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.
“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 house in Plovdiv. She would lean forward through the half-opened door. Her hand timidly rested 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.
Sen Sens were tiny pieces of hard candy in a square shape. The candy was packed in a paper packet that was as small as a little box of matches. Upon shaking the packet, the pieces made a rustling sound, which I found captivating. The name Sen Sens had me mesmerized. It brought to mind the silly nonsense rhymes which girls recited in the street while jumping rope or playing hopscotch. At home in Plovdiv, perched on the windowsill of my bedroom, I often watched the neighborhood kids capering and frolicking around, engrossed in their games. What they did looked like fun. I tried to imitate their movements, prancing around my bedroom and fantasizing about Sen Sens’ creator. Was she an employee at the Institute for Food and Beverage, where my mother taught German?
At an art show in Kassel, Germany, I saw an artwork by the US artist Mary Kelly that brought my mother to my mind. As its title suggests, Love Songs: Multi-Story House (2007), the piece was a domestic structure, whose walls and roof were transparent and whose interior was illuminated by fluorescent light. On the walls, I could read statements by women from different age groups and cultures. Mary Kelly’s project was to be viewed as a dialogue between participants in the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement and the generation that followed theirs. Among the voices transcribed on the walls, I could hear my mother’s, who in the 1970s lived behind closed borders in Communist Bulgaria, cut off from women in the West, and away from the support an organized movement could provide. One of the statements, “When I got into college, I didn’t even know how to boil an egg. My mother made sure I didn’t know how to cook,” reminded me strongly of my own mother.
My grandmother used garlic in the same way other cooks use salt in their cooking. I never had the honor of cooking with her. However, she is the person whom I have spent years observing in the kitchen. I was captivated by the swift and rhythmic movements of her hands while she was chopping, crushing, tearing, mixing, folding in, pouring, kneading and rolling out. As a child, I found the unwavering certainty of her gestures reassuring. She didn’t use recipes but followed an innate sense of which one and how much of an ingredient she should use in a certain dish. Now I am humbled by the reliability of her memory, which held an impressive repertoire of dishes, along with the ingredients and exact sequence of steps necessary to prepare them. I cook a lot and often discover that if I don’t pencil down in my cookbooks the changes I have made to a recipe, the next time I want to make it, I oftentimes pause in uncertainty trying to recall what worked so well the time before.