Heirloom Recipes: Boeregs, Borsch & Dead Dads
Culture by the spoon
I am going to go out on a limb here and give you a theory: the strongest part of our cultural and family history - the bit that is the slowest to disappear as the generations multiply - is cooking.
Long after we have forgotten our parent's language, after the accents have all gone away, long after the immigrations papers and photographs have been disbursed and lost, long after traditional costumes and clothes have been stripped to strands to tie up the tomatoes, we still have some of the old heirloom recipes in our cooking rotations.
There may be genealogy in your goulash and your gratin!
I know that we have a lot of traditional heirloom recipes at home which we still cook - mostly from my husband's side. And we have met a lot of folks who also keep their cultural history alive with the food they feed to their families.
Take Alyce, who is keeping alive her Armenian heritage by making tasty pastry Boeregs.
Alyce's grandparents escaped Armenia during the genocide. Alyce made her cooking reputation, and got some local magazine fame, by taking traditional Armenian dishes and modernizing them - using some new ingredients and modern techniques to deliver the same result in way less time. It helps her reconnect with her roots - and her mother:
"Any day is Mothers Day when Alyce takes a baking sheet of fragrant Lahmajoon (open meat pies) from her oven to share with her family and neighborhood. For a moment, she and her mother are together."
It can have that effect. The Old Ones are still with us, even if we
can't see them. They are peering over our shoulder, looking into the mixing bowl.
In this Video Memoir (which I made last year) Alyce shows how to make the Boeregs while mulling over the sad history of the Armenian people and the flight of her own family and their journey to America.
Pigs heads and dead dads
My husband's Dad came from the Ukraine, along with a pile of recipes for dishes like pelmeni, sorrel soup, cabbage rolls, and kapusta (sauerkraut soup). He is now dead (and we have no genealogical information about him) but we are still eating his food. And so are our kids.
We don't make all the dishes that he did. For example, he used to buy pig's heads split in two (so you could see the teeth real well). He would sear off the hair in an open fire, then boil the two halves until it all fell apart. Then he would remove the bones and decant the meat/fat/skin slop into a bowl which would go into the fridge to set to make Holodetz. A good batch would hold together with all the briny gelatin from the bones.
No, we don't make all his heirloom recipe dishes. But those that my husband does make, like his famous Borsch, are much improved versions of the old. Of course.
The need to compete with our fathers (or mothers) never really seems to go away does it? Nor does the urge to improve on the traditional methods.
But is bottled garlic as good as the fresh stuff? Two generations of Italian Americans will argue the point in this short "Genealogy Video" I made some time ago.
Whose meatballs are better?
The Giacchino descendants came to America from Italy just after the turn of the 20th century. They first settled around Pittsburgh and food was always important. It still is, and the men as well as the women still cook the traditional heirloom recipes and keep the history of the family alive in the process.
(The history is also kept alive with conventional genealogy.)
Judge a man by his Borsch
In my husband's mind, the competition with his dead father is over the Borsch. You know the dish, vegetable soup made with pork hock stock and featuring beetroots - first boiled whole then cut into pieces - which give the soup a deep purple color. You can add dill and sour cream.
My husband believes his version is better on account of the fact that he adds sliced, fried leaks. Not sure how traditional they are, but he assures us each time he makes Borsch that they add something that his father's version always lacked. Hmm.
You can drink history too!
My Ukrainian father-in-law didn't just bring food recipes with him from the Old Country. Apparently they made their own liquor back there. Or at least, he made his own when he got here. So he was a vintner - not that he ever knew the meaning of the word.
Sour cherries and plums were his grapes. You get the kids to pick them off the fruit trees. (Do people still grow fruit trees? Not like they used to I don't think.) Then you place them in large glass or plastic vessels in the garden and you pile a whole bunch of sugar on top. Seal the top.
Then you wait a couple of months for natural fermentation to take place - sugar turns into alcohol. Then strain off the juice and you have a very sweet, very strong liqueur. Cheaper than the store anyway.
Spotted Dick: Other stories, other traditions
My forebears on my Mother's side were mostly English and they arrived so long ago that most of the cooking traditions have dwindled to a trickle. Or their recipes were so bland (e.g. bread and butter pudding, corned beef, rice pudding) or so unappetizing (e.g. tripe, kidneys, lambs' brains) that they are destined to disappear (after my Mom goes that is - she still loves that stuff).
Other heirlloom recipes from her side just sound too plain silly to bother with - "Pigs in a Blanket" anyone? Toad in the Hole? Shepherd's Pie? No? What about Spotted Dick? I didn't think so. (I think I will rely on my conventional genealogy for that side of the family.)
On my husband's side too, modern tastes are taking their toll. He laments that no-one will eat herrings with him, or dill pickles, or the skin and fins of fried fish. And he cries with dismay when I cut the skin and fat off the ham. "It's the best part," he says. "You can fry it up with salt and eat the crackling. And then you spread the fat on bread for a snack!"
Which you keep in the fridge in a tin. Yeah, right. Maybe some traditions are better off lost.