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Oral History


or, food-ways


My memory has captured an image of her; apron clad, in the kitchen, the table-top dusted with flour, her thick hands in dough and, as the table creaked under the weight of her efforts, my plump grandmother vigorously pummeling it so that it would rise again, divine. Yet, as potent as an image is, and more than I might realize, memory is of the tongue.

In my grandmother's kitchen, the food of my childhood was not only delicious to the taste buds, but the foreign names, like zwieback[1], the glide of vowels, diphthongs of dialect, and jumble of consonants in our mouths were delectable to form in the palate. Bobbat (prune-and-raison-studded dough baked in the cavity of a roast chicken), kjielkje (home-made noodles) plumi moos (chilled plum soup). The meats, chicken or pork, were simply roasted or fried, my favorite, kotletten (meatballs) along with the tasty (and new-world) shake'n bake chicken parts.

Meals were repetitive but never tedious. The aromas of the kitchen alternated between the sweetness of dough rising or bread baking and savory soups—chicken noodle, aromatic from star anise and black peppercorns, thick with homemade ribbons of kjielkje, or cabbage borscht flavored with bunches of dill, and in summertime, green or sommer borscht made from sorrel leaves with their distinctly sour taste, and buttermilk. The small kitchen warmed us with heat from the oven or stove, the front window streaked with steam, in summer, too, as wareneki (fruit or cottage cheese dumplings) boiled on the stovetop; these we ate with a sauce of butter and either sour or sweet cream. Summer was also the season for rollkuchen (deep fried dough rolled thin) fried to a crisp in oil and eaten with homemade damson plum or apricot jam, or slices of chilled watermelon. Rollkuchen with watermelon constituted many a summer meal, the ripe melons bought from the truck in the parking lot at the Food Liner or at Funk's Super Market. The town's two Mennonite grocers.

And women wanted to know of their husbands, whose borscht tasted better, whose rollkuchen crisper . . . your mother's or mine? My father's high praise sounded like this, "This tastes as good as my mother used to make."

Mennonite food. That's what we called it. The recipes were imprinted in the mind of my grandmother, who made everything from memory, passed down by her mother (an aunt, actually, who raised her as her own). My acculturating mother, too, roasted Sunday noon meals of chicken and bobbat, cooked borscht, boiled wareneki, baked paska every Easter, fried rollkuchen in summer and conserved plum jam, and deep-fried porzelkie (raison fritters) at New Year's.

My mother would have learned from her mother, and also from The Mennonite Treasury of Recipes on our kitchen shelf; in 1961, the year before I was born, a group of women from Steinbach, a Mennonite enclave in Manitoba, collected these traditional recipes into a book. My grandmother gave me a copy of the Mennonite Treasury for my wedding shower in 1982, when I was twenty. Like a good Mennonite wife in the new world, I would, she assumed, bake, boil, and fry dough for my husband and children like the frugal Mennonite women of the Old World in Poland and Russia in the years of farming and famine; create from it our sustenance, preserve our heritage, and thus, our identity.

Perhaps most "Mennonite" of all, my mother, baked buns on Saturdays. And as anyone in the Mennonite circle knows, zwieback is as substantive to the Mennonite family as bread is to communion.

On the backside of the introductory page in the yellowed copy of my Mennonite Treasury, which lost its soft cover years ago but is still bound together by a coil, the "committee," as the three women called themselves, going by the names of their husbands, Mrs. Peter Rosenfeld, Mrs. D.D. Warkentin and Mrs. Jac. H. Peters, had this to say under the heading Wheat, Mennonites and Zwieback:

Wherever our people settled, they grew wheat. No wonder our mothers and grandmothers were experts baking breads and Zwieback. No one had to go hungry as long as there was bread in the house.

My mother baked on Saturdays, and my parents held to the tradition of Sunday faspa, an evening meal of bread and cheese, perhaps sliced meats, some canned pickles.

It was the meal served at weddings. On my mother's wedding day, she helped my grandmother bake the zwieback for the wedding meal; relatives, friends, all the people of the Mennonite congregation, three hundred or more in total, were invited and ate in shifts at folding tables in the church basement.

This simple meal was also the meal of funerals and often still is today for those who wish to keep with tradition and nostalgia, holding ritual in Mennonite Church basements, and then in church gyms when they were added. And I admit, zwieback seems fitting for a memorial service; to "eat this in remembrance." When my grandmother passed away in 1999, after her funeral service we ate a faspa of buns and cheese in the basement of the Mennonite Brethren Church where she had been a devoted member.

