In the Pandemic, Cooking Connected Me to My Ancestors
hSometimes life gives you a sourdough baguette toasted with fresh ricotta cheese and homemade cherry preserves. Oysters. Handmade cheese from far corners of France.
It’s not hard to eat well, or cook well, on an unlimited budget. At other times, life gives you old lemons from the discount bin at Carnival Foods, on Beverley Road where the Rite Aid used to be. When that happens, give it back pickled lemons, lemon cake, lemon ices.
Turning simple ingredients into exquisite food is the stuff of fairy tales, fashioning culinary dross into gold; it’s a magical power, a kind of alchemy. You are suddenly in the realm of the ancestors, the old country, or, sadly, in America and many other countries right now.
When the pandemic began last March, I had the funny sense that I had been through this before.
Except it wasn’t me who had been through it. My ancestors had, and I took strength from the thought of them facing their own difficulties.
My family came from Poland, Romania, and Russia. Our memories started, in earnest, on this side of the ocean. All of us—great-grandparents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins—lived within a one-mile radius in Buffalo, New York. Our traditions are not discussed further back than my great-grandparents, because no one wanted to remember the war.
My grandparents crafted their own traditions out of the forbidden. My maternal grandfather, Irwin, would take us grandchildren out for steamed clams at Santasiero’s, a simple Italian restaurant by the Niagara River, where we’d have the kind of food that sailors or working men would eat. My grandparents were flouting the traditions of their kosher parents by doing this: Religious Jews don’t eat clams because shellfish are considered unclean bottom-feeders.
My paternal grandfather, Murray, came to the United States in 1912, when he was two years old, from a small town on the border of Russia and Romania. Whenever the mood struck them, he and my grandmother would take us out for lobster dinner, riding through the city in his mint-green Cadillac Eldorado. Our destination: a North Buffalo place with walls decorated by nets, lobster traps, and buoys. It was called the Royal Pheasant, though I thought it was the Royal Peasant until I was in my thirties. Even now, I have to consciously correct myself when I recall its name.
On the way home from the Royal Pheasant, we’d stop to pick up treats for his mother, my great-grandma, Nana Jenny. She liked chocolate turtles and coffee ice cream from the turquoise-and-orange Howard Johnson on Delaware Avenue, the building shaped like a plastic chalet in Switzerland despite being here in Buffalo.
At eighteen, I started to hang out in New York City and felt free, finally, from Buffalo. I lived there some summers, reading Kafka and eating elephant-ear pastries at The Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam Avenue. There, I befriended a Polish refugee named Henri, who inscribed my copy of a Tatyana Tolstaya book: For Elizabeth, who is like someone from Warsaw. I had never been to Poland (still haven’t), and my relatives rarely spoke about the past other than my mother’s occasional mentions of her grandmother, Henny (“She chewed on chicken bones because she loved the taste! She cooked mushroom stock for days!”). Still, I knew what Henri meant.
“When the pandemic hit, the stories that once seemed mythical now came into focus.”
As the years went on, I forgot about that inscription and stopped eating elephant ears. I married, had babies, and cooked for my family. As a plant-based private chef, I brought dishes made of barley and lemons to Wall Street and other illustrious addresses. I only thought of the foods I grew up with on Jewish holidays, when I would make potato pancakes or kasha varnishkes, but I put the stories of chewing chicken bones away on a shelf in my mind and more or less forgot them.
When those babies had become young men, and the pandemic hit, the stories that once seemed mythical now came into focus. If my grandma could make soup from practically nothing—my mother recalled a giant stockpot of mushrooms, onions, salt and pepper, and “maybe paprika,” in the age-old tradition—I would do the same. I am not alone, I thought, reaching for cabbage off the shelf of the food co-op while the state of the world looked more and more uncertain. All of my ancestors felt near to me then. I could almost sense them beside me, as if the spattered index cards they’d left behind, with recipes written over blue lines, had come to life.
What was ours is cabbage. Rugelach, borscht. I pickled turnips and lemons, as if this would bring us home, and wrote menu plans for my husband and sons. In a frightening world, we still ate dinner at six, and we still ate well. It’s hard to sustain fear in the face of a just-baked plum cake with almonds. Possible, of course, but harder.
