Tuesday, April 27, 2010

babcia's chickens and cakes

In the years when she made the greatest impression on me – her final years of life in a small Polish village (she later moved to California and died in a retirement home in Berkeley), my grandmother spent, in my mind, the bulk of her waking hours on food preparation and house cleaning.

These were formidable tasks. For the longest time the house was without running water and I have vivid memories of my grandmother carrying a metal tub of laundry outdoors. And food? Getting Sunday lunch on the table meant catching the chicken and hacking her neck off on a stump. Plucking feathers off took time and I rarely volunteered any help there.

My grandmother was not a cook who’d pay heed to nuanced flavor. She brought to the kitchen local foods and she cared about freshness. Her spice range was from salty to very salty to mildly peppery. But her stuff was good! Her poppyseed cake was lovely and her cabbage-mushroom pierogi where deliciously not doughy. Tell that to the pierogi places in Warsaw! None of them come close to hers.

The love of cooking (if my grandmother’s was even a love rather than merely a duty) skipped a generation in my family and by the time my sister and I dabbled in foods (we did dabble, a lot, in part because of that skipped generation), we turned away from pierogi and boiled chicken, in favor of, well, just about anything else.

When I came home tonight, I felt a tad cold – we are in the cooler side of April at the moment – and so I did what I always do to warm up on chilly evenings – I hit the stationary bike for a few minutes and indulged in a quick read of one of the much neglected this semester New Yorkers.

The article was written by a woman whose Turkish aunt (grandmother?) once cooked foods that no one else cooked anymore.

And it struck me that no one cooks like my grandmother did either. And maybe that’s a good thing, because she did use a heck of a lot of butter and cream, but still, those flavors are gone. Her white borscht? It’s no more. And how about that moldy cheese she put on farm bread and then toasted on the iron plate of her coal stove – I remember it well! I think.

Foods are fiercely evocative. No one cares, of course, that my grandmother made sugar cookies in the shape of ducks and that they were rather bland, even with the sprinkle of walnut bits on top.

But I care. I wish that someone cooked like she did. So that I could go back in time and imagine that I was in her kitchen, watching her push logs into the fire (and sweep up immediately after – she was a fanatic cleaner), and put on the table all the things that only she could conjure up.