Food with a Slice of History



Adriaen Coorte “Three Medlars with a Butterfly” (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Adriaen Coorte, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Medlar, palatable only when allowed to rot, is unusual to find at stores in the United States.  It is a winter fruit from the misty mornings of my childhood, one that had almost slipped my memory.  Where I grew up, peasant women foraged medlars during the year’s unhospitable months and offered them for sale at the corners of deserted farmer’s markets.  I used to crave this fruit.  The medlar’s slightly zesty taste and creamy texture provided me with comfort and solace.


One winter morning, when light was sparse and warmth was very much wanted, I climbed the stairs to the attic kitchen.  I pushed the door open and, when sure nobody was there, I walked over to the window of modest proportions, its head tucked into the slanted ceiling and its sill resting on a floor of wooden beams.  I sat down, pressed my hips against the chilly sill, tucked my chin into my knees, and looked through the iron bars that formed a perfect circle.  The sky above me was the soft rustling of bare branches and the flipping wings of sleepy doves.  Down below, the wooden clogs (halami) of Roma women clip-clopped along the empty street as they were preparing to do their cleaning duties.  The women’s calls tore the threads of greyish fog, which muffled the bright colors of their dresses and lightened the brownish tint of their skin.

Tung Nguyen & Kathy Manning: The Women Who Introduced Miami to Vietnamese Food

Mangoes in a crate

Hung Nguyen is associated with mangoes and Kathy Manning with peppercorns in their memoir Mango and Peppercorns. (Image courtesy of Antonio Cansino on Pixabay)

Tung Nguyen chose the name “Hope” (Hy Vong) for the Miami-based Vietnamese restaurant that she opened with Kathy Manning in 1980.  While reading Mango and Peppercorns, Tung’s and Kathy’s memoir, written with writer and restaurant critic Elisa Ung, I began to think about the specific meaning of hope within Tung’s personal context. For Tung Nguyen, having hope meant that she eventually managed to see her Vietnamese family again after a decade-long separation. Having hope meant that she found a way to successfully raise her daughter in a country whose culture and language often confounded her. And having hope meant that her hard work earned her recognition and respect within her community of American customers and Vietnamese expats.

As I became absorbed in her story, I had my own personal hopes for Tung Nguyen. I hoped that living in the US would help her look at Vietnamese culture from a different perspective, help her see through the shallow prejudices that she, born a peasant, suffered in her own country.  I also hoped that she would overcome the trauma in her rich personal history and find a way to connect with people across cultural and class boundaries.

Mana’s Kitchen, Bay City, Oregon

A scone served at Mana's Kitchen

In-house baked scones at Mana’s Kitchen (Image by Penwhisk)

On Tuesdays, Mana’s Kitchen in Bay City opens at 9 a.m.  I looked at my watch; it was only 8:30 a.m.  Deciding to take a chance, we dialed their number.  Our reward was an amiable male voice on the other end of the line.  Yes, they were open for business.  No, they didn’t serve pancakes on Tuesdays, only for Saturday brunch.  However, they did have in-house baked scones and croissants.  For lunch, they would make croissant sandwiches with chicken salad; those loyal to Mana’s Kitchen would drive for miles to savor them.

The agreeable voice called out in a direction away from the phone:

“Are we getting any greens today?”  Turning back to us, he shared his news:

“There’ll also be salad.”

We inquired how long the drive to Mana’s Kitchen was from where we were staying.

“An hour.  You want to stop at Whalen Island on the way.  It’s pretty close to where you are.   I make sure that everyone who visits us at Mana’s Kitchen knows to stop at Whalen Island.   It’s a special kind of place.”

Trillium Natural Foods, Lincoln City, Oregon

Trillium Natural Foods (Image by Penwhisk)

My recent experience of Trillium Natural Foods in Lincoln City on the Oregon coast, made twentysomething years after I came to the US, threw into relief colorful strands in the weave of my Bulgarian-American identity.

I had learnt of co-op stores soon after my arrival in this country.  I was having a conversation with Will, a fellow graduate student, about my plans for my first Christmas in the States.  My Bulgarian roots held firmly to an idea of a strictly set traditional Bulgarian menu: vegetarian bean stew; rolls of pickled cabbage stuffed with rice and dill; and phyllo dough pastry filled with roasted pumpkin, walnuts, and raisins, sweetened with honey, and flavored with cinnamon and cloves.  I quickly got immersed in a complicated and somewhat tangled explanation that I had preceded with the statement, “I don’t like the taste of beans and pickled cabbage, but I must have them at Christmas.” I followed this with a passionate description of the above dishes that the Bulgarian in me felt compelled to prepare pretty much from scratch.