I knew this drill from more than just ancestral memory. Six years ago, we moved to New York with two children and without any savings or jobs. Once, I found money on the street and could afford three bags of groceries at our co-op. I don’t remember exactly what I bought, only that it really went far: precious olive oil, small yellow onions, chopped tomatoes in boxes, garlic. Some food to cook. Who could ask for anything more? I thought.
But you can’t count on finding money. That night, after a delicious dinner, I read Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven to our nine-year-old, trying to stay connected to the plot and keep it all straight, who stole the diamond, why they were running, trying not to wonder what we would do when rent was due in four days.
During that time, I felt strange in the cookie aisle, staring at the $4.99 Newman’s Own Mint Oreos I knew my kids would have loved. Things you don’t buy when money gets too tight: anything bottled or packaged; anything brand-name, not even if it includes Paul Newman’s handsome face. Especially not his handsome face.
“It’s hard to sustain fear in the face of a just-baked plum cake with almonds. Possible, of course, but harder.”
You scooch past things like that, which would only last twenty minutes in the hands of a man and two preteen boys. I grew lean and finally had the figure of my dreams: Don’t ask me how I did it, but I finally lost the ten pounds almost every woman in America seems to think she should lose. But if you ask anyway: In addition to not having any extra food, be too nervous to eat normally and walk every chance you get, especially near trees. In this way, you stay connected to nature and to some fundamental rhythm. Plum cake, branches of any tree, and an open sky: All was okay for the moment, and the stacking of moments makes a life.
Before last March, my co-op shift was part of my rhythm, ten people around a table bagging fruits and nuts. I could rely on it, the soothing, repetitive work of scooping rose petals, almonds, pine nuts, and loose Darjeeling tea into two-inch plastic bags. Once, someone dropped a box of two hundred organic Medjool dates onto the floor (valued at $111.30). Two fell; the rest, wrapped in layers of tissue, didn’t even graze the floor. A co-op worker said, “We can’t sell these by law. Throw them away, or take them home, if you like.” Organic Medjool dates were staunchly in the unthinkable category, next to those fancy mint-chocolate cookies.
A box of organic Medjool dates is a fortune. I brought it home, lovingly put them into giant glass mason jars. For months after that, we savored them like delicacies fit for royalty.
I served the dates with roasted almonds and red wine on old china, lit those little silver tea lights, one hundred for five dollars at the Dollar Store. We always ate by candlelight, even when I was afraid to run out of matches.
This is my secret trick, one of the many treasures culled from those years, before new degrees and jobs brought us more. Anything at all that makes you feel rich, you do it. Think it, imagine it. Put it at the front of the cabinet so you keep on seeing it, until the day when the coffers are full. Magnify your richness, if you can.
Vichyssoise and Be Fancy (Potato-Leek Soup)
$4.50 per pot; 56 cents per serving*
3 medium leeks
2 medium russet potatoes
Olive oil (extra-virgin, cold-pressed)
Cut the leeks in half vertically, and wash them well in cold water, including the insides. Cut the leeks into 1-inch pieces and place them in a bowl.
Wash the potatoes, and cut them into 1-inch pieces. Place them in a separate bowl.
Gently heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy pot.
Add the leeks and a sprinkle of salt, and sauté with a wooden spoon until translucent and sweet smelling, about 3–5 minutes.
Layer the potatoes on top of the leeks.
Add cold water gently down the side of the pot, trying not to disturb the vegetables. Place a lid over the pot, turn the heat to medium-high, and bring it to a boil. Then reduce the heat and simmer for approximately 12 minutes, or until the potatoes are soft. Turn off the heat and blend the vegetables completely in the pot with a hand mixer.
Add 1/4 cup water, or enough to create a brothy and smooth soup when stirred. Add salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle with olive oil and garnish with nutmeg and finely chopped parsley.
*All ingredients are organic and priced at Whole Foods.
Elizabeth Gollan is working on a book about her life as a caregiver and personal chef and the political and cultural meanings of those professions. Her work has appeared in Romper and Dame Magazine.
Co-published with Catapult.