In many ways, zwieback is a comfort food.

Typically, zwieback is the twice-baked bread enriched with egg and milk that small children eat. In Dutch, these slices are called rusks and differ from the version of zwieback I know, or Tweebak as the women in the Mennonite Treasury call it in the Low German dialect (with capitalized nouns), those egg and milk enriched yeast double buns made from two balls of dough, one larger on the bottom, and one smaller pinch of dough on top.

My mother didn't bother with two balls of dough but she would have remained true to the recipe in the Mennonite Treasury, which stated, "add enough flour to make a stiff dough." However much flour that was could only be learned through experience.

I also think of how, during the war, the Mennonite mothers in Russia, Ukraine, and Poland prepared zwieback in preparation for fleeing the frontlines and armies. This zwieback would also have been twice baked, or roasted, and dried, rather than double stacked, provisions for the journey over the weeks and months in the boxcars crammed with refugees, or on the horse-drawn wagon-trains attempting to escape the tanks and bombers.

*

What is interesting to me now is how instantly taste transports us geographically, temporally. Our histories, our roots, and our food are inextricable. Food in our mouths, taste on our tongues, engender a narrative of our past.

Anne Applebaum, the Warsaw correspondent for the Washington Post, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 2004 for her book, Gulag: A History, has also written Iron Curtain 1944-1956. Her work interests me, in large part, because of my family history in both Ukraine and Poland; it is a contested history wherein personal stories unfold only long after the public narratives of the War in Europe, and the Holocaust, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Perhaps it should not be a surprise to me that Applebaum, so invested in the history of Eastern Europe, of Poland, where she lives part of the time, also co-authored a cookbook, From a Polish Country Kitchen House, after her husband's family purchased a Polish manor in 1989. After Communism was dismantled, they restored the house and began to cook. And yet, I was surprised by a simple recipe I found in its pages for mizeria, or Polish cucumber salad: 2 cucumbers, seeded, 1tsp. sugar, 1 tbsp. chopped fresh dill, 2 tbsp. white wine vinegar, salt and freshly grated pepper. The recipe leaves out the cream, but notes this is how it is usually served. Just as my grandmother had done, although she used regular white vinegar. As a child in my maternal grandmother's kitchen, my favorite accompaniment to her food was, simply, this cucumber salad! How could cucumbers taste so good? She served this salad with kotletten (meatballs) and yellow fleshed potatoes from her garden, boiled, with butter and salt—potatoes we children called Polish potatoes—for what other potatoes would our grandmother from Poland cook? Recorded evidence of the past lived by my parents and grandparents, in this case, not historical research, writing or story, but an alphabet of tastes remembered, of something from Poland that my Mennonite grandmother brought to the table.

*

On a family trip to Europe in 2005 we visited my father's village on the Ukrainian steppes, and we also visited my mother's rural village in Poland. And here I must detour from Poland, to mention the slices of Ukrainian watermelon we ate outdoors in the garden of a woman in my father's former childhood village. The woman's family resettled in the village on the steppes in 1946 and occupied the houses after the villagers, "German" like my father's family, had been evacuated by the German army. The Mennonites call watermelon harbuz or arbuz, from the Russian word arbus, the name and the fruit adopted from Turkey. Those watermelons, my father always told us when we were children, were the sweetest ones, his childhood watermelons even better than the ones that would form our childhood memories.

There, in my father's former village, we figuratively, if not literally, broke bread together, but before we all partook, the Ukrainian woman handed my father the center piece of the watermelon, the obraumtje as he, a boy on the steppes, would have called it in Low German—this piece of significance with its own name, a word to roll the tongue around.

Later, my father told us it wasn't as sweet as he remembered.

When we visited my mother's village in Poland, I was amazed by the mushrooms growing in the field that was the site of her childhood home. They were the size of dinner plates! I know next to nothing about mushrooms, but I do know that foraging for them in the forest is a family tradition in Poland. However, mushrooms are not part of Mennonite cookery. Nevertheless, what remains almost tangible of that August afternoon visit to my mother's former Mennonite village is not only the images of the fields, the old home sites—or even the strand of wildflowers preserved in my journal—but the experience of tasting freshly picked mushrooms simmered in broth.

