In many parts of rural Europe it is only the women who cook. Les mamans, las madres, le nonne; the matriarchs of families carry the recipes and then hand them down to their daughters, who in turn, hand them down to their daughters and so on. My wife Dorothy’s late grandmother, Babcia, was one of these important women. There was a veritable treasure trove of Polish culinary knowledge hidden beneath her colourful bonnet. I was not able to meet her before she died. If I did, I would have asked her about the recipes and techniques that she employed to create vital and delicious food from virtually nothing in a war-ravaged country.
Dorothy’s Father, Mirco, was a small exception to this women-only-cooking rule. For those quiet, in-between nights during the week, it was the man of the household who commandeered the stove. He had retired early so he had the time to spare and thanks to his long-dead paternal grandmother, babika, he had the know-how.
“Only butter tastes like butter,’ Mirco would often say. He probably heard this phrase in an old television commercial and it stuck with him. Perhaps it could be the first line of haiku about authenticity (made slightly heavy by an extra three syllables) or a mantra that represented his entire approach to cooking, for his was an honest cooking. “The best in Croatia,” was another thing he liked to say, usually after he drained a shot of a moonshine-like concoction from the former Yugoslavia called Slivovica, his preferred aperitif with which he cheerfully burned his throat daily. I’m not sure what he meant by ‘best’, given that I had tried to drink the stuff myself and it would be better applied to a festering wound than to drink. Nevertheless, he was proud of the tiny, unheralded part of Eastern Europe that was his birthplace. Whilst he was enjoying his fire-water brandy in the late afternoon, there would often be something gently bubbling on the stove, emitting plumes of delicious smells; especially impressive given that he rarely exceeded three ingredients in any one dish he was preparing.
His heart was Croatian but his cooking was Slovenian. When Mirco was a child, his mother died. His father, a dour and practical man, promptly took a second wife as men were known to do back then. The new stepmother complained that there were too many children to feed properly. So in 1938, six-year-old Mirco was taken by his father to the crowded main railway station in Zagreb and deposited on a train. He rode alone for many hours with nothing but a tiny suitcase and a hunk of bread in his pocket. He arrived in neighboring Slovenia and into the waiting arms of his father’s mother, Babica. He spent most of his childhood on her farm. Her simple rustic cooking would represent the culinary template that he would bring with him to the new world.
Despite the seemingly exotic origin of his cooking (at least to my suburban North American sensibilities), Mirco was not particularly adventurous in matters of dining, nor did he ever really settle for the pre-packaged, processed stuff that is prevalent in the grocery store. His cooking ranged from skillet-frizzled chicken quarters dusted with Hungarian paprika and served on billowy golden Polenta, or great, fatty steaks of salmon on the bone, baked gently in an oven and served with rice and a raw radish salad. From scratch, he could make a simple Slovenian goulash inspired by his beloved Babika; slowly cook cubes of pork buried under more onions than seemed sensible with tomatoes and dill and more paprika. Some of his cooking revealed old-country Italian influences, given Slovenia’s close proximity to Trieste and Venice; he enjoyed pasta and had a soft spot for a decent pizza. He used herbs sparingly—as much medicine as food in the old country—but when he did, he turned to Italian herbs like oregano, sage and rosemary. He also showed his eastern European roots with a love of spicy paprika, sour cabbage and sausages. Dorothy grew up eating a hybrid of Slavic and Mediterranean cuisine; a marriage of hearty and healthy, winter and summer all rolled into a single gastronomy assembled on a Whirlpool range in suburban Toronto. This cooking had a sense of place and predictability. Boiled potatoes on Monday meant soft Polenta on Tuesday; as the cornmeal was cooked in the starchy and salted leftover boiling water. Then on Wednesday the remnants of the polenta was fried with bacon. He loved wine, especially the wine from Croatia, to this day, a well-kept secret to most. The corks of the wine bottles, according to Croatian lore, are useful in tenderizing octopus. This myth has been roundly debunked scientifically, but why dispel the romance of a few Croatian corks bobbing around with some bay leaves in the salty and savoury poaching liquid of a slowly tenderizing octopus?
He was an energetic, seemingly healthy man who enjoyed life’s pleasures in balanced moderation, so the diagnosis came as a surprise; an anomalous result from some routine blood work. I got home late from being out with the lads one night to find Dorothy still awake and teary eyed. Her dad’s test had come back. He had a malignant, inoperable tumour in his stomach.
As the disease progressed, the smell of cooking food, regardless if it was something he might like to eat, made him nauseous. He was starting to lose weight. Building up his caloric intake had become the idée fixe of my mother-in-law—a quixotic endeavour to stop her husband from slowly disappearing before her eyes. Mirco abandoned the day-to-day cooking so Dorothy’s mother Kazia would cook, but whenever we came around to visit, and as I had done at earlier at happier family gatherings, I would help with the cooking – a much needed break from the unsettling task that food preparation had become in the house. The extraction fan over the stove would be running at full whack, while Mirco would sit in the next room breathing through his mouth.
