Food with a Slice of History

Category: People

Stories about people who have shaped my attitude towards food



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.

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.

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.

Sen Sens

A hand of a child drawing a hopscotch outline

Image courtesy of Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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? 

On watching my grandmother cook and liking her stories but not her food

Image courtesy of Lobosstudio Hamburg on Unsplash

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.

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