From my childhood days of less variety to my love to exploring and savouring foods from all over the world.
When I reflect on childhood memories of oatmeal soup, my first reaction is: “yikes!” Every morning I used to shiver looking at the skin of the warm milk on the top of my bowl, with just a sprinkle of sugar to make it bearable.
I had dark rye bread with salt and pig lard and an apple for lunch everyday. That’s all there was. My family was poor and my parents and I were skinny. We rode our bicycles everywhere, we had no car, and the bus was an unaffordable luxury. We relied on hearty, but cheap, food.
For dinner there was raw pureed potatoes and pork belly baked in the oven, or mashed potatoes with a fried egg, or boiled potatoes and cooked spinach from the garden, or fried potatoes with a rollmops (a pickled herring) from the barrel in the cellar, or salt and butter potatoes with suelze (headcheese, which is pig’s feet with gelatine and pickles) or beet soup with fish and potatoes.
You get the point…we had lots of potatoes. They were cheap and would be delivered in late fall and would be stored in the potato bunker to last us until the new harvest of the following year. Often I would be sent down into the dark and damp cellar to fetch potatoes, armed only with a bucket and bare hands to fight off the spiders and other gross creatures living amongst the sprouting brown lumps.
After I moved to Canada, I swore off of potatoes for 30 years. My first husband insisted on having them in meals, so I would substitute them with rice and pastas as my filling starch. Now, I will maybe indulge in nicely made garlic mashed potatoes, but it’s still pretty rare.
I don’t associate potatoes with happiness…but, luckily, we always had dessert. And that’s where my love affair with food really began.
We would switch between canned seasonal fruit, preserved in the cellar, or cake, with a few sweet treats on Sunday. The traditional coffee and cake routine always started at 3:00 p.m. at Grandma’s house.
I remember learning how to bake with my Grandma, at times with my Grandpa joining in to lend a hand mixing ingredients or beating the whip cream. Back then, all you had was a hand mixer and it needed speed and coordination. I loved whipping the cream and licking the bowl…my reward every time.
Grandpa would tell me stories of the war and the world, and Grandma would keep the baking process going, usually flipping between multiple sheets of cookies and pans of cakes, flans, sweet breads, and buns to make for a special Sunday treat. I had 29 cousins, most of them younger than me, so there were always many little mouths to feed.
I love baking still to this day. I bake much less now, mainly to stop my hips from expanding, but really my body prefers healthy fats and vegetables much more than sweet treats. But, occasionally, I whip up a Black Forest Cake, an apple strudel, or a fruit flan with raspberries…always thinking of those days spent baking with my grandparents.
My childhood was harsh. I was navigating the angry outbursts of my troubled and alcoholic mother, while my father was gone working long hours. I was constantly trying to juggle the multiple responsibilities of raising my brother and keeping the house in order. Those carefree moments with my grandparents, full of stories and food, were magical…gems I have treasured forever.
That’s why I still love cooking and baking, especially for family and friends. Often I will host theme nights all around cuisine, and these events are still a favourite excuse to spend time with my grown-up children and their loved ones.
Cooking brings me back to those days, the parties and celebrations going well into the evening, long past dinner. The adults would drink and talk, and us kids giggling under the table, sneaking a bit of wine from the glasses of the adults.
My Grandma would catch on sometimes and banish us into the kitchen, while my Grandpa would smile and sneak me a sip to taste, before I was sent back to be in charge of the younger cousins.
Now, I express my love of food in savouring the variety of exotic cuisines all over the world. Tasting different cultural delicacies has become a highlight of my travel, and always brings me pure joy. When I return from a trip, I hosts an evening with my family and friends in which I cook a variety of foods I ate overseas. I find so much joy in sharing these new flavours and meals with my loved ones, and we share stories and laugh.