Cultural Identities Through Cookery continued..

For those of us for whom cooking comes naturally, it is hard sometimes to witness scenes of total food illiteracy. The last fifty or more years produced an entire generation that not only does not know how to cook but does not have a clue about where food comes from. Some of this dilemma could be related to our mothers’ and grandmothers’ need to enter the workforce instead of staying in the kitchen, but also to big agricultural businesses which managed to infiltrate every aspect of our lives. The timing was perfect and before we realized what happened, we stopped cooking from scratch and turned over critical responsibility for the health of our families to faceless powers whose only goal is profit.
When I say that cooking comes naturally, I neglect to mention the years I spent learning how to cook, the examples and the encouragement that I was provided, the opportunities to practice and foremost, the appreciation I received while developing cooking as my language of love. Preparing a meal is much more than the practical steps required to construct an edible dish. The practice of cooking takes finesse and a feeling that cannot be acquired by following a recipe.

Cooking with love takes creativity and thriftiness. It encompasses the respect and admiration for ingredients and their providers. Selecting fruits and vegetables that were tended with care and pride will enhance the simplest dish with fresh aroma and delectable taste. The attention provided by those who treat our earth with love, transcends every bite of food and satisfies our palates through all our senses. When food becomes a medium to savor and linger over, quality not quantity becomes the norm and satisfaction is on the highest level.

I was fortunate to grow up in the kitchens of the best and most resourceful cooks: my grandmother, my mother and a constant parade of local domestic help who contributed their customs and traditions. They cooked from the heart instinctively, knowing how to marry ingredients for the tastiest outcomes. They learned like me at the feet of their maternal ancestors and knew how to make the best of freshly available ingredients, always cooking in the season. Nothing was wasted for resources were scares and the need great. Uneaten summer bounty of fruits and vegetables was preserved for the long winters and added a welcome surprise to sparse dishes.

My earliest memories place me on the clean scrubbed pine planks of my grandmother Dora’s kitchen floor, playing with the brass weights of a scale treasured both for its usefulness as well as its pedigree. I was around two and a half. Very soon after that, I was allowed to help sort veggies and legumes. I watched and listened and tasted while asking a lot of questions and annoying my caretakers.
I also spent time in the garden where rows of tomatoes and peppers ripened next to peas and beans and where freshly plucked carrots still warm from the earth’s heat, tasted like honey. Onions, radishes and potatoes came in all shapes, colors and sizes. Everyday provided a new discovery, a new exciting flavor, a newly ripened gift. Chickens pecked away by the hog pen and the hen house where every morning a selection of multicolored eggs waited to be retrieved. Apple, peach and apricot trees were scattered among the tall walnuts which made the best summer hideouts, while raspberry bushes provided a natural fence along the river. At the very back of the garden lived the most important members of this little paradise, the bees.

Every morning, fresh milk was delivered along with yogurts and cheeses. The family who lovingly tended to water buffalos, provided us with the riches and most nourishing of their offerings. A parade of other farmers stopped by to share their latest products.
When we sat down for our noon meal, our table was covered with dishes lovingly prepared from the very best and freshest ingredients.

The foundation of my love for cooking was built early and everything that followed became the structure which I rely on for today’s creations. When food is scarce, innovation becomes critical. I remember savoring a simple bowl of caraway seed soup with croutons never realizing that it was invented to quiet growling stomachs.
Romania behind the Iron Curtain suffered from misguided agricultural policies dictated by the Soviet Union and local market shelves were left bare. Were it not for the creativity of cooks who were accustomed to starvation having already lived through wars and devastation, I would not have absorbed the invaluable knowledge of cooking something from nothing.

My grandmother’s tiny village seemed to defy it’s expected condition. The seasons cycled from summers to winters and through autumn and spring with total disregard for who was in office. Small plots of veggies thrived behind twig fences. Everyone had a specialty. A need for fresh mushrooms encouraged foraging and educating each other about their safety. Grape arbors producing several varieties adorned the yard of a nearby neighbor and the surplus became an easy homemade wine shared with all. Chickens, geese and ducks roamed without care and the aroma of freshly baked bread mingled with the smell of frying onions drifted through open windows. Time stood still! Simple pleasures passed down through generations beckoned all to break bread at large communal tables. Living close to the earth is the simplest and most satisfying of pleasures.
This language, my favorite language of love is universal. Pleasurably sharing earth’s bounty establishes a human connection for which no words are needed.

Cultural Identities through Cookery continued…

ImageDallas in the sixties became the incubator for my ideas, the place where in my teenage years I chose the roads that led to who I am today. In the late nineteen sixties, while the rest of the country was churning with activism, Dallas was still the place where teenagers walked after school to the neighborhood drugstore’s soda fountain and where hippies, drugs and civil rights were not talked about in respectable company. At least that was the view from my little corner of the world and most likely not supported by facts.

