*Aromatica Poetica is delighted to present Karo Caran’s food and family inspired prose and poetry, including a couple of Grandma’s recipes as part of our Blind Writers Project series sponsored by Awesome Foundation Disability*
Child of the earth
In shades of pink and white —
Noble dweller of rocks
Of oceans’ endless sighs
Guest of the body,
Stardust of the ground —
Noble dweller in tears
Of joy and grief so profound
Course through life with care,
Prolong human story,
Embalm the veins of earth.
(From I am the Air)
My grandma was a beautiful woman, who never complained about anything in the world that surrounded her or the world at large. I don’t know how much the lack of complaining could be attributed to her nature as a fighter who feared no circumstances, and how much to her domestic life. After the war, she never had to work, but perhaps that translated into not challenging her husband’s wishes or choices, since he was the family provider. Later on, when all four children left her home, she never strove to assert herself or her presence. She even died quietly, asking my mom over the phone to please bring her to the hospital because she did not feel well, and died there at three a.m. the next morning. All the family members who had been by her bedside were gone by then. She died alone, as if not to cause any more pain to anyone. Her last wish, the nurses said, was a cup of tea, which she never finished drinking.
When I was growing up I remember her cooking dinners for the entire family. There was always some type of roasted meat, potatoes, and red cabbage. But she’d hardly sit and eat with us. She’d serve us and when asked to join, she’d say, “I don’t like potatoes, they’re good for pigs, not for people.” She’d take a tiny piece of meat and eat it in the kitchen. We’d laugh it off, my grandfather good-humoredly telling her about the great taste of potatoes. “Granny,” he’d say, “You don’t know what you’re missing! Can you please pass me the plate? I’ll gladly eat one more potato.”
Looking back, I realize that neither my grandma’s eating habits nor the overconsumption of potatoes were laughing matters. I have nothing against eating potatoes, but the way my dinner plate looked was revealing—lots of meat, lot’s of potatoes, and a vegetable on the side, like fresh tomatoes or cucumbers, graded carrots, beets or pickles. I took the composition and arrangement of foods on my plate for granted, but it required lots of effort to assemble it.
To begin with, we were quite lucky to have meat available to us on a regular basis. Many families in the urban areas could buy only tiny rations of meat, and even that was possible only after having waited in line for a couple of hours, hoping the butcher would not run out of the little rations just before one’s turn. We managed to completely escape this problem because we had grandfather’s family in the countryside, who would keep and share with us their chickens and eggs. Moreover, my mom worked as a high-ranking manager at a monopoly company that distributed food around the country. But if no friends or family members could help out to supplement the rations, potatoes took on a heightened importance, since then the meat would be on the periphery of the plate or, in the case of bacon bits, scattered over the potatoes.
I never asked my grandma about this, but I interpret her not eating potatoes as a sort of protest against the whole communist system. She’d often divide her life into two: a happy and plentiful one before World War II, and a dull one after the war. She’d always tell stories of how you could buy oranges, bananas, coffee, and cacao in supermarkets—things that were extremely hard to get when I was a child. Eating potatoes, in her mind, could have meant succumbing to and accepting the status quo of the system that stifled a variety in food choices and forced people to settle for the basics. Knowing the prewar world in which imported fruits and other goods had been readily available made it difficult for her to accept the fact that oranges and bananas suddenly became luxury items. It’s as if you grew up eating cereal for breakfast in your childhood and in your twenties were told that from now on you can only eat them if you pay a horrendous amount of money for a box of the same cereal you had eaten. That actually you should be happy you can afford to buy them, that, in fact, you should feel privileged.
As if to mock the system, my grandma ate food in small quantities but of good quality. She loved the salami sausage (usually available in its Hungarian or East German version, rather than Salami from Genoa). She also loved walnuts—the food largely underrated when I was a child. Now people know about the nutritional value of walnuts. Back then it was just an add on, a snack. No one knew you can put them in a salad or make a nut butter. They were visible and yet overlooked. Only my grandma, it seemed, would happily spend hours watching the traffic from her third-floor apartment window or pouring over crossword puzzles and consume vast amounts of nuts, the food that probably sustained her.