As our driver pulled the van to a dusty stop and parked at the entrance to the quiet farming village, a local Polish woman in a polka-dotted dress greeted us. We learned that her family had been resettled in the village after the German occupation, after the majority of the village residents fled in advance of the Russian troops. This woman would have been born around the time of my grandmother's departure as a refugee with her children in 1947.

"You must stop by my house before you leave," she said to us.

We spent the late morning and early afternoon walking the sand road past the farms. Some of the houses from my mother's childhood still remained, though hers was gone. While much had changed with time and neglect—the Mennonite church had begun to crumble from disuse, the old cemetery was overgrown—in some ways, time had seemed to stop. The farming was mostly managed without machinery, the hay was uncut. In the heat, the abiding low humming of grasshoppers and bees.

This lazy afternoon a group of teen-aged boys gathered along fence posts, curious about us as we walked down the lane of their hometown. I suspect other residents, reticent or occupied with laundry, housekeeping or barn chores, but curious, watched us through curtains as we passed their yards. But, no doubt, this woman in the polka-dotted dress knew a business opportunity when she saw one in the form of foreigners arriving to visit their old homestead.

As we concluded our visit and returned to our van, she was waiting and beckoned us to a mid-day meal she had prepared for us. "Just pay me what you can," she said. (Afterward, I saw my father slipped her a hundred-dollar bill.)

Who could refuse? The seven of us—my parents, my husband and me, our two teenage sons and our twenty-year-old daughter—along with our driver, gathered around a wooden table set up in her back yard, where around and beneath it the chickens scrabbled for insects, and close by, inside her yard, the teenage boys lined her fence like a row of sunflowers to watch. Hungry, perhaps; gazing at the beautiful girl from Canada, with her long blonde hair, eating lunch in the sunlight.

The woman explained to us that after we arrived and while we were out walking she had gathered mushrooms in the forest and cooked a soup. She served us glasses of cold cherry juice made from cherries from the tree and the well in the yard, and a first course of mushroom broth ladled over noodles. Noodles, like the kjielkje my grandmother would have made in her kitchen, in this village, just down the road. From flour, milk and eggs, and when the hens were laying well, made in large quantity, then dried and always on hand.

After a deep bowlful of hearty soup, the woman served us a second course of home-made unpasteurized cottage cheese with fresh cream, hoisting her massive bowl, liberally shoveling cheese into our basin-like emptied ones, one by one, and when she came to me, and I asked for only a little, like a specter of my grandmother who thought a small appetite meant that her food wasn't tasty, the woman filled my bowl, stood over me and watched to ensure I ate it all.

*

When my husband and I returned to Poland in May 2013, en route from Berlin to Warsaw, we shared a rail compartment with a Polish graduate student. On the course of our journey together with the young woman, who had just visited with her parents in the countryside, we engaged in a conversation about food. Specifically, on the subject of barszcz (borscht). Her mother cooked beet barszcz, she said; our mothers cooked cabbage and meat borscht. "You must try zurek—white barszcz," she said, "it is special to Poland." It was her favorite.

It must be like summer borscht, a soup I love, with its sour and creamy base, served with a boiled egg in each bowl. Sommer borscht–"Mennonite Soup" it is called, according to a recipe in my Mennonite Treasury.

"Does it have sorrel in it to give it the sour flavor?" I asked the young woman.

No, the woman said, this soup is made with a base of zakwas—rye flour or bread and water, like a sourdough starter. The stock of this hearty vegetable and sausage soup is sour, salty and creamy, although it, too, like summer borscht, is served with a boiled egg in it.

My husband and I sampled various versions of borscht all throughout the city of Krakow. And while I did not find summer borscht, and zakwas was delicious, I felt gratified when I later discovered, in the pages of Applebaum and Crittenden's From a Polish Country Kitchen, a recipe for zupa szczawiowa, sorrel soup, complete with directions to garnish with a hardboiled egg, preferably a quail's egg, for added protein.

Applebaum says that in Poland's restaurants there is a return to simple foods. True. From Krakow's fine dining and more rustic establishments we also sampled pierogi, or what we had called wareneki at home. We ate pierogi filled with cherries, served with butter and cream. My favorite summer meal as a child, the main and only course, not served as dessert on china, eaten with silver cutlery, as I now enjoyed them.

