Guest essay | Change is Hard: Memories of Prairie Joe
By Gretchen Livingston
Change is difficult. This is probably why for their entire lives, at least those in which they ate solid foods, my two now adult children ordered the same thing to eat from Prairie Joe: a sloppy Joe for one, and a grilled cheese. for the other. . The only thing that changed that routine was the awful moment the mashed potatoes were eliminated as a side dish for the sloppy joe and the fries. Oh, and the milkshake. When sharing with me, it had to contain chocolate, so to avoid sharing, the elder ordered the Green River shake.
Now we all have to deal with change as Prairie Joe’s, and the people who make it – Aydin, Diane, Yasmin, Joe and the cooks and waiters – will apparently be leaving the corner of Prairie and Central, where they are. for so long. How long exactly is just a distant memory to me, even though I lived here for the previous iteration. I may have eaten in this version, but when PJ moved in, the decor and the food attracted me and my family, and I never looked back.
Some people prefer breakfast at PJ’s, and we’ve certainly had our share there, but it’s really lunch where all the interesting things happen. In addition to the sloppy joe and the grilled cheese, I could order a combination of lentils, hummus, beets, eggplant, feta, beef patties, and sticky rice. Or soup, but it was never enough for me. Or those sandwiches on Greek bread, but it was too much for me, except for the Greek BLT every now and then. There were a few exciting years where PJ’s was open for dinner several days a week, allowing busy moms and dads to come or return from one workout or another for a real meal.
What a surprise to find that people you know well and consider friends to have not been to PJ’s yet! Maybe they were confused by the windows? Puzzled by the wide range of menu choices? Too busy exploring South Evanston? Whatever the reason for the oblivion, when I met a friend for lunch at PJ’s on my recommendation, they also became fans.
Of course, we have more fancy places to eat in Evanston, including places with white tablecloths, but they can’t provide the same satisfaction as the PC experience. This experience concerns the food of course, but also the people you see and interact there: the neighbor who meets her friends every week; the regulars who sit at the counter; families with young children; the professors of Haven; the groups of Haven students who come for half-day shakes, at least when the school is in person; the new person at PJ’s who wanders and looks around with a confused expression.
The ambiance matches the food; Eclectic can’t begin to sum it up. Artworks and exhibits created or collected by Aydin, interesting music, and never-before-seen holiday renditions combine to make PJ’s the most comfortable place in town, even sitting in slightly uncomfortable seats.
I know I am not PJ’s oldest customer, in terms of age or years of visitation. I ate there often enough to be able to leave at least once without paying, having forgotten my wallet. (I settled in later, although I think Diane would have preferred I had gone to the bank across the street and returned immediately for payment, the usual suggestion for those who come without cash.)
In a bad parenting moment, I once (OK, really twice) left something behind – a blood glucose meter for a child with diabetes. Diane held it for me, knowing exactly who it belonged to, and called me. Perhaps Prairie Joe’s is one of the best examples of the importance of weak ties. People who are on the outskirts of our lives may matter more than we realize. Until we realize they might disappear.
It was always difficult when the PJ gang took a well-deserved vacation, usually in August, and we awaited their return. The holidays could be permanent this time. Change is always difficult, especially when the loss is so much more than a sloppy joe and grilled cheese.