Stephanie's stuffed bell peppers

For our first weekend in the new place, we explored our new neighborhood, and quickly felt at home. There was another location of El Castilito, the fabulous burrito place, just a few blocks from our apartment, where the food was just as good as the El Castilito in the old hood. For the first of many hundreds of times, we wandered into Naked Eye, which sounds like a porn palace but instead was a superb newsstand and video store. We found a comfortable coffee shop, and then we found another coffee shop and café that we liked even better — Café International. The Mission, where I'd lived for years, had been an interesting neighborhood too, but it could be dangerous, especially at night. Our new neighborhood seemed friendlier, less drunk and disorderly.
We also went Muni joy-riding as part of our explorations — taking the streetcar to nowhere in particular. Outbound, after stopping across the street from our apartment, the N train went into a tunnel that climbs a hill, and emerged at Carl & Cole Streets, where there was (and for all I know, still is) a great Mom & Pop hamburger place. Haight/Ashbury was within easy walking distance, as well as an Asian bodega, and an Italian restaurant that Steph wanted to try. Further west was UCSF (the University of California at San Francisco), and the city's best sandwich shop, and Golden Gate Park, and a place that soon became our favorite Thai restaurant, and countless cool shops and neighborhoods, and eventually, the Pacific Ocean. Then the train turned around and brought us home again, or we could ride inbound past our apartment, as the train entered the other, bigger tunnel, taking riders downtown via Van Ness Station, Civic Center, Powell Street, Montgomery, and finally Embarcadero Station.
San Francisco is a beautiful place, and what better way to see it than from a streetcar? No worries about parking, or traffic, or dents to the door or bumps to the bumper. On the streetcar, it was ten minutes to the heart of downtown, or half an hour to the Ocean.
We went shopping, and stocked the shelves in our new albeit insane kitchen. Cooking made Stephanie happy, and she could cook so much more and better with an actual burner instead of a plug-in hotspot, and a genuine oven and fridge and freezer. For her first dinner prepared in the new kitchen, Steph made us stuffed green peppers. They were fantastic, and became one of her most often reprised recipes, a cheap but delicious dinner we must've eaten a few hundred times.
I'm not going to turn this website into a cookbook, but since I have all of her recipe cards, typing a few of them seems like a workable way to share more of Stephanie here. Want to have Stephanie's stuffed green peppers, same as we had for our first home-cooked meal in San Francisco? Today's entry will end with the recipe.
* * * * * * * * * *
Steph's career was office work, same as mine. In Madison she had worked for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, and she'd had a few other office jobs, and in San Francisco she was looking for similar office-type work. For her first few weeks in the city, she was usually dropping her résumé someplace in the morning, and interviewing someplace else in the afternoon. But there had been no offers, and she had taken a few days off job-hunting as we moved into our new apartment.
On the Monday after we'd moved in, Stephanie told me she'd filled out an application at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF). She didn't know much about the job, and she'd filled out a lot of applications, so we didn't build up our hopes. This must've been the three- or four-dozenth place where she'd left her résumé and an application.
But the very next day, someone from UCSF called and asked Steph to come in for an interview on Thursday. They told her a little more about the job, and it sounded downright prestigious. If hired, she'd be the junior secretary to the Chief of Cardiology at UCSF Hospital. Imagine an MD so successful he needs more than one secretary.
Well, Stephanie thought this job sounded substantially better than clipping recipes for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, so she wanted to make the best impression she could at the interview. She spent most of the day Wednesday at San Francisco's downtown public library, researching UCSF, the UCSF Hospital, the Cardiology Department, and specifically researching the doctor who was hiring a junior secretary.
By Thursday, she knew some things. I gave her a pep talk before leaving for work, but she didn't need it. She was pumped up, overflowing with confidence, and wearing her best business-class outfit. Heck, even if I'd never met her before, I would've hired her on the spot.
At the interview, Stephanie asked a few questions about the doctor's work, but they were knowledgeable questions, subtly letting them know that she'd done her homework. She dropped a little bit of medical lingo, using and pronouncing complicated terms correctly. She mentioned the medical textbook that this doctor was editing, and said that she'd seen the previous edition (which she had — at the library the day before). She made it clear that she was clever and competent, responsible and resourceful. The next day, they called and offered her the job. Her starting pay was a bit more than double what I was making.
"Wow," I said. "That's a paycheck. So now can I take you to dinner someplace nice?"
"Yeah, now I think we can celebrate. We deserve it."
"We, my left buttcheek. You deserve it. Tell me where you want to go, and that's where we're having dinner." I don't remember where we went for dinner, but I remember that Steph was excited about not being unemployed. She started her new job on Monday, four days after the interview, and four weeks plus a few days after she'd arrived in San Francisco.
