I started cooking at a pretty early age, and after teaching me some basics, my mom, who was a great cook but very busy with her work, pretty much left me on my own to figure things out in the kitchen. It worked rather well.
I was growing up in an east-european city by the sea, where most of the shopping was done at a local farmer’s market. I remember navigating through endless aisles laden with fresh, fragrant and colorful vegetables and fruit. Mounds of dried fruit brought from Asia and Caucasus tempted you with shades of color from deep black to golden yellow and every tone of brown, purple, red and orange in between. Haggling with vendors was part of the process, as was sampling of the fruit, cheese, butter and sausage before selecting just the right one. To sample a vegetable, a farmer would scrape the surface of a carrot or a beet with a pocket knife and shake the shavings off onto your hand. You’d have a taste and know right away if it’s good or not. Dairy vendor would drip a small quantity of cream or sour cream onto the back of your hand using a wooden plank, much like a paint stirrer, and you would lick it off. Everything was looked over, touched, squeezed and sniffed thoroughly before buying, and anything short of perfection was snubbed relentlessly.
My favorite part of shopping was strolling along the long rows of wooden barrels filled with pickled vegetables, each with distinctive aroma and flavor. Everything was pickled – cucumbers, tomatoes red and green, summer squashes, apples, cabbages, cauliflowers, mushrooms, eggplants, carrots, chives, garlic, watermelons, lettuce, you name it! Some samples were laid out on a wooden plank across the top of the barrel for tasting, but you could tell whose pickles were the best by just checking how full the barrel was. The best stuff would sell out first. Everyone had some secret ingredient which was jealously guarded. Pickled cabbage was enhanced with berries, apples, carrots, onions and herbs. Pickled cucumbers had generous helping of horseradish and cherry leaves to retain color and crunch, and don’t forget the punchy, zesty pickled apples. Just bring them home, quarter and serve with some pork stew, and you are in heaven!
The dense crusty bread, the only luxury that was always available for very little money in my country, was purchased still warm at the bread stores. Infrequently, we’d munch on it while it’s warm, only to bring home half-a-loaf pinched all over .
I learned a lot by watching others. I remember watching my grandpa cutting up a farm-raised chicken, and showing me all its parts, intestines and all. I remember marveling at the sight of developing eggs inside the chicken and little coins and pebbles extracted from the stomach. That didn’t freak me out at all. I was five years old and I was curious.
I watched my grandma bake her wonderful pastries. She baked almost every week, mostly shortbreads like Shredded Pie, or dense and moist sweet breads, such as Farmer Cheese Bread with Raisins or Honey Walnut Bread. Sometimes she made Cheese Donuts, boy, they were great! She was going about her baking slowly, deliberately, and I learned back then that cooking was enjoyable.
My other grandmother passed away when I was three months old, but mom always baked grandma’s signature sweets, and every one of them was amazing. New Year was Napoleon and Walnut Cake time, and in summer, no birthday would be celebrated without famous Aunt Faina’s Strudel Pie, a buttermilk based roll up pastry filled with sour cherries, apples or pumpkin. Winter birthdays were crowned with elaborate cakes by mysterious names. To mention just a few, Little Bear in the North, a three-layer shortbread and walnut meringue construction topped with rich chocolate glaze; Bird’s Milk, an eight-layer moist yellow sponge with custard cream and chocolate; Winnie-the-Pooh, a honey based eight-layer shortbread with sour cream, wine and prunes, Fantômas, a four-layer cake with sour cream and walnut filling, the list goes on…
I remember watching my mom in the kitchen, chopping, mixing, frying and stirring. She was a big master of presenting the food nicely. On an ordinary Monday, she would serve us lunch like it was a ceremony at the king’s castle. Everything was pretty, with silverware properly set, served in beautiful bowls. Her soups were always beautiful, sprinkled with fresh chopped herbs and garnished with home made croutons or other fixings. It is through her I learned the aesthetic aspect of cooking and acquired a taste for collecting and reading cookbooks just for fun.
My grandpa outlived grandma by about twenty years. He was taking care of himself very well, and cooked almost until the end, even though he lived with us all that time. When he passed, we went through his personal belongings and found numerous scraps of paper where he wrote down how to cook simple dishes – soups, stews, breakfast items that his wife used to make for him. I thought it was very touching, to see grown man taking care of himself, by trying to replicate his late wife’s cooking.
My extended family was big on celebrating and entertaining. My mom, aunts and great aunts were maestros in their kitchens, and the large noisy gatherings were centered around lavish banquet food. Things would never be served buffet style, everyone sat at the large table, much like at Thanksgiving, serving each other food, drinking and catching up on family news. Each lady had her signature dishes, and no matter now much you ate, the table somehow would never go empty. Elaborate hot and cold salads and elegantly presented appetizers would be followed by one or two main courses brought from the kitchen piping hot on large serving dishes. Then a short intermission for clearing the table and loosening belts, followed by hot tea or coffee with a few choices of sweets and fruit.
Winter time provided little in terms of vitamins and nutrition, so it was common sense to preserve some seasonal vegetables and fruit at their peak in summer and fall. Mom would team up with her sister or a friend or two. They would purchase enormous quantities of fresh produce, and armed with canning, shredding, pitting and pickling equipment, would lock themselves up in the kitchen for days to engage in the holy rite of canning. Kitchen was sterilized. We were only allowed there after the rite was over – to stare in amazement at long rows of three-quart glass jars filled with vitamined freshness, sealed and turned upside down on kitchen towels. Sometimes we were enslaved as pitters, spending hours pitting cherries and plums, covered in fruit juice head to toe. Sometimes, if we were lucky, we would get to eat the “strawberry foam”, the pink foam that forms on top of the strawberry jam while it’s cooking. It was considered bad for preserves and removed with a skimmer. But, oh, how good it was for us! We had a special cabinet in the kitchen that was built just to store the preserves – pickled salads, sauces, marinated veggies, jams and compotes… Oh, how many times they saved the day in the winter! You open the jar, and immediately a fragrant burst of summer penetrates the air.
Then of course there were family recipes. Scores of recipes, written down by hand on scraps of paper, postcards, cartons, magazine covers, back of medical prescriptions; stored in old fashioned folders, tucked in the books. Bookmarked dog-eared cookbooks without covers with hand-written corrections and comments in them. They were our kitchen bibles, seasoned, greased through, stained with food drippings, copied, guarded and passed to the next generation of cooks.