The first birthday present John ever gave me was a sewing machine wrapped in a bath towel held together by safety pins. I used it to reupholster his couch, which years later went up in flames when our first house caught on fire. Some other birthday gifts were a Vita-mix, a cookbook, a punching bag, a necklace, a bike, a Border’s gift card, and the cliched dozen roses to which I said, “You shouldn’t have. Really.” The best gift was a pair of tickets to the Kennedy Center to see W;t. I happened upon them when we were in the car, and he told me to check my teeth for food. I pulled down the visor for the mirror, and there were the tickets.

That was when I was in my thirties. I’m in my forties now. Surprises seem to worry more than thrill me. Predictability, although a big bore in fiction, is, in real life, a very good thing. So, I’ve told John what I want and don’t want for my birthdays. No flowers, gifts, alcohol, sweets, trips, or unapproved experiences, please. Let’s keep things simple. Homemade cards from you and the girls. And a meal at a restaurant we’ve never tried that serves ethnic food we’ve never eaten together before.

Today, we ate Ethiopian for lunch at Shagga, a local family owned restaurant in Hyattsville. Kelem, the owner and cook, and her daughter greeted us at the door. They were warm and friendly, and I felt like I was walking into their home. Another family member, maybe an aunt, was also there, and the three talked in amharic. I liked hearing their conversation in the background.

John and I ate with our hands picking food up with pieces of injera, Ethiopian bread, which feels spongy and dissolves in your mouth. My favorites were the collard greens and the doro alicha, which is chicken simmered in onion, garlic, ginger and herbed butter with a boiled egg. John’s favorite was a dish called tibbs, beef cubes sautéed in onions, green peppers, and herbs. We finished our meal and walked out, our fingertips smelling of spices.

In the parking lot, John gave me a kiss and wished me a happy birthday. He drove to work, and I went home. It was a cold, cloudy, rainy day. Driving home, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What surprise did my birthday instructions thwart?”


The food.

My date.

From Ellie.

From Sophie.

Published in: on March 31, 2011 at 8:37 pm  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. i love shagga!
    Happy birthday Patti. Sorry I didn’t know about it tonight. Who knows what kind of surprise I could have cooked up.

    • Your news of Sophie needing a pedal harp in the next 1-3 years is surprise enough. Thank you.

  2. Shegga, I love that place. How soon will you be ready to go back?

    • Let’s do it soon, Steve. I want to try some of the other dishes.

  3. lovely all around.

    • Hey Mai! Aww, thanks.

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