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.
My mother probably knew how to boil an egg when she passed her university entrance exams. She wasn’t going to boil one though. Her pronounced disinterest in cooking was a statement. Her older brother’s decision to pursue his Ph.D. in West Germany had transformed him into an enemy of the Communist state, who could no longer travel back to Bulgaria and visit his family (for more about this see Banitza). My mother had dutifully returned to her parents’ home after obtaining a master’s degree in German Philology and Literature from Sofia University. However, she was not going to cook. When she married, she left both cooking and childrearing to her mother, my grandmother (for more about my grandmother’s cooking see here). My mother devoted her energy and time to teaching, translating, and reading literature and philosophy in German. The choice she made came at a high price. My father didn’t appreciate it and he reproached her bitterly for failing to fulfill her duties as a wife. But why should she cook, if no matter how well she succeeded at it, she would be constantly reminded that should a man ever decide to lower himself and do a woman’s task, he would excel at it in ways that no woman could possibly surpass?
Yet, it was not entirely true that my mother completely avoided spending time in the kitchen. She baked cakes, which, as far as I was concerned, were the best thing I had ever tasted. There was no way that a cake baked by someone else could surpass the legendary ones made by my mother. My father was amazing at fixing my mechanical toys and I often bragged in front of other children that he could repair pretty much anything. I was proud of my father’s golden hands, however, I definitely didn’t want him messing with baking in the kitchen.
For our birthdays, my mother baked chocolate cakes, in which she used ground walnuts instead of flour. As her helper, my task was to fetch my grandmother’s brass pestle and mortar, with which we could break the shells and take out the nuts. I would climb the steep stairs all the way to my grandma’s kitchen and come back down with her heavy brass pestle pressed against my body so that I wouldn’t lose my balance and drop it. The cool and heavy sensation on my skin underscored the significance of the occasion: I was together with my mother in the kitchen, helping her bake a cake, something that didn’t happen often.
When I was a bit older, my duties expanded to include crushing the shells and taking out the walnut pieces. This was a task that required both patience and perception. A good number of the nuts that emerged out of the broken shells were either rotten or attacked by insects and worms. Oftentimes, I found myself overcome by frustration, for after enduring the pricks and cuts the sharp edges of the broken shells inflicted on my fingers, all I had to show was a pile of unusable nut pieces. It felt as if the rotten walnuts with their good-for-nothingness put down my efforts, ridiculed and dismissed me. It was as if I would never succeed in coming up with enough edible nuts needed for my mother’s legendary cake. Would perhaps my brother easily accomplish the task at which I was so miserably failing? I had to learn to tame my anxieties. At times, the tears of my frustration made me miss a delicious walnut piece, which would have been a shame not to salvage. Under my mother’s loving encouragement, the patient collection of such pieces made it possible to later grind and turn them into a fine, tasty meal, which mixed with sugar and beaten eggs formed the body of the cake. Before being baked, the batter was flavored with my father’s Pliska cognac and spoonfuls of the cacao powder which my aunt bought us on her visits from West Germany. When the cake was ready to be served, I made a final trip up the stairs to return the brass mortar and borrow dessert plates, which had been among my grandmother’s wedding gifts before the Second World War. Then, I could sit around the table with my grandfather, father, brother, mother and grandmother, eating walnut cake from plates dating back to when Bulgaria still had a tsar.