by Chris Wiewoira
At Grandma’s kitchen counter, I flipped to her recipe for gołabki in a photo album. She had written it on an index card and then tucked it inside a plastic sleeve. I knew more about Grandma’s cooking than about our Polish heritage. While Grandma scooped grounds into a filter, I tried to figure out a way to get her to talk. She flicked on her coffeemaker. The aroma of coffee rolled through the room as a fresh brew sputtered.
“It doesn’t say it on there,” Grandma said, reading over my shoulder. “I use half ketchup, half tomato paste.”
I scratched out the full cup and edited the correction in the margin. Outside a thin layer of snow brushed Grandma’s tomato garden hibernating next to the fence. I hadn’t flown up from Orlando to Chicago in the middle of winter to write down recipes. I had flown up because Grandma, who was in her late 70s, had breast cancer and was scheduled for a mastectomy. I thought that it might be the last time to see her and possibly the last chance to hear about her history.
The coffee finished before the pot of water boiled. Grandma poured coffee into a blue mug. She wrapped her hands around the ceramic glaze, warming her palms.
I admired a painted flower that blossomed on the mug. The flower had a yellow center. I knew it was one that grew in Poland, but I didn’t know its name.
“Do you want the cup?” Grandma asked. If I said yes, then I knew she would wash it, dry it, and wrap it in newspaper for me.
“It’s yours,” I said.
On the stove, a pot of water boiled. Another pot, with rice began to simmer. Grandma lifted the lid on a frying pan to check on sizzling ground beef. Grandma had set her sauce to the side, rounding up all the ingredients for gołabki.
“Do you remember Poland?” I asked.
“Of course,” Grandma said. She stayed at the stove.
Grandma must have thought that was a silly question. I wanted to ask her again, but I didn’t say anything. I walked over to the kitchen table and sat at a chair.
Grandma plopped cabbage leaves into the boiling water. She wiped her hands on her apron, walked over to me, and took a seat.
There were only six cottages in her village. The roofs thatched together above overlapping logs of the one-room structures. Her father Josef, a stern and solid-built man with slicked-back hair, owned a store. The store was a cabinet in their cottage. He sold sugar, flour, salt, tobacco, and matches.
During the day, Josef farmed and, in the evenings at the tavern, he drank and gambled. One winter, Josef came home through the snow in socks. He stood in the glow of the cottage’s doorframe and cupped his red-chapped hands together, blowing into them. Babcia his wife—her young face already worn with worry—pulled him inside. Josef shuffled in, unable to feel his toes. He had lost his shoes playing cards. In front of the fire, blood painfully rushed through his thawing veins. Betting and losing his shoes wasn’t enough to quit drinking.
Josef wasn’t the nicest drunk. Not mean, he never hit his wife or children. But one night at the tavern built on stilts, Josef made fun of a young man. And the guy just stood up, and hit Josef. The punch made Josef burst backwards through the double-hinged door, flip over a railing on the deck, and then fall with a thud into a drift. Josef’s outline indented the snow.
Grandma got up from her table. She lifted the lid from the pot of boiling cabbage. A cloud of steam escaped. She adjusted the gas, turned the heat down low, giving herself more time to tell me about her family, our history.
Grandma returned to her chair and said, “The Russians came on horses.”
They invaded, but they didn’t torch cottages. The thatched roofs didn’t burn with flames that crackled up, blackening the sky. Instead, the Russians set up schools where they taught that there was no God. Josef forbade his daughter from attending because he wasn’t going to have her reject being Catholic and he would not have her forced to speak another language.
When his stepmother had kicked him out of the house at 16, Josef had lied that he was older to join the Polish military. During World War I, Josef had patrolled the Czech border, but was captured and taken to a prisoner camp in Italy. He ate dogs and cats to survive. Josef escaped by grabbing an Italian guard’s throat and squeezing until he was done.
Josef still served as a border patrolman, and the Russians believed he would join the Polish resistance. Several men came to the cottage for Josef. The men blocked the door, the only way in or out. They where there to take Josef outside and make him dig a body-sized hole so they could shoot him and then bury him in it. But Josef had already fled to the next village, so they grabbed Babcia.
Grandma grabbed my wrist. “They took her fingers,” Grandma said. She held my hand. Her skin was soft even though she had worked for years as a cleaning lady. Grandma straightened all my knuckles.
“They put her fingers in the door,” Grandma said, “and asked her where he was.”
I wanted to tell her to stop, that I could guess what had happened next.
“She said she didn’t know,” Grandma said. “And they slammed the door shut.”
Grandma bent my fingers into a fist. She covered her hand over mine. I pulled back my hand, away from her, and hid it under the table.
“Babcia left to go find him,” Grandma said.
