When I was in Ukraine in September, I was entranced by the markets. Unlike those in France or Italy, where everything—pyramids of cheeses, perfect apples, peaches, plums with the bloom still on their cheeks, fish on ice, olives arranged in tubs on Provençal cottons— is arranged like a still life, lit from within, the market in Kosiv was untidy, smoky, loud (ducks in cages, a few sheep baaing), and so filled with life that I didn’t want to leave. Old women sat at tiny tables with their soda bottles of milk, their buckets of fresh cheese that they’d scoop out with their hands and put into a small plastic bag if you wanted some, and men sold their homemade mouse-traps, their battered tools, tomatoes so ripe they cracked at the stem, and apples that would win no beauty contests but that were spicy and delicious eaten from my hand as I walked around the stalls.
The meals we ate reminded me of summers in Edmonton with my father’s family. He was one of 9 children (8 of them half-siblings), much younger than the others. So my cousins were as old as my parents but their children—first cousins once removed?—were plentiful. There was no fatted calf to kill for the visit of the only child who’d actually moved away but the visit was a series of feasts anyway, the kind that take a whole day to prepare. My aunts and my mother, with my grandmother nearby in a rocking chair, made pyrohy, cabbage rolls, salads of cucumbers and tomatoes and dill, dressed with soured cream, yeast buns, stuffed breads, maybe some chickens stuffed with herbs and onions, and all of this was accompanied by laughter and tears. The food wouldn’t have been from any single ethnic group. My grandmother was from what’s now the Czech Republic. My grandfather was from Bukovina, now Ukraine (but Austro-Hungarian when he left in 1907). My grandmother’s first husband, the father of the other 8 children, was Polish. One aunt married a man from Syria. The neighbours, who were part of the meal preparation and feast, were Hungarian.
I’ve been thinking about this food, how it sustained us, allowed for social interaction, for secrets, for tears as one aunt or another recalled a relative now dead or a baby stillborn or the hardships of my grandparents’ early years in Canada. Cooking and eating are part of how we preserve our history and so much of this preservation—the details, the hows and the whys, as well as the actual preparation—is what we think of as women’s work. The men have a part in it, of course. Certainly the outside cooking of meat is a man’s province, poking at steaks and smoking fish and turning great slabs of ribs on slow fires. But rolling out the thin dough for dumplings, pitting cherries for pies, peeling potatoes and making fresh cheese to stuff in the dumpling dough, souring the cream for smetana, mincing green dill for pastries, soaking walnuts in honey—those things tend to be done by women. And a child watching learns about the work and the nature of women’s relationships. The aunt married to the Syrian was always given a job she could do sitting down. This was because her husband abused her. No one challenged him or reprimanded him (it was the early 1960s….) but they did what they could for her.
So I’ve been thinking about the food and wanting to know how to prepare some of it now that I am the oldest woman in my immediate family and realize that I need to keep certain traditions alive for my children and grandchildren. I knew about Olia Hercules, mostly because of the articles I’d read in the New Yorker over the past few years. I ordered her first book, Mamushka, and it arrived on Tuesday, the same day I was mailing out copies of the little book I’d made to give to my family and friends as a gift to commemorate my 65th birthday.
The subtitle is important: Recipes from Ukraine and beyond. In the introduction, she tells us
Despite my strong Ukrainian identity, I have always cherished and taken pride in the cultural diversity that we were so lucky to enjoy in Ukraine. My paternal grandmother is Siberian, my mother has Jewish and Bessarabian (Moldovan) roots, my father was born in Uzbekistan and we have Armenian and Ossetian friends.
In it, the most beautiful recipes, many of them familiar, though perhaps differently accented. My grandmother’s pyrohy fillings were a little different from those made by the Ukrainian women whose sons married my father’s sisters. Her sweet dumplings were filled with yellow plums, because that’s what she had access to, whereas we ate gorgeous cherry vareniky in Ukraine. Similar dough, and the smetana we lavishly spooned on top was the same as my grandmother’s.
I look forward to cooking from this book. Right now, though? I’m feeling the loss of a large extended group of women at my side as I think about rolling out dough or simmering bones for broth, but maybe they’re here still, just in another way. In my hands, my wide hips, my love of growing vegetables and herbs and bringing them to the kitchen with a little soil clinging to them. Tomorrow night I’m making the Azerbaijani chicken with prunes and walnuts. I have other dishes in mind too. When my children come in the summer, we’ll choose a menu for a feast to honour this particular strand of their multi-textured family history. By the woodstove, the Black Krim tomato seeds are nearly sprouting, those huge pink fruits with cracked shoulders that are called for in many of these recipes. And I have the memory of those Edmonton summers, lying in the grass under the trees, lulled by women’s voices.