Monday, December 29, 2008

Cooking Polish food in Berlin

I'm feeling hungry this morning; here's a little excerpt from my novel-in-progress.

Today I found a new piece of the Valentina puzzle, tucked away inside my mother’s copy of The Jewish Cookbook which Ria gave me to take to Berlin with me “so you can cook something that tastes like home.” It’s a recipe for cabbage leaves stuffed with ground meat, raisins and rice, written in blue ink in Valentina’s loopy handwriting on a large index card. There are several cross-outs in the ingredients list, as though she were writing from memory and kept changing her mind. I remember Mom making this dish for us when I was little, but didn’t know it was Valentina’s recipe. The index card is creased and stained, you can see where oil spattered across its surface from a bubbling saucepan. Mom would wrap each leaf around its filling and then stick a toothpick into it to hold it together before nestling the little bundle carefully in the pot. Then she would bake the stuffed leaves in the oven in a bath of tomato puree and broth.

“Are you making Polish food?” Oscar asked the moment he got in the door. It was the smell of cabbage. Its sweet, oily, green odor floated through all the rooms of the apartment and slipped under the door to fill the hallway as well. Poland had come to visit, and all the neighbors must have known it.

He liked it though, and finished two plates of the pale little packages, their filling just visible through their translucent cooked skins. Their taste was pure comfort, the tang of the raisins combining beautifully with the faintly bitter sweetness of the cabbage and the earthy warmth of the meat. I felt triumphant. I had recreated a bit of my own childhood right here in our kitchen, and perhaps it was Valentina’s childhood as well. After dinner I sat down with the recipe and practiced writing like Valentina. I found one of Oscar’s old fountain pens with blue ink in it, and rehearsed the sweeping characters, the billowy swoop of the h as if it were leaping up into the sky I was just learning to call Himmel, the m like a row of Galician hillocks. If I could learn to write like her, maybe I would know what it felt like to be her. I turned the radio to a station that played dance tunes for old people and practiced moving the pen to the rhythms of the music.

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