by the “Sandwiches” sign out front, I crossed my fingers that the Board of Health had made an inspection visit recently.

We stepped inside and I realized that the deli didn’t have air conditioning; large fans stood in each corner of the square store, vainly combatting the day’s rising temperatures and the heat of the deli grill. To our left, a redheaded woman rang up purchases at the cash register, while three molded Formica tables and benches were bolted to the linoleum floor in the middle of the room. Jen and I turned to the right and began consulting the massive sandwich menu hanging above the deli counter and grill.

“What looks good?” Jen asked, though I realized quickly that I wouldn’t have to spend too long deliberating over my selection. MaMa and BaBa didn’t offer their vegetarian customers many options. After ruling out egg salad—I wasn’t in the mood—I was left to decide whether I wanted my tuna hot or cold. Jen had many more sandwiches to choose from, every type of deli meat imaginable offered in a seemingly endless number of combinations.

But no one was rushing us, the stocky bald man behind the deli counter more focused on building the sandwiches others had already ordered than in turning to the two lost travelers who had wandered into his shop. I got the feeling that MaMa BaBa’s had a regular clientele and few walk-ins. An elderly man wearing a porkpie hat sat at one of the low tables, slowly chewing through a plateful of fried eggs and hash browns, a twenty-dollar bill and two singles lying next to his plate. A heavyset woman in a black tank top and leggings occupied another table; she wasn’t eating or drinking anything and it seemed like she was just there to hang out. I watched the cashier, who spent most of her time at the lottery computer as a steady trickle of customers bought tickets and turned in scratch-offs.

Finally, the grill cook turned to us and asked what we wanted. I ordered a tuna melt; Jen picked some complicated meat-based creation. He scribbled down our orders and nodded brusquely, no time for small talk. We meandered around, examining the two shelves of convenience items—all of them dusty and faded, permanent residents of the store. One shelf held food products with labels in Arabic, and Jen tried to see how much she could remember from studying the language in college, sounding out the syllables to tahini before giving up. We perused the magazine rack, which was filled with half-concealed copies of titles like Barely Legal and Weed World, and checked out the extensive offerings of the tobacco case, even though neither of us smoked.

I grabbed a can of diet Coke from the refrigerated case, restless for something to do while we waited. Jen and I made small talk, idly trading thoughts back and forth. Then the grill cook called us over and pointed at Jen.

“Your sandwich comes with hot sauce. I make hot sauce. Mine is better. You wanna try?”

Jen nodded in agreement and he handed over two plastic spoons whose tips had been dipped in a light orange, creamy spread. We both tasted the sauce, which started out mild but quickly revealed its bite, and widened our eyes in surprise. It was good—really good. How-can-I-make-this-myself good.

“You like it?” The cook was watching our reactions closely. We both proclaimed that the sauce was excellent. He offered to put some on my sandwich as well, and I quickly assented, still tasting the lingering heat of chipotle peppers.

“What’s in it?” Jen asked, but the cook just smiled and wagged his eyebrows in response as he shook his head.

“It’s my own recipe. Ish sauce. I’m Ish.”

“He’s not gonna tell you what’s in it,” the heavyset woman sitting at the table laughed. “Ish doesn’t share his recipes. He’s a good cook, though. Brings food over to my house sometimes.” Ish smiled again, seemingly delighted that we wanted to know his secret. We continued talking with the woman, Jen volunteering that she was visiting from California and that I had grown up in Philadelphia.

“You’re from Philly? You ever go downna shore? Jersey Shore?”

I nodded, something in the woman’s slurry local accent inviting me to loosen mine up as well, slipping back into the jumbled speech that I had tried to monitor ever since moving to China and learning that the Philly accent is as impenetrable to outsiders as Beijing hua is to me.

“Yeah. My aunt lives in Ocean City. And my brother works at the Atlantic City airport.”

“Oh, I love Atlantic City. I love to gamble. I love casinos. Anything with slots.” The woman grew the most animated I had seen her during our time in MaMa BaBa’s, enthusing about Mohegan Sun and encouraging Jen and me to take a trip there while we were in the area. “That place is jumping on a Saturday night.”

Ish called us over again and handed us sandwiches wrapped in white paper already dotted with grease spots.

“Enjoy, ladies.”

We thanked him and paid for our lunches, then walked outside to sit at one of the picnic tables next to the parking lot. We unwrapped our sandwiches and began eating with contentment, occasionally breaking the silence to say something unnecessary about how satisfying the food was. The creamy tuna fish was delicious, its blandness counteracted by the spice of the Ish sauce, a perfect balance washed down with icy diet Coke.

We still had six days left in our research trip to New Haven. I began to imagine becoming a short-term MaMa BaBa’s regular, driving down every day for a tuna sandwich with Ish sauce. Then I stopped myself. Maybe we were enjoying our lunch so much because it was a surprise, an unexpectedly good meal from an unimpressive-looking source. Maybe I shouldn’t push it, but just relax and enjoy the Ish sauce.

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