Food has become sexier than sex these days. Not for nothing has the expression “food porn” been coined. You know! You’ve been there…watching Nigella (Lawson) greedily sucking cake mix off her finger. One doesn’t know what to do first after that…make a sandwich or light a cigarette?
I am just as guilty as everyone else of over consumption of magazines, cooking shows, food blogs… But before this phenomenon of the affluent dabbling their un-caloused hands in a bit of “cooking” appeared, food was hard work. It was hard to grow it, have the money to buy it or the guts to kill it, clean it and then finally – to cook it. Fun didn’t really play a part. Nor did the provider of a fine meal expect adulation and adoration for their exertions.
My grandmother was born in 1924 in Romania. She was one of 6 children. She used to be bathed outside in a wooden tub, in the same murky water as her 5 sibilings. She grew up and moved to the city where she married a man who was prone to drink, chasing women and when those two distractions were not available, chasing my grandmother around the house to give her a good hiding. Instead of this making my grandmother meek it made her all the more powerful.
Although I was small, I would always marvel at my grandmother’s delegation of complex household tasks to her team of “femei” (women) from “la tara” (the countryside). They would arrive at dawn, tie a kerchief around their head to preserve their hairdos, and slurp strong Turkish coffee (the smell of which was powerful enough to wake me even though I was sleeping at the far end of the house). The women would be assigned the mundane and menial chores: like shelling then roasting walnuts and diligently rubbing away the papery skin or plucking a hen. My grandmother would occupy herself with making “Cozonac” a Romanian brioche type bread flavoured with rum and often filled with poppy seeds in the Germanic / Polish tradition. Or she would make elaborate layered cakes, no less than 5 layers. My favorite was lemon but there was also a chocolate one that boasted exquisite pastry work.
A perennial in her household and indeed in Romania at that time was “Salata de boeuf”. This is a boiled beef salad, with cooked vegetables in a mayonnaise base. Despite the French name it is related to a German salad called the Berliner which uses beetroot and is pink. This “salad” is filled with peas, half centimeter cubes of potato, carrots, pickled cucumber and pickled gogosarii (a special kind of red pepper that is pickled in brine with is skin on and is sweet with a bit of bite). It sounds kind of evil written out like that in black and white but in actual fact, when prepared well Salata de Boeuf is quite delicious.
I bring it up not because I expect anyone to make this bygone salad but because it was such a measuring stick of the good house wife. It displayed skills in mayonnaise making, precision cutting but more importantly the decorative elements with which the salad was dressed. Roses of tomato, daisies made up of chopped eggs and swaying grasses of green beans.
My fondest memory of that time were her preserves. Not only did she have to contend with seasonality (like fattened crows, we all go on about this without really understanding that seasonality means for 6 months of the year we should be eating potatoes, cabbages, apples and pulses) but also with the scarcity of food resulting from communism. There is nothing that my grandmother could not preserve and improve in a jar! Jams, fruits in syrup, pickled cauliflower (don’t turn your nose up at this one because its delicious!), peppers, pickles, green tomatoes.
And she had two freezers (a secret at the time of course, otherwise the neighbors could have denounced her to the authorities in true Orwellian style) filled with contraband meats. My father would often be the one to provide her with these coveted meats. I remember driving to the countryside with my father and playing with a calf, marvelling at its wet nose and long eyelashes while my father discussed something with a weatherd peasant. I was then sent inside and when I came out, there was a pool of the reddest blood I had ever seen! It was typical but dangerous at the time to try to find “other” supplies of meat then the one chicken allocated per family per month. And when my grandmother was presented with whatever carcass my father had managed to slaughter, she would begin cutting it up, cooking it off. Lengths of intestines would be washed and stretched and filled to make sausages. Without exaggeration, my grandmother could probably make a meal out of a cows toenail (if it had one!).
Now years and years later. She is 85. She lives alone in a tiny flat with only the two freezers as company. I am visiting her with my daughter, her great grand-daughter. My grandmother is too old to go to the market on her own but when we visit her, she sends us and then sets upon the gargantuan task of preserving her food this time on her own as the women she used to employ have long since passed away.
After she served us lunch yesterday and cleared the plates she disappeared into the kitchen.
I followed her and found her amid a kilo of hulled strawberries and behind a mountain of sour cherries drying on a cloth. I sat down to help her and asked her where the cherry pitter was. “I don’t like using that” she said “it eviscerates the cherry and leaves you with two gaping holes on either side.” She showed me how she uses a bobby pin to remove the stone which leaves the cherry a lot more intact.
I don’t know why I was so surprised to learn this original method of cherry pitting from her!? She is the most amazing woman I know.
I pulled up a stool next to her and sat happily pitting cherries with a hairpin and listening to her stories. And in the quiet moments, thinking how lucky I am to be sitting next to this great woman today.