*

I remember one summer camping trip in Penticton, British Columbia, In the heat of one July afternoon in the late 1960s, on the picnic tables in front of the campers and tents—my mother and aunts pitting ice-cream pails full of fresh Okanagan cherries, rolling out dough with the rolling pins they'd brought camping, cutting out rounds of dough by pressing the mouths of coffee mugs into it, folding these rounds over the fruit to form the dumplings and boiling potful after potful on Coleman stoves. A laborious effort for their hungry husbands and children after a day at the beach. We ate them as fast as they made them.

Wareneki, along with rollkuchen and watermelon, or thin rolled pancakes (named German pancakes in the Treasury) with fresh peaches and whipped cream, or simply with plum, cherry or apricot jam, were summer meals in Mennonite families. These were the childhood feasts our mothers made with flour, the recipes from a time in history when there was little to eat but what one grew from the earth. Mehl speise, the Mennonites called this, roughly translated as meals from flour. "Many of these meals hail back from the days of want and austerity, and are no longer in use, but may be of interest for coming generations to read," the women of Steinbach Manitoba wrote in 1961 in the introduction to their cookbook. More than fifty years later the recipes are of interest to me, and the memories are still as fresh as summer fruit.

A more recent summer memory is breakfast on the deck at our lake house. My parents had arrived by boat from their summer residence across the water, my mother bearing gifts, jars of freshly made cherry and apricot jam, just picked and preserved from the fruit trees in her yard. My grown children were visiting for the long weekend. It was Saturday morning, and my husband was making thin pancakes. What you might call crepes.

We both grew up eating these rolled pancakes with jam. Filled with cottage cheese, their name becomes blintze. They are flinsen or pflinzen in Low German, or simply, Dutch or German pancakes in the Treasury cookbook. Nalesniki in Polish, "the thing you make when there is nothing in the house but eggs and flour," it says in From a Polish Country House Kitchen. It occurs to me that this simple meal, pancakes, if not zwieback, is the fullest trace of my Mennonite ancestry, its' origins in the Reformation, in Switzerland, and in the Netherlands where a converted priest's, Menno Simon's, Protestant Pacifist sect formed. From here, the pathway of its migration on to the Vistula Delta, embracing a Prussian German identity under Frederick the Great who offered religious freedom and land to farm in an area that would later again become Poland. In time, Catherine the Great of Russia (formerly a German princess) invited the Mennonites to form colonies on land she had gained in the Ukraine region (from the Turks).

I can visualize my husband standing at the stove with my son-in-law, who is of Swiss and Italian ancestry, showing him how to make these thin pancakes—a breakfast tradition in our home—a slab of butter melting in the frying pan. My husband pouring the batter into the pan, swirling it to make a thin layer, his pancakes nice and thin while his protégé's pancakes thicken with inexperience.

*

Saturday morning pancakes. We each have our own memories associated with food and ritual. In eating these foods I am reminded of who I come from, the people before me. Food imparts the flavor of belonging. As I think of the food my grandmother cooked, I see more clearly, the older I get, that she had preserved something of her past, and of another place, indelibly connecting me to each, and to her. Food is our family story, but a story without words. It is the language my grandmother spoke, but without speech.

After the bowl of batter was scraped clean, the last pancake browned, and the plate piled with them, we all gathered around the table on the deck, the lake below us. But before we could eat, our daughter and son-in-law wanted to show something to their grandparents, something they had shared with the rest of us the night before. My daughter passed a rolled up paper to my mother, who unfurled it, and stared, at first not fully comprehending the image—vague but distinguishable and recognizable, not unlike memory. But not of the past, rather, an ultrasound image of the future! And with that, while I no longer was the one doing all the cooking, I was on the way to becoming the grandmother in the kitchen.



[1] In German, all nouns, including names of food, are capitalized but I have not done so.

About the Author

Connie T. Braun

Connie T. Braun is an author and instructor of Creative Writing. She has published a memoir The Steppes are the Colour of Sepia (Ronsdale Press, 2008) a collection of poetry, Unspoken: An Inheritance of Words (Fern Hill Publications, 2014), a chapbook, Narrow Passageway (Alfred Gustav Press 2017) and Silentium: Reflections on Memory, Sorrow, Place and the Sacred (Wipf and Stock, Resource Publications 2017). Along with reviews for various publications, her personal essays and poetry appear in anthologies and journals. She has served on the boards for the arts and writing, is a member of the League of Canadian Poets, and currently represents the Mennonite constituency as a member of the community advisory committee for the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at the University of the Fraser Valley. Connie has recently returned from a residency at Hedgebrook for "women authoring change."