Grandma was left alone. No parents, no school, no supplies in the store’s cabinet. Just some chickens outside and her younger brother Pete kept close.
Then, a man came with a note: Anuszka, you and Piotrek go with this man. No one else had ever called her by the nickname for Anna. And so, she and Pete went with the man, and were reunited with their parents.
But her family was caught and taken by train to an industrial city in Germany. In a building labeled Margarine, they assembled cogs and nuts and bolts and other pieces of metal to build the war machine. The tin warehouse’s soot-stained, locked windows baked in body warmth and stench. Pastel flares streaked the smudged glass as the city, but not the building, was bombed. After the sight, the sound: explosions ricocheted around the building and the metal reverberated like an earthquake tearing apart Europe.
After the bombing, they were sent to a forest. A work camp. Together, she and Pete cut down trees. He was hardly tall enough to reach the end of the double-handled saw. Pete looked funny hanging on, his toes barely touching the ground.
They labored from sunrise until sunset, before they ate “soup.” If they were lucky, then maybe there was half of a rotten potato at the bottom of the translucent broth. That was all their food, for the entire day.
Once, at twilight, guards walked the workers to a trampled field next to the forest. Straw was stamped into the earth. The guards carried a sack that they dumped upside-down in front of their spit-polished black boots. Out tumbled bright red apples. The workers rushed forward. As they reached to grab an apple, clubs came down. There was hardly any muscle to cushion their bones. The cracks—of clubs, of bones—mixed with laughter.
Grandma stood up to turn off the stove. I tried to see if I could spot a pang of an old fracture as she drained the cabbage. I wondered if Grandma felt a phantom pain when she reached for the strainer.
I didn’t ask Grandma to explain anything because she had shared more history than I’d heard before. I stayed quiet. I listened.
“After the war,” Grandma said, “we didn’t go home. The village is in Ukraine.”
Josef, Babcia, and Pete all made it to Chicago. Before Grandma came to America, she went to England where she worked at a hospital. She felt insulted that they told her she needed to learn English, learn another language just like the Russians and then the Germans had demanded. She knew she wasn’t going back to Poland, so she forced herself to speak it.
“Then I dreamed in it,” Grandma said. “God.”
Grandma shook her head, realizing that Josef must have known that language would take over our family. I knew Dad had grown up speaking Polish with his entire family crammed into their apartment and spoke English through grade school and everywhere else, but then he majored in Russian. I only spoke English. For me, Polish was a lost language. The only hints were when Grandma sprinkled it in conversation like the pepper in her gołabki.
The cabbage drip-dried on a cutting board. Grandma took a spoon and scooped a serving of the beef and rice mixed with sauce into a leaf. She rolled the cabbage up and stuffed it into a plastic bag to freeze. I would eat as much as I could and take the rest home.
Chris Wiewiora earned his MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University. His nonfiction has been anthologized in Best Food Writing 2013 and his essays about his Polish background have been recently published on Matador as well as in Redivider.
Recipe for Grandma’s Gołabki:
These are an easy traditional Polish dish—an entire meal in a wrapped cabbage. After the gołabki cool, you can wrap them in sealed plastic bags and freeze them so that you may thaw them and re-heat via microwave as many as you want at a time.
2 cups of rice
1 head of cabbage
1 tablespoon of butter
1 large white onion
2 pounds of chuck ground beef
1 packet of dehydrated onion soup
(or ½ teaspoon of salt and ½ teaspoon of pepper)
1 (8 oz) can of tomato soup
½ cup of water
Preheat oven to 350º degrees. Take out a large casserole dish (9inch X 13inch) with a lid.
Fully cook 2 cups of rice. Par-boil one head of cabbage. Sauté one onion in butter and then fry 2 pounds of chuck ground beef in the same pan. Mix in 1 packet of dehydrated onion soup (or sprinkle in ½ teaspoon of salt and ½ teaspoon of pepper).
Rinse rice in colander. Mix rice in with onion and meat. Add 1 uncooked egg.
Drain cabbage. Take off the external leaves and line the 9in. X 13in. pan. Save enough external leaves to cover gołabki. Pluck the rest of the cabbage’s leaves and set in a pile.
Spoon a half-cup serving of the onion-meat-rice mixture into one cabbage leaf. Roll the cabbage leaf, tucking in the sides into the center so the seam sits underneath. Set the rolled up leaf into the pan. Repeat spooning into leaves and rolling them. Pour one (8 oz) can of tomato soup over the gołabki. Add ½ cup of water to empty can, swirl around water to mix with remaining tomato soup residue, and then pour water-and-residual-tomato over the gołabki. Cover the gołabki with one layer of extra external cabbage leaves. Cover the dish, put on middle rack of oven, and set timer for 1 hour and 30 minutes. Serve and enjoy.