In the shadow of this cheerless raincloud, I became the understudy for all those important female cooks from the old country. I was going to do Christmas dinner: a truncated family gathering consisting of only Dorothy and I, along with a dying man and my mother-in-law—a woman already prone to an inherent Polish melancholy. Emotions were especially raw: earlier that week Dorothy had announced the pregnancy of our first child; it came out in an argument with her mother in the waiting room while her father was receiving chemotherapy. “Dorata! Why do you keeping going to the bathroom? You’re drinking too much coffee!” Her mother angrily whispered.
“I keep peeing because I’m pregnant! OKAY MOM!?” Dorothy shouted in the waiting room, other cancer victims and their families looking up, startled by the outburst; likely the saddest pregnancy announcement in history.
I had to follow up to the last festive meal cooked by Kazia which was Thanksgiving, a month and a half previously. It was probably the last meal Mirco had enjoyed. She had roasted a whole duck in the old style, very slowly on low heat, none of this medium-rare business that is so trendy today. She accompanied it with some Polish-style autumnal plum dumplings, a delicious juxtaposition of sweet and salty, astringent and fatty all with hints of clove and cinnamon. There was a spirit of Dorothy’s Babcia running throughout the meal, the handed-down knowledge of Polish women. Mirco, despite the very early stages of stomach cancer, ate this fine duck with gusto and satisfaction, washing it all down with Croatian wine. There was a picture of a braying donkey on the label of the imported wine bottle. For some reason that donkey made me smile and feel hopeful. Maybe the therapy would work. Maybe Mirco would beat the cancer and things would go back to the way they were before. Dorothy would be happy again.
Next came Christmas, and it was my turn to cook. The heat was on. I couldn’t just wing it. To Kazia, predictability was a real thing; a well-worn wooden crutch she leaned on. Her movements and motivations followed a sort cyclical clockwork for which everything is done the same way over and over again until we die. This notion of repetition was critical to her sanity, therefore all normal traditions had to be upheld, especially those at Christmas. Mirco vehemently refused to have a gaggle of noisy Polish people over to visit and after much bitter negotiation, it was decided, under the circumstances, to reduce the scope of the holiday and keep it small and private. But despite the absence of the usual raucous extended family that year, Kazia rallied forth with a big shopping trip, a fire in the hearth, trinkets and tinsel, bobbles and mistletoe, twinkling lights and a magnificently curated collection of food that for the most part would likely be uneaten and scraped off plates into the garbage bin. The crowning glory arrived in her arms as she crossed the threshold huffing and puffing under the weight of a fourteen pound turkey. The raw bird took up the entire centre section of the refrigerator, looking more plump and healthy than the man of the household himself. As the days clicked by in December, the cancer became worse. Mirco had abandoned Croatian red wine completely, replaced with a ready-made liquid meal called Ensure – a tin can of baby food-like formula that very sick people choked back in hopes of getting nutrients into their wasting bodies.
I wasn’t going to dare thrust my culinary ideals on to the family at this time. So instead of doing a traditional English style bread stuffing, I used Kazia’s recipe based on rice. She oversaw the cooking and corrected me here and there where required. She gruffly approved of my knife ability—a moment of pride, but chided me for being messy, a bad habit I eventually carried into my restaurant kitchen many years later. The rice was cooked until it reached a delicate toothsomeness and then it was bound together with sautéed chicken livers, a small dice of bacon, onions, garlic, marjoram and fresh parsley. It was cooked well in advance, allowed to cool then stuffed into the raw turkey cavity. While roasting, the turkey oozed its juices into the fluffy rice, enriching it to the point that it became creamy and almost risotto-like. The exposed bits of the stuffing crisped up promisingly like the socorrat of Spanish paella. The bird itself was slathered with butter and plenty of salt and cooked slowly, basted regularly with the potent dripping from the bottom of the roasting tin. I made mashed potatoes, running them through the brand new stainless steel ricer I had just bought—a piece of kitchen equipment that Kazia eyed suspiciously. There were green runner beans with slivered almonds, finely chopped roast beets bejeweled with chunks of crispy bacon, cider braised carrots with caraway seeds and a stoic winter salad of radish, peppers, garlic and raw red onion. The scale of the spread on the table suggested a dinner party of a dozen. We took our seats and for a moment we did nothing beyond draping napkins on laps. I wasn’t hungry at all.
Kazia watched her husband anxiously. Here was a time of year for which he would by gnawing on a Flintstone-sized drumstick. After an excruciating pregnant pause, he finally served himself a small amount of vegetables, only to push the food around on the plate in an attempt to look purposeful. He sighed. “This looks good. Thank you Bob,” he said and shifted restlessly in his chair. He winced. “I need to sit on the couch for a moment… maybe watch a few minutes of the hockey game.”
I did not know what to say. I had never been around someone dying of cancer. “We can heat it up later if you like. We’ll just go ahead,” I said hopelessly.
“Mom, it is fine.” Dorothy added quickly, almost anticipating what was going to come next. There was an awkward silence. Kazia looked around the table with her mouth slightly open. Then she banged a drumstick down on to Mirco’s plate.
