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.
My grandmother’s daily cooking involved simple dishes, which left our family grateful and satisfied. For my grandmother, the quality of ingredients was crucial for the success of a dish. She bought pretty much anything she needed at the market, where peasants from the surrounding villages sold their produce to townsfolk. There was a Monday market and a Thursday market, both of which had designated open-air spaces in the city grid. In my childhood, Bulgaria was a closed communist state, which didn’t import food products. In my understanding, we exported agricultural goods such as apples and tomatoes to the USSR, and in turn imported Soviet oil and machine equipment. This meant that all of the produce on the market was local and seasonal. My grandmother would go from stand to stand, talk to the sellers, and feel and taste the vegetables and fruit for sale. The purpose of the conversations was to provide her with cues into the quality of the produce. Were your tomato plants raised in a greenhouse or outside? (Greenhouse tomatoes were by all means to be avoided.) Was there much frost on your beds when you picked the carrots? (Carrots kissed by frost had a reputation of being the sweetest.) Were there many beetles on your potato plants this summer? What did you use to get rid of them? (Potatoes subjected to chemicals were no good.) Was the Spring rainy? (Strawberries that had seen much rain lacked in flavor.) As an experienced cook, my grandmother had a keen interest in the weather because she knew that it had a hand in the taste of the produce. Whenever she woke up in the bedroom above mine in the middle of the night, I could hear her question my grandfather whether the sky was clear, whether it snowed or rained, and what the exact outside temperature was.
I knew my grandmother’s cooking was outstanding because of my family’s response to it. However, I showed little interest in food. The mere sight of my grandmother’s nettle purée, bean soup and okra dishes drove me at an early age to existential despair. My family’s arguments that these dishes were packed with nutrients necessary for the growth of a young mind and body did little to help the situation. Sitting at the table until I polished my plate would have been unbearable, if my granny had not been as talented as a reader as she was as a cook.
At each meal, a pile of books appeared next to my plate and my grandmother read to me patiently one story after another while I took my sweet time chewing every tiny spoonful. I was fed the standard literary fare which educated Eastern Europeans used to read to their children: Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, the tales of the Brothers Grimm and E. T. A. Hoffmann. While I was listening to my grandmother’s voice and slowly chewing whatever was on my plate, I was pondering important questions: Why did the witch in Hansel and Gretel feed the brother and sister cookies and candy instead of okra, spinach and beans, which my parents presented to me as super food? If she was fattening the children to eventually cook them for her own meal, wouldn’t she want to feed them the good stuff?
I learned from an early age that food and stories go together and that when I couldn’t find enjoyment in one, I could delight in the other. Now, beans, lentils and the rest of the fare I frowned at as a child are comfort food for me. (I still draw the line at nettle though!) Garlic is for me a must have ingredient in pretty much every savory dish I cook. For the longest time, I used to have a scar on the back of my right hand, which covered the area between the lower part of my thumb and the beginning of my wrist. I was told that once when my grandmother was frying potatoes and not looking, I had reached into the pan with sizzling oil to grab a potato. I have no memory of the pain and the scar is now gone. However, I am grateful that my body kept a physical trace of the long hours I spent with my grandmother in her kitchen.