She had the weekend to worry about work, though, so she spent Saturday at the library, further researching UCSF. On Sunday we made a practice commute, on the N Judah again, which whisked us from our street to a block from Stephanie's office, in ten minutes. Still, on Monday morning she was at the station waiting for the train an hour before she was supposed to start.
Steph never had any serious complaints about that job. Her co-workers were nice, the work was challenging but not impossible, and their expectations were reasonable. She had a paycheck, medical coverage, regular breaks, regular raises, and they treated her with respect.
Twice, I met the doctor who was Stephanie's boss. He carried himself as "impressive" — one of those high-power people, a natural-born executive in a three-piece suit. By all accounts he was an outstanding doctor, but he was in the sunset of his career, and his day-to-day work was more as a manager than a doctor. He only saw a handful of patients, and the few medical appointments on his calendar were often celebrities — movie stars and millionaires, but Steph wasn't supposed to drop names outside of the office.
Stephanie said that he was generally a fair boss and honestly a nice man, but his demeanor was gruff — he sometimes barked commands to his underlings, as if the unspoken last word of every sentence was, buster. He'd say, "Get me that file," but his tone of voice said, "Get me that file, buster." Hence, when Steph told me about her work days, she nicknamed him 'Dr Buster'. To me, he'll always be Dr Buster, so that's how I'll refer to him here, if he comes up again.
* * * * * * * * * *
3-4 bell peppers
1 pound of hamburger
2 cups of real rice (not instant)
2 teaspoons of chicken goop [our term for Better Than Bouillon brand chicken base —Doug]
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 cans (8 oz) tomato sauce
2 ounces of cheddar cheese (optional)
1 teaspoon chili powpow [that's chili powder —Doug]
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon garlic salt
1 teaspoon oregano
½ onion, finely chopped
double-dash of salt
dash of pepper
Cut tops off the peppers and remove the innards. Boil the peppers for three minutes. Lightly salt the insides. In a separate pan, brown the hamburger, adding the onions about halfway through so they get lightly browned; stir in the spices and chicken goop and first can of tomato sauce (save the second can); add the rice and 2 cups of water; bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer with lid on the pot for 15 minutes or so. Back to the bell peppers: lightly salt the insides. Scoop the hamburger/rice mix into the peppers, and pour the second can of tomato sauce over the top. Bake at 350° for 45 minutes. (Or, bake 30 minutes, then top with cheese, then bake 15 more minutes.)

The apartment

We looked at some apartments near Alamo Square, but the application process just smelled like a racket. Like, it ought to be illegal. There were eleven other people with Steph and I, all traipsing through a couple of one-bedroom apartments in one building. After seeing the apartments, if you were interested in renting one of them, you had to pay a $50 fee for a credit check, to even be considered. Of the eleven people on our tour of those apartments, six stayed afterwards and paid for that credit check, including Steph and I.
Even without taking $50 from everyone who’s interested, the credit check seemed like a waste of money. There's no way someone with my craptastic job and severely-blemished credit report could score that apartment, so Steph filled out everything in her name. I tried to be supportive and positive, but it seemed hopeless even with Steph filling out the applications. How could someone with no income and no local references land an apartment in San Francisco, where rents were already impossibly pricey, and landlords had their pick of a dozen applicants for every apartment?
And indeed, we never heard back about that apartment, or any of several other apartments we'd walked through, and paid to have a credit check done. They didn't want us in Hayes Valley, or Potrero Hill, or Bernal Heights. They wanted our money, but they didn't want us. And we weren't made of fifty-dollar bills, so our cash reserves were dwindling. It would've been easy to grow discouraged. Steph's job-hunt was leading nowhere, and the apartment-hunt seemed even more futile.
A few days later, while I was getting ready for work, Steph mentioned that she had a bead on an apartment, and she was going to go look at it that day. I responded with words of encouragement, but I’ll admit now what I didn't admit then — I had doubts.
Early that afternoon, the phone rang at my desk at work, and it was Stephanie. "We have an apartment," she said. "It’s expensive, and the kitchen is across the hall, but they’re motivated to get it leased. I want to write a check and sign the contract, but only if you’re OK with it."
"The kitchen is across the hall? You mean, it’s a place with a shared kitchen?"
"No, the kitchen is all ours, no sharing, but it’s across the hall from the apartment."
"Um, I really don’t understand. Do you want me to come look at the place?"
"You can see it when we have the key, but Doug, to get this apartment, I need to sign the lease now. Meaning, as soon as I hang up the phone. I’ll only sign the lease if it’s OK with you, so – is it OK with you?"
"Steph, I love you, and I trust you. If you think it’s a good place at a good price, sign on the dotted line."
