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 a walk in the woods, my dear, thoughtful neighbor recommended Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking. A friend of hers, who was not really a reader, raved about the book, and my neighbor was pleased to confirm that the tip was right on. With my curiosity piqued by a piece of reading advice from a person who doesn’t easily yield to the pleasure of spending long hours with books, I rushed to the library and checked out von Bremzen’s book. Over the week-end, I couldn’t put Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking down until I flipped its very last page. It was like meeting someone new and immediately clicking with that person, wanting to find out everything about him or her, and being in awe with every single detail. Or running into a friend whom I hadn’t seen for ages and quickly recognizing how much I enjoyed their presence, cancelling my mid-afternoon obligations in the blink of an eye, and sitting down for an engrossing conversation over a delicious cup of tea and freshly baked Italian plum cake. Does this sound like an indulgence? Well, it really is the best possible kind I could think of.
The Bulgarian communist production system had its own version of the 1970s sugar cookie. The sugar cookies of my childhood came in a clear plastic bag with blue and red letters in the Cyrillic alphabet, which said something about zoo animals. I’m certain that there was a hippopotamus and a monkey, maybe even a giraffe and a kangaroo. The rest of the animal shapes I don’t remember. Despite being a fan of these cookies, I have no recollection of their taste. I enjoyed holding them in my tiny hands and running my finger over their surface to feel the texture. The animal shape was the sole effort to appeal to the consumer that the communist centrally planned production system made. The cookies had a neutral scent and the pale color of slightly under-cooked dough didn’t tempt me. My goal was to get hold of as many cookies as possible so that I could arrange them and keep them away from my brother, who was known to devour anything, regardless of its taste.
At every breakfast I had as a child in Koprivshtitsa, my grandparents insisted that I had my cup full of milk. The milk came directly from the barn of one of my grandmother’s close acquaintances. It was unpasteurized and non-homogenized, and my grandparents boiled it twice to minimize the risk of getting sick. No communist factory had messed this milk up. It had not been watered down or processed to kill contamination. Neither had it been forced through tubes, poured into dull-looking plastic packaging and sealed shut, so that a grumpy seller could slam down this product of the communist economy in front of a customer, addressing him or her as “comrade.” A comrade who might as well have been number 57 in line. Five more customers served and the rest of the comrades waiting would be turned away to head home empty-handed.
One of my earliest memories is of my grandfather taking me to pick wild strawberries in the surroundings of Koprivshtitsa, a town of some 2,000 inhabitants in the Sredna Gora mountains. We would set out in the morning before the sun had a chance to turn hot, cross the stream on the outskirts of town, from which our household fetched its daily supply of water, and head through the open fields in the direction of the forest. Leaving pastures with grazing cows behind, we soon disappeared under the shady trees, looking for a spot that other strawberry pickers had not discovered yet.
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.
Banitza, thin sheets of rolled out pastry filled with a mixture of eggs and crumbled feta cheese, was one of my grandmother’s specialty dishes, which I vividly remember. I see my grandmother carefully walking down the steps from her kitchen on the very top floor, holding in her hands firmly but tenderly a baking pan, covered with a thin cotton cloth. Underneath was her banitza, a cloud of powdered sugar, set on flaky pastry, which was delicate as egg shells in shades of buttery yellow and darker browns. Where the shell had cracked, I glimpsed silky filling of feta cheese and egg yolk. My eyes savored the banitza, while I had a distinct sense that it was not baked just to be eaten.
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.
Thanksgiving wasn’t part either of my childhood or adolescence. Neither does the idea of making a turkey, which I believe requires considerable talent and skill, tempt me. I do have a soft spot for Thanksgiving in my heart though and await this holiday with childlike excitement.
The first time I ever heard of Thanksgiving was in a short story “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen” by the writer O’Henry. In the story, a homeless man is generously fed, first by two well-off New York ladies and then, by an old gentleman. Both the homeless and the gentleman end up in the hospital, the homeless from overeating and his benefactor from starvation. I could well relate to the idea of not having much to eat. In communist Bulgaria, where I grew up, grocery stores had empty shelves and common folks lined up for staples such as flour, eggs, and milk.