She never begrudged our family’s habit of potato eating, but analyzing her food preferences and knowing her sense of humor, I would not be surprised if the “pigs” who were meant to eat the potatoes were the communists, not simply the farm animals. In her mind, she could have created a variation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a book she never read, but could surely relate to by virtue of living in the times that forced her to recreate its heroes and poke fun at them.
Recipe for Mashed Potatoes
– Boil several potatoes and mash them well
– Add salt, black pepper, olive oil and lime juice
(grandma would have added butter and no lime, as these, along with lemons, were hard to come by)
– Sprinkle with dill or parsley
(Grandma would have served them with pickles and/or cooked red cabbage)
I was eight years old when my father and I were getting ready for a trip to what was then West Germany and to Belgium. My mom did not get a visa, so it was just the two of us leaving Poland for a month or so, in order to visit eye hospitals and see if they could help restore some of my sight.
I did not care so much about the consequences of having or losing my sight, but the experience of going outside of the Soviet influence was exhilarating and almost surreal. I was taught ( as many kids of the period were) that you do not criticize our communist system at school or anywhere outside the home. Going to Germany was at once an act of defiance of the Polish government—”See, I’m going there despite your criticism of Western Europe,” I thought to myself—and the realization of participating in a secret adventure, of peeking into a different world with a different set of rules, histories, languages.
In early November of 1984, my father and I left Poland. Our car was stuffed not only with luggage, but also with food. Some of it was in a picnic basket and strictly for the road: eggs, tomatoes, bread, apples, etc. But some of it, like cheeses, pickles or dry sausages were for the days to come. Food outside of Poland seemed very expensive, given the comparatively low salaries and the value of our native currency at the time, so stuffing the car with food would not have seem strange to anyone at the time.
We arrived in Germany on a late evening. We stayed in a picturesque village at a friend’s house. It so happened that the next day was 11th of November, a Martin Luther Holiday in Germany. It was a magical entry into the West, a place that I would long for, where I’d do anything in my power to belong. In the evening (or perhaps it was the afternoon) when it was dark already, the town’s inhabitants gathered for a parade. I had the pleasure of joining them. We went through the town holding colorful lanterns. How enchanting they looked against the dark sky! What a different, care-free, fairytale-like world they represented!
The mayor of the town offered me a piece of this magic, a lantern to take home, and a sweet croissant at the end of the parade. They were traditional pastries prepared for November the 11th, filled with the sweetest and most wonderfully scented marzipan, orange peels, and almonds, ingredients hard to come by in my native country at the time. I felt so special on that day!
Over ten years later, the same pastries would be sold in my native city of Poznan, probably because it used to be a part of Prussia where the tradition was upheld. Even though the ingredients used in Poznan’s bakeries were exactly the same as those in Germany, their pastries did not taste the same: the magic of that precious moment, my entry into the West, glittering with lantern colors and lights, was gone.
In fact, by the 1990s, eating the 11th of November pastries was bitter-sweet since my father had died in a car accident in 1988. I could not relive the moment with him, nor could I confirm the details. I could only hope that my imagination did not deceive me.
Recipe for tomato sandwiches
– Slice fresh bread and spread some butter or drizzle with olive oil
– Put sliced tomatoes on the bread
– Sprinkle some salt and black pepper
– Top with chopped spring onions or chives
—About the Author—
Karo Caran’s latest book, I am the Air, is a collection of poems as well as translations of Polish and Ukrainian poetry. She also published Life in Footnotes, a poetic memoir, and “Roman and Julian,” a novel about a gay couple whose existence was denied by the postwar, communist regime in Poland. Karo has a PhD in education and works in the IT. She is low vision, which she usually leaves out of her bio as it does not define her. However, it was relevant for this project. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband.