Penwhisk

Food with a Slice of History

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, laurel 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, a dish in Savage Feast

Beets, the main ingredient in Borshch, one of the dishes in Savage Feast. (Image courtesy of Monika Grabkowska on Unsplash)

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?”

Bulgarian Mineral Water

Plastic mineral water bottles

Image courtesy of Jonathan Chng on Unsplash

After fifteen years, not much seems to have changed on the Sofia – Plovdiv railway line.  Still, things look strange to me in an unsettling way.  I cannot help but feel as though at the Iskarsko Shosse stop, a short subway ride away from Sofia airport, I have caught a train well-known to me from my childhood.  The cars are reassuringly grimy and grungy.

I am thirsty.  My eyes are drawn to the trash receptacle in my compartment, which swells with crushed, empty Bulgarian mineral water bottles.  The names of springs flash through my head: Hisarya, Bansko, Devnya, Sandanski, Sapareva Banya, Varshets.  In the early days of Bulgaria’s market economy, firms sprang up that introduced plastic bottles, previously known to locals mostly from pictures of the West, filled with Bulgarian mineral water from these springs.  In their advertisements, the firms claimed that Vanga, a blind Bulgarian mystic and seer, had blessed their product.

Vanga’s abilities to foretell people’s destinies had been in much demand during communist times.  While religion had been officially forbidden, belief in the supernatural was tolerated.  Folks waited for months on end for a turn to visit the vrachka in Petrich, a small town in Southern Bulgaria.  Their repertoire of questions was of a personal nature, for no one dared to inquire about the future of Bulgarian communist politics: Would a relative find relief from a prolonged, mysterious illness? Who would have a boy after years of trying? Who would marry at long last, and who would return from an extended, distant journey?  Sitting on the Sofia — Plovdiv train now, I am craving for a bottle of Bulgarian mineral water.  I very much need a reading of my past rather than the future: Did I never belong here?

Mon Chéri

Hollyhocks flowers in a garden

Image courtesy of Stella de Smit on Unsplash

A Mon Chéri was my first bite of capitalism.  I couldn’t have been older than five.  Unease gripped my throat as soon as I bit into the crisp, thin chocolate exterior and liqueur ran down my chin.  Just a second later, a sticky wave of panic washed over me: my top would stain, and my grandfather would yell at me back home.  My clumsy fingers quickly shove the rest of the praline into my mouth.  I stole an anxious glance at my grandmother’s stained dress but the alcohol got to my head and within seconds, I felt slightly elated.  The neat, white curtains couldn’t stop me from glancing through the window.  The hollyhock blossoms out in the garden on the other side nodded conspiratorially at me.  Their vibrant colors looked even more radiant and tempting.

Baking Soda

A glass full of carbonated water

Image courtesy of Karim Ghantous on Unsplash

“I need a drink with baking soda … my throat is burning and I can hardly swallow.”  This was my grandmother’s signature phrase.  Her custom was to deliver it with urgency and pathos at the entrance to my parents’ living space in our family home in Plovdiv.  She would lean forward through the half-opened door, her hand timidly resting on the door handle.  My grandmother’s craving for the unassuming white powder hovered over the table in our dining area.

As I grew older, I learned to recognize the slight variations in tone and wording depending on the person who my grandmother addressed.  I sensed that my grandmother’s need for baking soda revealed something crucial about her personality.  It also had to do with her position in our family.

Kozunak

Kozunak

Kozunak (image by Penwhisk)

The list of ingredients in my grandmother’s Kozunak, the sweet bread she baked on Holy Saturday before Orthodox Easter, was as follows:

First, civil disobedience.  (I will explain this one later.)

Second, raisins that had arrived in a package from my uncle, an enemy of the Bulgarian communist state, who lived in West Germany.

Third, my grandmother’s legendary skill in the kitchen.  The kneading, done in a particular way to produce the light, thread-like texture of the buttery dough, took hours on end.  My grandmother braced herself weeks in advance for this exacting baking task, like a wrestler in anticipation of a rigorous match that would consume all her stamina and will.  My mother would not even dare attempt to make Kozunak.

Finally, white flour, eggs, butter, yeast and milk.  These ingredients tested my grandmother’s ability to secure foodstuffs during the hungry years of Communism.

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