My grandma has been gone for many years now but I still think about her all the time. A thousand different things bring her to mind including my own reflection, if I catch it just right.
Grandma was a tall, slender German woman. She was slender in the sort of a way that made her arms look extraordinarily long. She had a stern disposition but with each year she seemed to soften a bit. By the end of her life, nearly all of her harsh edges had been entirely worn away.
Grandma had short white hair and ivory skin that matched her hair tone. Her narrow face made her nose look more pronounced and less delicate than it might have looked otherwise. I inherited both her slender frame including her extraordinarily long looking arms, and her nose. This nose, that many in my family also have variations of, we’ve all come to affectionately refer to as, “the Wood nose”, a less loved piece of her legacy. I’m ashamed to admit it, but as a kid I didn’t find grandma to be very pretty. But now as an adult, assessing her more critically, I see that she was actually quite beautiful.
Grandma wasn’t much of a talker. She was more of a pleasant but passive observer. Always there in the background, never making much of a statement. She’d busy herself with household chores and counter our petitions to play with neighbors with statements like, “Why would you want to go out and play with your friends…don’t you want to stay here with me??” In those guilt laced moments, her usual, neutral lip position would stretch out beyond its typical boundaries into a tightly compressed, thin, straight line. We never wanted her to feel unwanted but in truth, as kids, we didn’t find grandma to be very much fun.
My Grandma was much older than any of my friends’ grandmas. And being that she was quite a bit older also meant that she was different in a lot of ways from other grandmas. Her life experiences were more traumatic and those experiences made her particular about certain things. She was orphaned at a young age and raised by other siblings. She endured The Great Depression. Those years of having to fend for herself with little security taught her to live sparingly, for survival sake. She never stopped living sparingly.
As a kid, baths at her house consisted of one (maybe two) inches of warm water in the bottom of her bathtub. There was no pleasure in bathing. No playing or splashing, no decompressing, just cleaning. For Grandma, water was a resource and it could be used for nothing more than it was needed for. There was only space for efficiency and in the absence of efficiency we’d sit shivering in a puddle in her tub.
She used and permitted only what was necessary and practical, nothing more. I remember the way she’d wash and reuse paper towels. She never bought paper towels but sometimes they were given to her and I think it almost pained her to own them. She dried all her clothing on the clothesline in her backyard. That part I actually loved. Clotheslines spoke to me of simplicity and spare time. I loved watching the way the material she’d clipped to the line, would lift up and float on the warm summer breezes.
Grandma was a wonderful baker. Her apple pies were amazing. Really, all her pies were amazing but she was truly an expert apple peeler (should such a title exist). The way she’d hold her paring knife and quickly, almost effortlessly peel a dozen apples without a single nick was extraordinary.
There were a couple of German dishes that she used to bake regularly for us when she’d invite my family to come for dinner. We LOVED them! These recipes were uniquely hers, in a sense because there was no one else in the world, that I knew of, who made them.
Those German recipes were our one, thin connection to our seemingly imaginary German heritage. Even though grandma was 100% German, she neither remembered living in Germany nor spoke the language. So those recipes…those 2 dishes were IT! As ridiculous as it sounds, Grandma’s recipes were all that we knew of being German. When she died it felt as though our German heritage died with her.
Until something extraordinary happened…
On day, one of my cousins posted a recipe online that she’d found in the abyss that is the internet. She’d actually found one of my grandma’s precious recipes! After months of this recipe sitting in my inbox, staring at me, beckoning me to resurrect a piece of grandma, I finally accepted the challenge!
I embarked on the journey of making “bierok” (pronounced bay-ruk). I use the word ‘journey’ not merely for dramatic effect. Making bierok was a pilgrimage of sorts, through my memories of Grandma and the assortment of emotions that accompanied. It was a tender and weepy journey through time.
I didn’t expect that sautéing ground beef, chopped onions and minced garlic would make my throat feel quite so tight. As I simmered and baked my kitchen transformed into a time capsule. With the aromas that surrounded me, I was suddenly a little girl again, seated on an aluminum and vinyl kitchen chair, leaning over grandma’s 60’s era, blue linoleum kitchen. I could still feel the edge of that table pressing into my chest. My heart swelled with excitement and anticipation.
As a kid, I had no concept of the amount of effort my grandma had put into creating this mean. All I knew was that we’d arrive and dinner was ready; mountains of lovely food arranged on the table, as if it had all just magically appeared with a wave of a wand.
What I didn’t understand was that the process of making bierok (a calzone-esque filled bread pocket), was a bit arduous. Dough is made from scratch. A couple of hours are dedicated to allowing the dough to rise (a couple of times). In the meantime the filling ingredients are chopped and sautéed; onions, ground beef and cabbage, all in a pan together. The dough is rolled out, divided and cut into squares(ish) pieces. The beef and cabbage filling is placed in the center of each square of dough as the corners are gathered together and pinched to seal everything neatly inside. And then it’s baked.
The hours I spent making bierok for my family revealed something precious…something I’d never known before. Dusted with flower, a pure and unadulterated truth lay before me, grandma had put a tremendous amount of time, effort and money into preparing for our visits. Like pulling back a heavy, dark curtain to let in the sunlight pour in, I could suddenly see past Grandma’s sternness to the glow within.
She cheerfully and skillfully created this time intensive meal because she knew we loved it. From time to time, we’d actually request it and now her actions suddenly spoke volumes to me, in a way I’d never heard before.
Grandma wasn’t a woman of means. In fact, she walked once a week to her local food bank to collect a bag of groceries, just to make it though. And yet in order to make this meal she would have had to purchase many ingredients; the ingredients for bierok as well as the side dishes she typically offered as well as the homemade pie for dessert. All those items would have been expensive for the average wage earner, but for grandma: an elderly woman on a fixed income, living very sparing, this would have felt astronomical. Although grandma organized her entire life with precise and careful minimalism, when she invited us for dinner, she was all generosity…but I had no idea.
As I baked I wondered if grandma ever felt strapped financially, preparing meals for us. If she did, we never knew it.
For me, making and baking bierok and drowning in the smells of my childhood revealed the most precious thing: It placed on full display how lavishly my grandma loved us. She actually been completely spoiling us in the best way she knew how.
Love stirs up generosity. With love, money is an afterthought and time is an investment not a sacrifice. Love is worth each minute and every penny spent. I wish I’d understood these things about my grandma years ago. I wish I’d appreciated more and presumed less.
Making this childhood meal allowed me to share some really precious memories with my kids. Bierok is a part of all of us now, and I am German once again!
Serving up some home cooked love