Ya-ka-mein: Old Sober

Published in Edible New Orleans and Best Food Writing 2016 by Da Capo Press

Photos by Matthew Noel

Photos by Matthew Noel

Each step I took into the Ogden Museum of Southern Art hurt worse than the one before. I moved lethargically and my headache had contractions. I plopped on a bench, away from the music and people gathered there on a Thursday night, almost two years ago. Even the lights hurt my eyes. But I knew something was truly amiss when I declined a bourbon on the rocks—offered by the museum’s director, who knew my affinity for the drink. All day, not water, a nap or even aspirin had made me feel better. Then, I paid $5 for a savory elixir dipped from a slow cooker and served in a Styrofoam cup: Miss Linda Green’s ya-ka-mein.

I wasn’t drunk or hungover, but that day, it was my Old Sober. For the past 19 years, Green has served her dish of spaghetti noodles, beef and green onions in a spice-filled broth topped with half of a hard-boiled egg. As I ate and sipped the goodness, I grew stronger by the second; it was Popeye the Sailor’s can of spinach. Shortly thereafter, the dish proverbially transported me back to my youth.

I spent a lot of my childhood on North Broad and Saint Phillips streets, the Sixth Ward, where my parents owned Le Earth Florist & Balloons and second lines often passed on Sundays. A few doors down was Manchu’s, a carry-out-only Chinese food place where I feasted on egg foo young, Saint Paul sandwiches and ya-ka-mein. My folks introduced me to the dish; for them, it was a quick snack on long days. For Green and so many other residents of the city, the dish dates back to their youth, family and neighborhood barrooms. And at those lounges, deep in those black communities, where the sounds of rhythm and blues reverberated around the walls and soul food was served from the kitchen, the legend of Old Sober was born.

“It was a unique dish. It was always a poor man’s dish,” Green said. “It was leftovers.”