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 taste might have come a long way in its sophistication to look down at beans and lentils but I have learnt to look up to them. I hang onto them as one of the threads connecting me to my Bulgarian roots. In my childhood, when Bulgaria was indeed still a communist country and no one believed that the regime could change, I didn’t want to eat them. Whenever my grandmother’s spoon descended over my plate, I was certain that I could see little worms wiggling between the beans or lentils.
Beans were a must on our holiday menu. In fact, every Bulgarian who observed Christmas had to have a bean dish on Christmas Eve. Eating beans in the evening of December 24th was done in secret. If it became known that a family celebrated the birth of Christ, they could be persecuted, for religious practices were forbidden by the communist state. The beans that my grandmother prepared were unsurpassable. However, my parents had a hard time persuading me to eat her beans. As a child, I couldn’t appreciate them.
This unexpectedly changed once I was in graduate school in the States. Whether I liked their taste or not, I had to have beans on Christmas Eve, there was simply no other option. My cooking skills were basic, but I was set on preparing my Bulgarian holiday dishes from scratch. With much effort, I worked through different recipes in what were mostly cookbooks on Greek cuisine. While struggling to brown my onions properly, chop parsley the right way and size, and not end up with mushy beans, I was thinking of my grandmother, the chef in our family. As a French lycee dropout and a piano player who allegedly failed due to her lack of persistence, the family would put her down on most occasions. Her experience, skill, and knowledge as a cook were acknowledged as her only asset. Yet, she never considered it important to teach me how to cook. When I left home, I could do little more than boil an egg and warm up a sausage.
In my first year as a graduate student, when I found my independence at a ten-hour time difference away from my Bulgarian family, a privilege that my grandmother had never enjoyed, I realized that I badly needed her skills as a cook in order to feel at ease and settle down in my new environment. I was anxious not to become a graduate student dropout, and I assiduously worked on my papers. But I also invested much of my effort in the kitchen, trying to figure out how my grandmother had done things.
I realized how important my grandmother’s role in our family had been. She had brought peace where there had often been discord. Her Bulgarian bean and lentil dishes gathered us around the table even when family members were in bitter conflict and strife. Her holiday cooking reminded us of our values in the dark years of communism. They were a small but meaningful gesture of civil disobedience, an expression of our family’s disagreement with the regime. They articulated a wish to have an identity that was different from the identity of a socialist citizen as defined by the rules of the Bulgarian communist state.
While floundering about in my graduate student kitchen, making mistakes and coming up with ways to fix them, I felt that I was grappling with my own identity. I was trying to answer for myself questions such as, “How does my family see women, and what does this mean for me? Can I be a cook like my grandmother, but at the same time test on my own what I can and cannot do? How can I make my own decisions, challenge the way my family treats me, define who I am, and look for more unfamiliar ways in which I can be?” At a holiday like Christmas, when one tries to connect with one’s loved ones, cooking Bulgarian beans like my grandmother allowed me to reach out to my family from a distance, and at least on my end, start negotiating a new role for myself outside the territory of their norms and expectations. I followed tradition my own way. I changed the recipes, mixed the beans with new ingredients, and finally, my beans and lentils began to taste good to me.
It’s my first visit to Bulgaria in a decade, and I want to eat Bulgarian beans and lentils. In pursuit of my goal, I am going from restaurant to restaurant in the center of Plovdiv, asking the staff to show me the bean and lentil dishes on the menu. My mother follows me unwillingly. She behaves as if she doesn’t have a choice. She wants to be accommodating, yet I can hear her think that her clueless daughter is up to little good. My uneasy mother doesn’t want to deal with my stubbornness, yet she is protective and reluctant to leave me to my own devices.
I am certainly aware that the restaurant staff with whom I speak has no clue about my deeply personal connection to Bulgarian beans and lentils. Still, I have reasonable grounds to believe that they, like me, have a grandmother. Everyone in Bulgaria has a grandmother, and not just any grandmother, but a grandmother who cooks Bulgarian beans and lentils. However, in the business world of post- communist cuisine, this indisputable truth is of little significance. The responses I get range from mildly amused to gently irritated, or openly annoyed.
It is important to me, nonetheless, to be taken seriously and my request to be acknowledged as legitimate. I’m still a Bulgarian in some ways, despite spending the first decade or so of my life under a political regime that no longer exists and living for the last twenty years in the States. While I am asking for a bean dish, I’m showing off my immaculate Bulgarian. I focus on pronouncing every syllable right and on following every grammatical rule to the letter. I’m unwilling to concede defeat until a young waiter delivers a blow that does me in: “Where are you actually from? Which bean planet shook you off to land down here? No one eats beans and lentils any more. You’d better go back to your lentil patch!”
My sweet mother steps in to soften the blow. “Let’s go to Hemingway,” she pleads with me. “It will be my treat. I’m sure you could find something on their menu to please your taste. Your uncle loves their food, and when he visits, eats there every day.” I have a deep appreciation for Ernest Hemingway as a writer, but I am reluctant to go to a Bulgarian restaurant with his name. Neither do I want to accept a recommendation from my meat-eating uncle, who’s lived forever in Germany, longer than I’ve been alive. However, I do feel that I have already caused my patient mother enough grief, and I accept her suggestion.
At Hemingway, I scan the menu for vegetarian fare. Alas, there is no mention of Bulgarian beans and lentils but my interest is piqued by a dish that resembles something that my grandmother used to make: stuffed zucchini. Stuffed vegetables — aubergines (my favorite), peppers (also my favorite) and even tomatoes — are part of Bulgarian traditional cuisine. I am compelled to try Hemingway‘s stuffed zucchini even though I don’t recognize the main ingredient. My grandmother used to stuff hers with a mixture of onions, garlic, rice, diced tomatoes, and herbs. The ones on Hemingway‘s menu are made with a grain whose Bulgarian name is unfamiliar to me. I turn to the waiter for more information. “I’m sure you’ve had this grain before. You just didn’t know what you were eating,” he states with unwavering certainty. I find that men in Bulgaria — my own father, uncles, cousins, their male friends, neighbors, and even random strangers — don’t hesitate to set me straight about what they believe I have thought, felt, said, done, and in this case, eaten. For the sake of my mother, I don’t let my annoyance show. I give the waiter my most charming smile, and think to myself, “No tip for you, my friend!”
The taste of Hemingway‘s zucchini is out of this world. The recipe must have been developed and perfected on a zucchini planet, where cooks experiment with stuffed zucchini dishes while listening to world-class literature. For a moment, I consider asking the waiter for the recipe, but then I don’t want to hear him say, “I’m sure you’ve cooked exactly the same zucchini dish before. You just didn’t know what you were cooking.” Content after having eaten a really good meal, I think that I have caused enough discord for the day and want to be a peacemaker for a change. I hand the waiter a generous tip, smile, and think to myself, “I am certain that my grandmother always knew what she was doing.”