Food with a Slice of History

Medlar

Medlars

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.

The sound of birds’ feet against our frosty roof and the gentle tapping of thirsty beaks against the gutter answered the rasping of the women’s brooms.  The latter swished away clinking beer caps and tiny shreds of glass that were mixed into the waste of cigarette butts, empty sunflower shells, and feathers shed by birds.  My ear tuned into the sounds I couldn’t understand; I listened to the lilt in the Roma’s voices and imagined I heard them say ‘mushmul’ (medlar).

While I was still sound-dreaming, my grandmother brought in an enamel bowl of medlars.  She spread a newspaper on the table between us and then we could feast.  One by one, I picked bulbs, the color of earth, biting into the rough skin, feeling the jagged edge of the opening I’d made against the softness of my lip.  I sucked the tangy, pulpy interior, the taste of which was more succulent than a child’s first milk, and listened to the slurping sound ringing in my ears. The olive skin of my fingers turned a touch browner from the fruit’s pulp. After eating just a few medlars, I relaxed into a younger self, playfully tugging on my grandmother’s apron.  Then I slipped my soiled hand into her pocket just to check whether she had a glass bead hiding there.  Gently, she brushed me aside with the back of her hand, much like one pushes away an overly affectionate puppy, then took another medlar.

My grandmother and I didn’t talk much.  She was careful with her words and let the sounds of things announce her intentions for those who paid attention.  The patter of rice grains falling onto a copper tray, the rustle of onion skins, the clink of pots and pans, and the grumble of simmering beans, carrots, peppers, and garlic were enough to tell me that there would be a hot meal on my parents’ table.

My grandmother couldn’t see well either, but she didn’t let her poor vision get into her way.  She knew well the cracks and chips of the enamel bowl that held the medlars.  She could find her way to the cupboard, with its vinyl-lined shelves holding packets of rice, beans, flour, and sugar.  From there, she knew exactly how many steps she had to take to her mother’s wood-fired stove, which in recent years she mainly used for storage.  When feeling unsure, my grandmother would hold onto the rim of the brightly white sink and take a few more steps to reach the tank where the women of her childhood had heated water for the family’s laundry.  Now that tank served as a stand for a set of hot plates that my grandfather had brought back from West Germany in his suitcase.  Finally, even though she really didn’t have to, my grandmother could place her hand on the back of the chair to make her way to the wooden table where we, two, would feast on medlars in the winter months. For me, the predictable pattern of her movements and sounds secured a comforting routine, especially on frigid mornings.

Later, when the cold winter sun had finally come out, I sat with my grandfather in his study practicing songs and poems in German.  As early as age four, he made sure that I was enrolled in a German pre-school and there was much for us to practice.  Together, we’d memorized rhymes and songs about blond and fair-skinned boys leaving home to embark on formative journeys.

My grandfather had acquired his doctorate in Germany before the Second World War. At that time, Germany had economic interests in the highly profitable Orientable tobacco crops that thrived on Bulgarian soil.  In order to ensure that Bulgaria had an elite that would support its business ambitions, Germany had provided opportunities for young Bulgarian scholars to study in German universities. My grandfather had been one of them.  He had remained a Germanophile long after the Germans had been expelled, Bulgarian tobacco was re-directed to the Soviets, and his German degree had become more of a liability than an asset.  In the communist times of my childhood, he used his language skills to secretly listen to political news from the West, a risky act of disobedience that could get him into real trouble with the pro-Soviet authorities.

Occasionally, the clopping of horse hoofs disrupted the poems I was assiduously learning with my grandfather’s help for the holiday performance at my German pre-school.  Roma men often came to the tiny workshop of our street’s leather artisan because his specialties were saddles and harnesses decorated with iridescent glass beads.  Whenever I passed the workshop, the strands of beads in the window held my gaze and I dreamt of the sounds that they could make.

I wished that I could have at least one bead to decorate the dress my mother had had especially made for me for my performance.  I persistently begged her to sew a bead in the hem of my dress where no one would see it.  She did not relent. Her daughter was no Roma bride, she said, and therefore should wear a plain white dress.  Sometimes, I heard my father joke that he had placed the highest bid on my mother at the market where the Roma allegedly sold women and horses. He claimed to have saved her from the racket and tumult of a Roma wedding.

My grandfather made sure that the holiday performance at my German pre-school was a family event.  We left my grandmother behind.  My mother brought my father along.  On that day, the main space of the preschool was so transformed that when I took to the stage, I no longer knew the steps I was supposed to take in order for everything to work out.  I was lost and fixed my eyes on my grandfather’s face; he mouthed for me the words of the poems and songs we had practiced together.  Midway through the performance I noticed my father get up to go for a smoke.  His back the end of things, he never returned.  My father had tried to learn German in high school but had struggled with it, eventually giving up.  He held my grandfather’s efforts to pass on his knowledge to me as an affront.  My grandfather’s insistence that his grandchildren learn the language at which my father believed to have failed was perceived by my father as an offense to his authority.

After my father’s departure, I continued to sing, my voice hardly audible in the mellifluous choir of children’s voices.  The boys came through strong, and even some girls could be heard.  The words stuck in my throat, but my grandfather’s persistence had made sure they didn’t slip my memory.  Without much effort, I reeled off verses and lyrics.  But when my turn came to recite a solo poem, no one could hear my voice.

My mother’s gaze absently wandered.  I sensed that her mind had already left with my father.  Only her body, unwilling to convey her disobedience, stayed in its place for my grandfather’s sake.  I could tell that she was annoyed at staying behind for a voiceless daughter nobody could hear.

On the way home to my grandmother and her chipped bowl of medlars, my grandfather was still furious as we passed by the remains of the Roman stadium in the center of town.  What kind of a father couldn’t master his nicotine addiction in the name of bearing witness to his daughter’s linguistic success?  Wasn’t it his own flesh and blood reciting poetry in perfect German on that stage?

My father’s flesh and blood would tag along whenever my grandfather took out-of-town visitors to see the remnants of the Roman stadium.  My grandfather told a complicated story about our city’s founding history.  What I understood from it was that in our town, below street level, there were impressive Roman buildings everywhere.  However, the authorities didn’t want them to be unearthed because the excavations would destroy the central thoroughfare on which the workers marched to demonstrate their loyalty to our tobacco-smoking Soviet brothers.  My grandfather’s story fed my fertile imagination.  I soon grew to believe that there was a whole other city of people underneath our feet who carried on with their lives in complete darkness, just waiting for the communists to leave so that they could come out. And when they did, we would be able to speak with them in German.

During one such visit to the ruins, I pulled my brother aside to tell him my vision of what lay beneath.  Unimpressed he set me straight: the Romans spoke Latin, not German.

My brother and I didn’t eat fruit from the same tree. It was he who also told me that some people referred to medlars, the brown orbs I enjoyed so much, as “dog’s ass.”

If you liked this story, you might want to read Baking Soda, Walnut Cake, and Forest Wild Strawberries.

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1 Comment

  1. Mary Hause

    This is a descriptive taste of a fruit unknown to me, though I do know the complexities of family as seen through a child’s eye. That, dear readers, is empathy, and the magic of story telling.

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