Thursday, May 14, 2009

Great-grandma approved food

I found an interesting story about Julia Child while researching “Julie and Julia” for my book club’s potluck. While on their way to Paris in 1948, Julia and her husband Paul stopped for dinner in Rouen. Julia later claimed that the meal there marked “an opening up of the soul and spirit” for her. It was this meal that sparked her career as a chef, an author and a television personality.

I too had a moment like this. It was an event that eventually led to my starting this blog. I’ve never written about it before because I haven’t known how to describe it. I like Julia’s way of phrasing it. Surprising considering my early aversion to her boisterous nature and my difficulty with her recipes. I guess Julia and I have something in common after all. Given her success I find this reassuring. There may be hope for me yet.

My moment of revelation came last June while watching “The Hour” with George Stroumboulopoulos. His guest that night was Michael Pollan. I hadn’t planned to watch. That I caught the interview was a happy accident of channel-surfing.

I had seen Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food” at the library. Prior to the interview I hadn’t been tempted to pick it up, but after listening to him I knew I had to read it. Here was a man who was brave enough, or crazy enough, to admit on-air that his book could be summed up in the seven words that appeared on the cover. You didn’t even have to open the book to get its message, yet after the program I logged onto the library’s website and added my name to its waiting list. Much of what Pollan said confirmed what I already knew, but it was his encouragement to “get back to foods, real foods, the foods your great grandmother would recognize as food” that stayed with me.

It was several weeks before I received a copy of Pollan’s book. While I waited I thought a lot about family and food and tradition. From my mother’s side there were memories of meals at my grandparents’ house. Aunts and uncles and cousins sharing meals of roast turkey or pork or beef with all the fixings. There were breakfasts of fried eggs and peameal bacon. There were family barbeques to celebrate summer birthdays, and there were huge meals of perch or pickerel or smelt following successful fishing adventures. We went apple-picking. There were springtime afternoons of foraging by the train tracks for asparagus, and there was a memorable trip to the cemetery to gather hickory nuts. We went for Sunday drives to buy fresh veggies from roadside stands. We noted the changing seasons by what we found there.

My dad's grandparents are from the Ukraine. Meals with his family, held at his grandparents’ house, included perogies, cabbage rolls, kubasa, rabbit, and , at Easter, paska. I have memories of Baba’s substantial vegetable garden. It seemed like every time we stopped in to visit my great-grandparents we found Baba in the kitchen preparing meals or preserving food.

I finally got my copy of “In Defense of Food” from the library. I don’t have the words to tell you how the book affected me. To paraphrase Julia, my soul and spirit opened a bit further, and I was so inspired by what Pollan wrote that I bought my own copy of the book. In hardcover.

In defining food Pollan again talks about eating food your great-grandparents would recognize, and again I was drawn back to family memories. I’m fortunate that I don’t have to rely on my memory for foods from my mom’s side of the family. Mom is the one who taught me to cook, and she created a recipe book for me prior to my moving out on my own. As the book included several family recipes, I’m able to recreate many of the dishes I enjoyed as a child. And, since we get back to Ontario about once a year, there are family gatherings and shared meals to look forward to.

I’m not so lucky with my dad’s side of the family. After Baba died his family drifted apart. Recipes didn’t get shared in his family. Of course, I’m fairly certain Baba didn’t use recipes, and I don’t think she could read or write English. Still, I knew there were written records of her recipes out there. I spent a wonderful afternoon one Easter weekend making paska with Dad’s cousin’s wife when I was still in elementary school. I was so excited that she chose me to help, and I was so proud of myself when we were done. I had never helped to make bread before. I still remember being completely thrilled to be part of a process that created such delicious, golden braids of bread.

Fortunately, finding good Ukrainian food isn’t that difficult. I’ve been able to indulge my cravings for cabbage rolls, perogies and kubasa regularly. Paska, on the other hand, is a bit more tricky. I’ve been able to find it, but it’s never as good as I remember. I even went to the extreme of joining the local Ukrainian dance troupe in my search for paska like Baba’s. I ate lots of good food, but none of the paska compared.

Though Pollan’s writing prompted me to remember meals and foods shared with family, that isn’t all I took from his book. What I now try to practice is eating foods that are unprocessed, with few ingredients that are locally grown or produced. This has changed what I eat, how I cook, and how and where I shop. I’m not always successful, but it’s a process that I’m enjoying. I particularly enjoy my trips to the Farmers’ Market, which took me right back to the paska dilemma on Easter weekend.

Our local Farmers’ Market includes several stalls selling baked goods. On the Saturday of Easter weekend I noticed a stall selling paska. I almost walked right by, as I was sure I would be disappointed again. Then I saw they had samples. I figured I could taste-test without having to commit to an entire loaf, so I wandered over to try some. It was good. Really, really good. It was so close to Baba’s that I was speechless. I’m glad I had my sunglasses on, as I got all teary. Still, there must have been something on my face, as the guy at the stall looked at me, grinned and said, “Grandmother?” All I could say in response was “Great-grandmother”. Once I recovered my powers of speech I bought a loaf. I tried to convince everyone else at the booth they needed a loaf too. I probably wasn’t the craziest person at the market that day, but I’m sure the people at that booth thought I was.

Since that day at the market I’ve done something so bold (well bold for me anyway) I’m starting to wonder about myself. In a manner that I find stalker-ish (but which probably isn’t), I used the power of the internet to track down Dad’s cousin’s son. This would be the son of the woman I made paska with all those years ago.

I was fairly certain he wouldn’t remember me, but I was driven by paska-deprived desperation. I was also fairly nervous about doing this. Contacting a relative who I haven’t seen in 30 years to ask if he could put me in contact with his mother so I could have her bread recipe is a bit out of my area of expertise. I did it anyway. And he responded. His mother is going to contact me this weekend. I’m so excited I could dance. OK, I did dance. I knew those Ukrainian dance lessons would come in handy. I’m so looking forward to hearing from her, and I would be even if she no longer had the recipes. Like Esther says on the cover of her book, it’s not about the food. It’s about connection, and sharing, and in this case it’s about family. What a wonderful outcome from a randomly-viewed television interview. I think Mr. Pollan would approve.


  1. I would have loved to know what foods my great grandparents ate in their sweet little Eastern European towns. My grandmother asks me all the time what I eat. When I tell her she invariably goes "Meghan! Your must be wasting away". I am not totally sure she knows what a lentil is. Everything my grandma eats comes either from a can or from the freezer... or a margarine tub. Eeks

  2. Is this the grandma who lives in the complex with the freezer room? I loved the tour of her freezer.

  3. Laurie, this set of stories is so, so great. I LOVE that you joined the Ukrainian dance troupe in search of bread! Hilarious!

    And the fact that your story here has such a happy ending...well, I don't even have words for how cool it is that you've got a family bread recipe coming your way. It's very cool.

    Michael Pollan is awesome, and you've given me another reason to think so! I've only read The Omnivore's Dilemma. Clearly I need to get myself over to the library to pick up copies of his other books!

    Happy baking, my dear.

  4. Thanks Rosiecat. If you think the idea of my joining the dance group is funny, you should have seen me in my costume! That was hilarious. Fortunately, those photos have been destroyed. I hope.

    Still waiting for my bread recipe. I'm trying to be patient. There's a trait that doesn't come naturally to me. I guess this is giving me the opportunity for some much needed patience practice!

  5. What, you mean you aren't going to post a picture of yourself in costume? It's evidence of your devotion to authentic Ukrainian food! :-)

  6. LOL, you're too funny Rosiecat! Though the photos would certainly be evidence of something, like my moments of temporary insanity.


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