I was back on my expanded-lot blog-reading, and came across this post (and the comments) by Seraphic. It started me on reminiscing about our own family dinners. Then I came over to the next installment of Miriam’s series about her grandmother and the previous generations of her family, and I thought – I have to try to write down a bit of my own. Just to record, mostly to myself, what I do remember.
When I was 10 I hated family dinners. And especially – big family dinners, usually on occasions of birthdays or national holidays. They invariably happened at my grandparent’s’ home that I came to regard as family nest – never mind that it was an apartment in a house built by German POWs in post-war city on Azov Sea, about the time my grandparents came back after years of living in Ural town during the War.
Ours was a distinctly secular home. My grandparents were very proud of being among the first members of Young Pioneer organization in their small shtettl in Eastern Ukraine. Grandma never got to be a student of education institution higher than kheder (Yiddish elementary 4yr-school), and grandpa attended vocational school. Both had been working all their life outside of home since they were 16. We were a working, rather hard-working family.
There were no prayers at our meals. But – through all the Stalinist’ “cosmopolitan” campaigns, and all the anti-Semitic reality of Eastern Ukraine – there were books by Yiddish authors on the bookshelves (I still remember the bookbinding and old paper’ smell of volumes by Sholom Aleichem and Peretz), and there were celebrations of Jewish holidays, and there was the Jewish food.
Oh what food it was…My grandma was an incredible cook. Years of life in various degrees of poverty, tending to a large family seemed only to polish her culinary genius. She could make a memorable dinner for 10 out of 5 onions, a handful of spices and flour and a small beef bone. She loved to feed us all. No, that came out wrong…rather, making food was the expression of her love for us. I treasure her recipes, written in the letters to me in her self-devised Russian orthography; afterthoughts inserted between the lines -sometimes at 90 degrees. They are interspersed with inquiries about my health, reports on family events and members; reminders to cook this or that dish for the coming holiday (recipes included); every line is breathing with care, kindness and love. I am choking with tears every time I open that special box and reread it – 20 years after she passed away.
Every summer since my early school days I was sent to my grandparents (and my uncle’s, and later his family’s) home on Azov Sea. I spent time circulating between Children’s Library and my grandparent’s divan, with occasional detour to a bakery, a grocery store or soda stand, filling up 2 or 3 Setzer siphons per grandpa’s instruction.
That divan was a formidable construction. It was made of plywood, with removable green-tapestry- upholstered top on huge springs, bolsters with metal connecting pins and with storage space in the hollow, where grandma kept her various sewing accoutrements’ treasures. I read whole collected stories of Sherlock Holmes lying on that divan, transported to the lands far away. Every once in a while grandpa would advise me to get up and switch the useless object in my hands to a broom (“you call yourself a girl! why don’t you sweep a little, help your grandma!”), but more often than not grandma was quick on my side, to hand me freshly baked pirozhok s vishnyami (a small cherry-filled pastry) to console me, and to shame him: ” the child was studying hard all winter; let her read for pleasure!”
Yes, so what was I saying? Ah, that I hated family dinners. Why, then, if the food was so good?
Exactly because the food was good. It was so good, you could not possibly get up and tear yourself off from it. Conversations were usually buzzing around eating, too. Grandma and grandpa, who lived through unimaginable shortages of basic necessities, measured everything and everyone on ability to provide and consume various foods…not that they were wrong in their assessments, but I was growing and needed different nurturing, of not-a-food sort. I look now at old photographs of family gatherings – we are invariably seated around the table that is bursting with plates and dishes and bottles and flowers in vases, all round-cheeked, with misty sedated gourmand smiles: my uncles, their wives and kids, my own family branch, and grandpa. Grandma was rarely on these pictures – she was always employed carrying dishes from and to the kitchen, with occasional help: heavy on her diabetic legs, face sheet-white from heart trouble, her head frequently tightly wrapped to alleviate terrible migraines. She was surpassing her own records each & every time; trying and improving recipes she heard elsewhere, inventing cakes, stews, pickles and pastries to our expectant delight. Big family dinners were for her as premiere performances to an actress. But at the time all I saw was her varicose legs, her heavy breathing, her collapsing the day after the occasion – and I swore to myself never to succumb to the kitchen slavery, to being rendered weak and helpless by affection for others.
Oh how I loved to open the door for her when she would come from the market on Sundays! She’d got up at sunrise, take the earliest tram to do her shopping and return in time for lunch with 2 full bags of goodies: firm delicate coral-colored tomatoes that had to be put into wide-brimmed bowls to ripen in the still darkness of the pantry; rock-hard prickly cucumbers and dill flowers and other herbs to pickle them, mysteriously violet eggplants, color of Cardinal Richelieu’s robe I had just read about in Three Musketeers, the cream-colored baby potatoes that was such a tedious task to scrub (never peel!) in cold water; sour cherries of deep burgundy, destined for my favorite pirogis…
In the morning we were all having breakfast together – usually leftovers from yesterday dinner, amended with various appetizing additions, freshly-brewed tea (those were times of no tea-bags) with sugar cubes and numerous jams. Grandma and grandpa always made their own. Summer was busy with conservation – jams, pickled vegetables, separate and in salads, and meat preserves. Right about now, at the end of August, the bulk of work will be almost done – the endless rows of 3-liter glass jars filling the cellar shelves, with little space left for delicate in-season additions: pickled watermelons, plum butter or apricot jam with toasted seeds, my favorite…
Regular-day, close family dinners I rather liked. We always waited for grandpa and my dear uncle Sasha to come from work, never starting eating without them. I am not sure, but I think grandpa was the one cutting the bread; he was also the one to lead the table conversations; he liked telling us stories. We were encouraged to participate in conversaiton, but expected to be well-behaved and take our turn after the elders; when on one occasion we were visited by distant relatives from Chernovtsy, we were all shocked how spoiled their kid was; he was allowed to stomp his feet at his mother! scream hysterically demanding more food! interrupt adult conversation! My grandma later noted to us she’d prefer to have an earthquake in the house than another such visitor.
Everything I know about cooking I owe to my grandma. My mom, an excellent cook in her own right, does too. Every meal in my mom’s home and then in mine and my sister’s, were modeled at my grandma’s example. Even if we don’t talk about her, we keep her and her opinion, her standards in mind. “Grandma would say this…she would do it that way” is often our last, incontestable, argument in food-related dispute.
to be continued, in my heart