Bulgarian Pickled Vegetables

Eggplants and peppers roasted on a stove with an open flame

Peppers and eggplants are oftentimes roasted to make Bulgarian pickled vegetables.
(Image courtesy of Anton Darius on Unsplash)

Come September, our family kitchen would be transformed into a small-scale facility for making Bulgarian pickled vegetables.  My mother and father joined efforts to secure winter food reserves for all of us.  As part of their benefit package, the employees of the electronics plantwhere my father worked could order produce directly from the state-owned socialist farms.  My father consulted with my mother about the quantities to be ordered.  Then, he requested as much as he saw fit.

A few weeks later, large sacks of potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, and carrots crowded the hallway of our house.  Eggplant, cabbage, and cauliflower were hauled from the market to join these other fresh guests.  The sink in the kitchen swelled with pickling jars waiting for my mother’s scalded hands.  The large, wobbly table crept into the middle of the space.  Across its surface, pepper corns, garlic cloves, bay leaves, and salt crystals swarmed around bottles full of vinegar.

My mother’s face would lose its dreamy look.  She wasn’t to make any plans until the gaping jars were filled and sealed to my father’s satisfaction.  Her books were to remain closed; the invitations of her friends ignored; and her concert tickets wasted. She wasn’t to answer personal letters, which my father opened well before she suspected their arrival.  My grandfather and grandmother didn’t interfere.  What went into a jar full of vinegar was between a husband and his wife.

Broccoli Lasagna the Bulgarian Way

Two heads of green broccoli

Image courtesy of Allen Lau on Pixabay

Broccoli lasagna isn’t part of the Bulgarian national cuisine.  There’s no Italian influence on the cooking of my native country.  The original recipe came from a British cookbook for easy-to-prepare meals.  The British might have had colonial interests in “the sick man of Europe,” to whom Bulgaria once belonged, but they don’t have much to do with the foods Bulgarians eat on a regular basis either.  The territories of what is now modern Bulgaria used to be provinces of the Ottoman Empire.  At the end of the nineteenth century, the populations of cities like Plovdiv, where I grew up, were diverse and culturally rich.

In Plovdivska khronika (The Chronicles of Plovdiv), a treasured book in my parents’ library, Nikola Alvadjiev describes the colorful ethnic neighborhoods in my hometown a century ago: Bulgarian, Greek, Armenian, Jewish, Romani, and Turkish.  In their work and leisure activities, Plovdiv’s inhabitants commingled peacefully and influenced each other’s practices: coffee drinking, smoking, and cooking.  This is probably the reason why I have a tender spot for Yotam Ottolenghi‘s cooking when I’m at home.  When I travel, I also seek out restaurants serving Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food.  Even though not exactly Bulgarian, this is the type of cooking that speaks to me.

Poisoned Cake

A home-baked cake in a baking pan lined with parchment paper.

As far as my parents were concerned, this could be poisoned cake …
(Image courtesy of Anna Wlodarczyk on Unsplash)

Poisoned cake was a grave danger of which my parents warned me early on.  As soon as I could talk in proper sentences, they told me that a neighbor might offer me a piece.  Refusing any food that anyone outside the family suggested I should eat was one of the big rules of my childhood.  My parents offered no explanation as to why someone might put poison in a cake and offer it to children.  Their anxiety claimed my blind trust.  They fed me their own fears.

The baker of poisoned cake could only be a woman.  In the world of my childhood, men didn’t bake cakes.  On week days, Bulgarian men went to the jobs that the communist government had assigned to them.  On week-ends, they smoked Bulgarian tobacco and gathered to work on each other’s Soviet-made cars.  Clouds of smoke enveloped both humans and vehicles.  I often wondered who or what exactly chained-puffed on the  cigarettes: the men or their cars.  Cooking in general, and specifically baking, was a female task. Therefore only a woman could come up with the idea of making poisoned cake.

Boris Fishman Savage Feast

Beets, the main ingredient in Borshch, one of the dishes in Savage Feast.

