Food with a Slice of History



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.

Baking Kozunak was one of our family rituals that my grandmother went through in the Holy Week of Orthodox Easter.  From early on, I sensed that whatever we did at home had to be kept secret.  I couldn’t mention to other children Easter, my uncle’s whereabouts and his occasional packages, as well as my grandfather‘s interest in the news on the West German station Deutsche Welle.

In Communist Bulgaria it was forbidden to celebrate Easter.  The state systematically worked on uprooting religious belief.  For the communists, the Christian God took part in a society where  the bourgeoisie enjoyed perverse wealth and outrageous privileges, while the working class slaved away under deplorable conditions.  Now that the communist elite had allegedly established a just order in which everyone was supposedly equal, no one was allowed to use religion to oppress fellow citizens.

My grandparents were not easily deceived. They had witnessed the crimes the communists had committed in their lust for power.  They were aware of the abuse of human rights on which the new system was based.  For the communist elite religion was dangerous because it could be used to criticize its unethical methods of maintaining its rule.  My grandparents nurtured their Christian faith in secret.  Religious holidays set the rhythm of our family life.

During Holy Week, my grandmother took me to services in the church across the river from our house in Plovdiv.  From the outside, one couldn’t tell that this was a place of Christian worship.  Once we crossed the threshold and climbed the steep stairs, we entered a different world.  The daylight dissolved in a sea of semidarkness.  Long, thin candles in tall stands, holding hundreds of tapers,  gave out pools of rippling light.  For a long time I was convinced that the scent of wax and incense, as well as the deep singing voices reciting prayers, emerged from the shimmering radiance.  The red, gold, and silver colors in the priest’s clothes floated between the soft darkness and tremulous candle lights.

Of course, the secret service closely monitored the church.  There was always at least one man in a murky, dark corner, vigilantly watching what was going on and who was coming in. Upon entering, my grandmother usually threw a furtive glance at him, pulling me closer to her.  Feeling a bit unsettled and out of place, I kept my eyes on her face as the only familiar object in the umbrous space.  Her hardly visible eyebrows were slightly drawn together but her face was calm and pensive with her eyes resting on the icons.  After a while they wandered off towards the murky corner of the hawk-observer, as if she were trying to make eye contact with him.  Her lips moved slightly, and I imagined her saying:

“You know that for me it’s another Easter without my son.  I guess, I should be grateful that your comrades haven’t killed him like they have murdered others without reason.  You can keep my son away from me. However, I decide for myself what is right and what is wrong.  There is not much you can do to change things: I am still going to come here and celebrate.  I will observe Easter like my mother did and her mother before her, as well as the rest of the women in my family.”

Back home, on Holy Saturday,  I watched my grandmother bake Kozunak.  Hands covered in melted butter, speckles of white flour on her tiny permed curls, she spent the whole day bent over the table under the slanting ceiling of her attic kitchen.  While she energetically pounded and pummelled the elastic yeast dough,  I imagined her wrestling with the man in the church corner.  She scraped the sticky mass from the surface of the table no less than a hundred times, turning it over and ferociously kneading it with a rigor that, in my mind, matched the force of her mother and  great-grandmother put together.  The punching and kneading seemed to consume her.  She would get restless during the pauses in-between, when she was forced to take a break and wait for the life forces of the yeast to do their work and make the dough rise. When she finally divided the buttery mass between the baking pans and shove it into her wood fired oven, she looked resigned to having to let go.

Our family celebrated Orthodox Easter in the middle of the night, in the very early hours of Sunday morning.  My parents put me and my brother to sleep at our usual bedtime around 8 p.m.  When my grandfather’s wall clock stuck midnight, we were shaken awake and led to the table, where a feast was laid out around my grandmother’s Kozunak.  For me, waking up in pitch darkness mostly had to do with pain, anxiety, and fear.  A good number of nights, we drove in a taxi to the emergency room while I was screaming with an excruciating ear-ache. This was not nearly as bad as the rumors about the secret service knocking on people’s doors in the dead of night, dragging them out for questioning, forcing them to change their names, or confess to crimes they had never committed.  Whenever my parents were displeased with my behavior, they would try to frighten me into submission by telling me that an agent was watching our house.  If I didn’t stop misbehaving at once, he would come and get me as soon as it got dark.  Sometimes I was so terrified that I didn’t dare close my eyes at night.

In the early hours of Easter morning though, I nestled with a piece of Kozunak against my grandmother’s warm body and imagined the gold, silver and red colors in the church service washing over me.  There could be nothing more soothing than the airy softness of my grandmother’s Easter bread against the roof of my mouth. I had no doubt that my grandmother was the greatest Kozunak baker of all.

Yet, whenever someone reached to have another piece of her heavenly Easter bread, my grandmother said, “This year, the Kozunak is no good.  It didn’t turn out right like it should have. It is all a waste.”  It was beyond me why she would belittled both herself and her unsurpassed skill.  Was it because she wanted to be humble that she played down her impressive achievement? Or was it because she felt that despite her stamina and will, she couldn’t do much about the observer in the church?  I had seen my grandmother flinch and cry at my grandfather‘s anger and disapproval.  Still, I needed to believe that she was stronger than a hawk.





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  1. Sylvia

    Penwhisk, this is such a beautiful piece. The imagery of the church, the gentle defiance of your grandma, and the description of the mouth-watering-sounding Kozunak combine to form another thoughtful piece. Beautiful writing.

  2. Arlen

    Yes, a very beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing a touching piece of history seen through the eyes of your powerful grandmother and her delicate touch in the kitchen. Kuzunak does sound mouth watering!

  3. Jill Jackson

    You did a great job evoking your Easter memories, your grandmother and her Kozunak. I can smell it baking now.

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