In reality, I was too busy becoming American and that took a lot of work. The shock of abundance in every aspect of life coupled with unfamiliar customs consumed all my waking hours. How could I make sense of smiling faces which greeted me with apparent enthusiasm only to whisper as I looked away. Girls and boys gathered on street corners dressed in matching outfits, giggling at what exactly. Perfect hair and nails and diction unmistakably screamed success.

Grocery stores were stocked with unfamiliar products I just had to try: bread that came out of a plastic bag, TV dinners that only needed heating, canned veggies and meats and of course Dr. Pepper, every Dallas teenager’s drink of choice. Oh and hamburgers, this strange concoction on a bun replacing the sit down meal with portable convenience. Convenience was the buzz word of the sixties as marketeers lashed on to changing demographics and prescribed suitable solutions to the masses who were needed in the workforce and not around a dinner table.

I was fascinated with all of it. I participated like a wide eyed puppy and couldn’t get enough. I ate the burgers and the fries, and the white bread with bologna, and the tuna salad with lots of mayo, and the turkey and dressing with instant mashed potatoes, and washed it all down with Dr. Pepper. And then I discovered the biggest trick played on us, the one dubbed ‘just add eggs and water’ mystery in a box, the instant cake and its cousins the puddings. I consumed with fervor because I was told to. Every billboard, every TV commercial, every magazine touted their benefits and I had to participate to be truly American. Besides, there was no alternative. My parents were just as busy trying to fit in and had no time for old country traditions. The few times that they craved a memory, it was not available anyway or it required extensive searching and funds. We succumbed, we accepted, we assimilated, we were good, clean members of society on our way to serve and we made sure we lit our cigarettes after every meal for that special finale.

But then something happened. As my gluttony was adding to my waistline and all other lines, I noticed that the girls at school were giving me dirty looks and whispering more than usual. And while they were staring I also noticed that they were thin, very thin. How was that possible? Didn’t they consume the same diet as me? Didn’t they go home and have a TV dinner while watching “A Life to Live’ and a big slice of chocolate cake? Didn’t they spend afternoons at Big Bob’s eating hamburgers and drinking Dr Pepper?

Luckily I had a friend, another member of the outcasts who made it all clear: they were dieting! Dieting, a reaction to following the recommended regimen of high calorie  foods and the birth of another industry. So what were they eating I asked. Mostly nothing. Just drinking sodas, chewing gum and smoking cigarettes. This was a huge revelation. It not only challenged my faith in the American way of life but also led me to my first diet. I was going to show those girls that I could be just like them: malnourished yet smiling.

It didn’t last of course, it couldn’t. After several episodes of gaining and losing, I was led back to eating like in the old country. My parents who became alarmed at my behavior and who became less accepting of new ways, hired a cook to prepare meals from ‘scratch’. Being the first one home after school, I would sit at the kitchen table and watch how Doris transformed raw ingredients into delectable meals. Over time, she allowed me to help her chop and sauté and since I was a quick learner, she would explain the history behind the dishes she prepared and also the chemistry involved in using just the right amounts when measuring. As I learned more, I developed a love for the craft and art of cooking and became more involved in nutrition. When Doris left, I was able to prepare a balanced meal that was not out of a box.

Grandma Dora’s Layered Cabbage (Kolozsvari rakott kaposzta)

Squeeze about 2 lbs. of sauerkraut well. Add a cup of water and cook for 10 min. Meanwhile, cook about 1/2 cup of rice and set aside. Fry a large chopped onion in 1 tbsp of lard, add about a lb of ground pork and cook for ten minutes stiring often. Add 1 tbsp good Hungarian paprika and 2 cloves of crushed garlic and set aside. Chop 3-4 pieces of bacon and fry a few minutes then add 1/2 lb of sliced smoked hungarian sausage and stir. Assemble in a large casserole: Pour fat from bacon and sausage on the bottom, add about a third of the sauerkraut, half of the cooked pork, half of the rice and all the bacon and sausage. Stir a quarter cup of milk with one cup of sour cream and pour half over mixture. Repeat steps and bake uncovered at 375 for about an hour.

I have never made this recipe which I found in my grandma’s papers, but I enjoyed it as a child. Grandma Dora lived to be 98 and never dieted. She came to the US in the early seventies to join her children. After teaching herself English, Dora became an American citizen at a special ceremony at the UN, something she was very proud of.

*vegan version: substitute oil for the lard and a mushroom medley for the meat, bacon and sausage. Add a cup of cooked beans and use coconut milk instead of the dairy.