Beets, the main ingredient in Borshch, one of the dishes in Savage Feast. (Image courtesy of Congerdesign on Pixabay)

In his memoir with recipes Savage Feast, Boris Fishman tells stories about family meals and vexing conversations revolving around them.  The meals are made up of dishes from the Belarusian Jewish heritage of his parents.  The conversations test Fishman’s patience and ability to explain to his mom and dad from the ex-Soviet Union his aspirations as a young man who was born in Belarus but grown up in the USA.  Most importantly of all, he is struggling to make understandable both to them and himself the issues in his protracted relationship with Alana, an American woman with whom he shares an “attraction that would make Gabriel García Márquez sit up,” but which unfortunately proves insufficient to sustain a satisfying long-term relationship.

Right in its prologue, Savage Feast sets up multiple questions that on a single weekend kept me reading right to the book’s very end. Would Fishman eventually reconcile his ex-Soviet immigrant heritage with his American identity?  Would he be able to find a partner with whom he enjoys a healthy, harmonious relationship? And would he share at least one meal with his Belarusian Jewish family, savoring delicious dishes without being upset and disappointed at their inability to understand him?

I appreciated the honesty and directness with which Fishman relates his frustrations in the interactions with his parents.  In my experience, Eastern European families don’t openly acknowledge problems and disagreements.  This makes it close to impossible to resolve thorny issues and patterns of dysfunction.  It falls on children to tackle troubling matters in order to clear the path to their own well-being.  A lot is at stake here and I couldn’t resist gobbling up Savage Feast so that I could find out whether Fishman would succeed.

Parisian Food

A pan with a kitchen towel on a table

Image courtesy of Caroline Attwood on Unsplash

In my memory, Parisian food is wrapped up in a stream of rapid speech: agile words of which I miraculously manage to keep abreast even though they often try to get away from me and even gull me.

I’m in the ill-appointed kitchen of a student dorm in the fourteenth arrondissement of Paris.  Around me are young people who chatter in a rapid flow, which makes my ears ring.  They’re here not just to feed themselves, but to get some necessary social interaction: joke, tease, laugh, argue, negotiate or merely exchange information.  I’m able to catch an occasional word here and there.  The rest of the babble washes over my drowsy, jet-lagged brain.  While I’m chopping my onions, I duck my head in an attempt to avoid eye contact in order to remain as unobtrusive as possible.

Right across from me, a young woman is putting together a salad.  She has neatly braided hair and is wearing an impeccable cotton blouse.  I watch her competent moves as she washes lettuce and tears it into pieces, then combines it with olives, hard-boiled eggs, fragrant tomatoes, and some fresh green beans.  She is making a version of Salade Niçoise, which I soon learn is not really Parisian food.  (In the early days of my stay in Paris, I lacked the right French words along with the cultural competence to identify this.)  A fine art deco gold ring with a carnelian stone on one of her supple fingers catches my eye.  I fill in the blanks that my insufficient French throws right in my face with information gleaned from my neighbor’s appearance: an upper-middle-class fresh-food-connoisseur for sure, an experienced cook who shares my interest in artisan early-twentieth-century objects. A smile flutters over my lips while a group of fellows bursts out laughing. It doesn’t really matter that we are cheery for different reasons: it still looks as if I have understood enough to join in their merriment.

Bulgarian beans and lentils

Stuffed zucchini
Stuffed zucchini at Hemingway restaurant in Plovdiv
Image by Penwhisk

There must be a mistake. I am standing in front of a restaurant in the center of Plovdiv, reading through the menu. My eyes move hungrily from line to line looking for a dish of Bulgarian beans and lentils. There is none that I can see. That is hard to understand. Beans and lentils were at the heart of my grandmother’s cooking. For me, they are indispensable to Bulgarian national cuisine. In my disbelief, I seek help from a young waiter, who happens to be standing by. He raises his eyebrows:

“Bulgarian beans and lentils? No one has ever asked me for those, not that I can remember. We have grilled meats, kebapche, fish, shopska salad, as well as cucumber salad with yogurt and walnuts. This is what people want to eat. No one goes out for Bulgarian beans and lentils.”

My mother is standing at a safe distance a couple of steps behind me. I sense her embarrassment.  When I join her, she looks at me.

“Don’t you realize that asking for Bulgarian beans and lentils comes across as an insult? Bulgarian taste has risen in sophistication above beans and lentils. They are a thing of the impoverished communist past. Why do you always want to provoke? Must you come back home after ten years and make people uncomfortable with your unsettling questions?”

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