“No,” the word rang out like a death knell. “You can eat,” with a smile as taut as elastic bands, she hovered over him in a domineering, matronly way and dislodged a small mountain of mashed potatoes from a spoon on to his plate. “You need to eat,” she said tightly, trying to sound casual, as if no one at the table were dying. “Bob made a lovely dinner. Here you go,” she ladled some beets onto his plate. “You love beets,” she sang out. Dorothy looked across at me briefly. Things were taking a bad turn.
“It’s nice, but I’m not hungry. I’m sorry, I watch hockey game now.” He said with is clipped, Croatian accent. He got up, and placed his napkin on the table. Kazia shoved him back down in his chair, his frail boney body slapping hard down on the seat.
“You won’t get better if you don’t eat!” She was shouting now, her words becoming shrill with panic. “Don’t be so ungracious!”
He waved his hand dismissively and tried to get up again. She slammed him back into the seat. Kazia then tried to cram a forkful of food into his mouth and he dodged it like prize fighter, lips pursed, swatting at her, sending the food flying across the room. They continued to tussle back and forth, grunting and cursing in their mother tongues like a couple of elderly Greco-Roman wrestlers. I sat in stunned silence, not sure what to do. I looked across the table at Dorothy, hoping to get some kind of guidance. But she was no help, shoveling cranberry sauce into her mouth as tear drops rolled down her cheeks.
Merry Fucking Christmas.
By February Mirco was in the hospital. We made sure to pay the exorbitant bill to get him a television in his room, knowing how much he loved hockey, but he mostly just stared past the television. He asked to see clergy, so the hospital sent a priest to talk privately with him, his Catholicism, long ago abandoned, suddenly a familiar consolation in which to turn. We have no idea what they discussed. Dorothy would visit daily. His body was frail, his face gaunt, he was becoming unrecognizable. Soon he stopped talking. Because there was no warning, no one could remember what his last words were and whether any of us had actually heard them. He lay in his bed; mouth slightly ajar, breathing laboriously and swallowing awkwardly, his Adams apple dryly scraping up and down. His only communication was reduced to a sort of weak eye contact. He didn’t just die, but instead faded away, a little less of him apparent with each visit. Cancer doesn’t kill you; it erases you. It empties a person methodically, like squeezing an eye dropper once a day until there is eventually nothing left. One morning, Dorothy came to see him and although his heart was beating, he was gone…or mostly gone. Maybe deep down inside he could still hear her last whispers in his ear, like she was shouting down a well, private, child-like mutterings intended only for her dad. Perhaps it was the last thing he heard before he drifted away to nothingness.
Within eight hour of his death, we went grocery shopping, a strangely mundane but necessary thing to do under the circumstance. It was also a thankful distraction. Shell shocked and numb with grief I helped Kazia and Dorothy pick out coffins and a grave site; bureaucratic requirements that were all part of the business of death. The funeral followed. Dorothy wrote a letter the night before the burial, long-hand on a piece of lined school paper. She folded it carefully, sealed it in an envelope and slipped it into the casket during the viewing. There it stayed, as the attendants closed and sealed the coffin in preparation for the internment. She is the only living person who knows what was written on that paper that now sits, undisturbed, six feet under.
We lived with Kazia for a while. Dorothy slept in her childhood bed, her swelling belly taking up all the room, so I slept on the couch. Kazia didn’t want to cook, so it was left to me. Dorothy’s appetite remained strong and healthy, so I went to work trying to prepare comforting, familiar meals for her. Kazia showed me how to cook polenta the way Mirco had learned in Slovenia using day-old potato water. I learned family recipes, handed down from the Polish farm that Kazia grew up on like a scratch barley soup called krupnik made with a strong stock flavoured with spare ribs and finished with generous sprinkles of fresh dill weed or Polish style braised pork cooked down slow and sticky with sweet peppers and marjoram. Beets, a vegetable I hated since childhood became something completely different when served as a savoury soup, enriched with a gelatinous home-made chicken stock and crowned with an opulent slick of sour cream and shavings of horseradish. Cabbage was transformed into a Polish version of sauerkraut, called kapusta a rich, porky tasting stew studded with garlicky chunks of sausage.
After a week or two it occurred to me that I was absorbing important knowledge; knowledge that was an amalgam of two kitchens, one in post war Poland and the other from the agrarian past of Slovenia. It was a gastronomic DNA—once handed down to daughters—accidentally being passed laterally like a rugby ball to a British mutt. As much as my pursuit of this knowledge was a sort of intellectual exercise; a way to build on my already glowing interest in the gastronomic arts (later to blossom into restaurant ownership), it was also a form of medical knowledge. I was a culinary Florence Nightingale administering salves to two grieving women via the power of food. I was trying to fill in the role of the recently departed Mirco; maybe I was also trying to capture the spirit of those mothers in the old country for which cooking wasn’t just a passing fancy but a life skill with the same evolutionary imperative as sex and birth and death. Many years later, I would attempt to hand down this knowledge to my own daughters so that they too might have a connection to their Babcia, their Babika and their Grandpa Mirco whom they never had a chance to meet. They would have loved their grandfather and he in turn would have loved them.
But I won’t recommend drinking the Slivovica. That stuff is the fucking worst.