My mom said the kindest thing to me the other day while she was listening to me gripe about a recipe that was not working out. She said I reminded her of my great-grandmother, a woman who was always experimenting in the kitchen and would just shrug and move on if something didn’t work out (or was even truly awful).
That comment made me think about family and food and memories—and this blog, which just passed 10,000 pageviews after 7 months (excuse for a mini dance party? I think so). How do you remember the people in your life, especially ones who are gone–pictures, mementos, stories? The more I write this blog, the more I realize how inextricably my memories of people are tied to food, the making or the sharing, and that is no truer than when it comes to my great-grandmother, Stella Kisilewicz.
A baker by trade—she and my great-grandfather owned a corner store in Cleveland—the clearest memories I have of my great-grandmother are of the things she made, especially her chrusciki (fried dough bowties, dusted with powdered sugar) and her sweet bread with streusel.
My great-grandfather outside their shop in Cleveland
I’m not the only one—I’ve heard my mom talk more than a few times about the soft-boiled eggs my great-grandma used to serve in tiny egg cups with tiny spoons, her beet soup, her prune paczkis. The apple pancakes I made recently prompted the sweetest comment from my grandma who remembered the apple donuts she used to make when my grandma was growing up.
Anxious for beet soup
While I loved her chrusciki, my great-grandma’s bread was something extra special; it wasn’t super sweet, just rich enough to be counted as a treat, and it would be the lucky person who got one of the coveted end pieces with the extra sugary bits. I remember my grandma slicing me a piece and adding a healthy smear of butter as I sat at the kitchen table, listening to family chit-chat between my mom, grandparents, great-grandparents, and whichever other aunts and uncles were around.
A few years ago I copied down her bread recipe from a notecard in my mom’s stack of clippings. It’s one of those recipes that’s so clearly from a lifelong baker, one who cooked by taste and feel rather than by a list of fixed ingredients and measurements. Some ingredients are missing amounts, ingredients are mentioned in the instructions that are nowhere in the ingredient list, some components are missing altogether. And, as is customary for my mom’s side of the family, it makes SO MUCH FOOD—three loaves to be exact.
The thing I love about recipes like this, though, is the conversation they create. Looking over the recipe, I called my mom to ask her a question, leading to a call to my grandma for more details. While I was kneading the dough, I considered how lucky I am to have the family I do—both my mom’s side and my dad’s side—and the traditions we share. My great-grandma has been gone for twelve years, but by making her bread, by calling my mom and my grandma for advice, I felt connected to her. I thought of her and her amazing hats, the love she clearly had for her family. And I felt sad that, quite honestly, I never really got to know her as well as I should have in hindsight, to hear her stories, to see her in action in the kitchen.
But I could do this, now. I could mix milk, eggs, butter, flour, yeast, sugar with intention and mindfulness for the traditions I’ve inherited. And more than a little respect for the many, many (many!) years my great-grandmother put into her baking–this bread was hard! I failed completely on my first batch when it deflated like a balloon, and only counted the second as a marginal success–tasty (and oh-so-good toasted with butter or jam), but not what I remember.
With the Thanksgiving holiday coming up in just a few weeks, I hope you all have a chance to take a moment and give thanks for your family’s unique food memories. Whether they involve from-scratch bread, a cookie that only one person in your family could ever make “right,” or even just a once-a-week treat of eating delivery pizza in front of the tv to watch Friends, these memories are special and, at least for me, are integral to the person I am now.
I imagine my great-grandmother felt much the same sense of joy as she shared her passion for food with her family, friends, neighbors, community as I feel sharing my discoveries here with all of you. I’m looking forward to sharing more.