"I love you, too. I’m writing a check and signing a lease."
She clicked off, and I sat there, dumbfounded. I didn't understand how she'd done it, but it was done. New in town and unemployed, she'd signed a lease for an apartment. Not a rez hotel room, like the places I'd been calling 'home', but a genuine apartment — and a pretty good apartment, in a nice neighborhood, with a city park literally across the street. It was in what's called the Duboce Triangle, with Haight Street, the Castro, and a Safeway supermarket all within a few blocks. The N Judah streetcar, with quick service downtown or to the ocean, ran right outside our window.
The apartment was in a 19th-century building, three stories tall. It had probably been built as a one-family mansion, but sliced into apartments long ago. Architecturally, it had some character. The steps up from the street were marble, or faux marble, with Greek-style pillars and a swirly, wrought-iron handrail. The laundry room in the basement was downright ornate, with wood-paneled walls and a brick fireplace.
Our room had a large bay window, cut at a 45-degree angle between the north and east walls, and a smaller, colorful stained-glass window — which was beautiful, but we always wondered why an apartment would have a small stained-glass window. The room itself was smallish and uncarpeted, but with an old-fashioned radiator that kept the room snug and warm. The shower and toilet were small, too, but adequate — how much room do you need, to take a shower or a poop?
The obvious problem was the kitchen. As Stephanie had said, it was across the hall — the common hall, shared by everyone in the building. Coming up the steps from the street, you needed a key to get into the building, and then, from the front hallway, the first door on the left was our apartment, and the first door on the right was our kitcen.
The set-up certainly presented problems. You couldn't cook in your pajamas, or open the refrigerator or even make toast in your underwear or naked. Crossing the hallway meant you were (briefly) out in public, so you kinda had to be dressed. Furthermore, bringing food from the kitchen into the apartment required opening both doors before carrying the pot of whatever you'd cooked, and then closing and locking both doors behind you. Sometimes it involved waiting, holding a hot pan or tray while neighbors maneuvered the hallway carrying a bicycle or a kid. At least once I ruined dinner by trying to turn one of the doorknobs while carrying food, and I'm not certain but I think it happened once to Stephanie, too. Spaghetti and meatballs should not be served on the floor, and mopping up supper is not fun. So yeah, that kitchen was a hassle.
Then again, that kitchen was the reason we were moving in. The real estate agent had told Stephanie that, because of its awkward configuration, the apartment was very difficult to rent. He said he'd already shown it dozens of times, and it had been empty for months, because most prospective tenants balked at the disconnected kitchen. He was tired of showing that apartment over and over again, and he told Steph that if she wanted it and her credit wasn't abysmal, she could have it. "Just sign here," he said, and she had signed.
The rent, though, was another problem. It was $1,600 per month. From everything I've heard, rents in San Francisco are now exponentially more insane than they were then, so maybe $1,600 sounds like a bargain, but for us it was a potential budget-buster, especially while Stephanie was unemployed. It was more than a thousand dollars higher than the rent for our rez hotel room, every month. And outside of the San Francisco solar system (and maybe New York or Tokyo) $1,600 still seems like a crazy price for a one-room apartment. I'm writing this twenty-plus years later, and the rent for our two-bedroom apartment in Madison is still less than half what we paid for that studio in San Francisco.
The apartment and the neighborhood seemed very comfortable, though, and the kitchen and the rent felt like trivial problems, at least that night and at least to me. I invited Stephanie out to dinner to celebrate our new digs, but she declined.
"We really can't afford to have dinner out. I'll just cook something."
"You don't think we deserve a celebration?"
"We deserve a celebration, we just can't afford one. Seriously, Doug, we were poor yesterday. Today we're just as poor but the rent has gone way, way up. And I still don't have a job."
"You'll have a job soon, love."
"I'd better, because as long as I'm unemployed, the apartment isn't a solution. It's just another problem."
"You're good at solving problems, Steph. We'll be OK."
"I'll never find a job," she said. "We'll be living in residential hotels all our lives. Or in a cardboard box. I'll end up on unemployment and welfare, cooking us dinner with food stamps. I'll end up begging."
She wasn't kidding, she was worrying. Stephanie was a worrier, by nature. She always saw things realistically, and when a problem presented itself, Steph wanted to have a workable plan of action, plus two good back-up plans, just in case. I tried to say optimistic things, but the worries that day were bigger than any words I could come up with. In our situation, locked into a rent that we couldn't afford, she was right to be worried.
Instead of dinner out, she made us beans and rice. Within a few days we said adieu to the Wallaby Hotel, and made ourselves at home in our new apartment on Duboce Avenue. And before we were finished unpacking, Stephanie found a job, and a pretty good job at that.