The Fresh Loaf

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By Way of Introduction

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steve baker's picture
steve baker

By Way of Introduction

By way of an introduction on a bread baking forum, I couldn't think of anything better to offer than this (slightly edited) piece I wrote on another discussion board several years ago about an Easter Dinner tribute to my maternal grandmother.

GRANDMA BAICH

The cousins on the Serbian side of my family and I have decided that when we gather for an Easter feast at Dr Mike's this year we'll make a particular effort to pay tribute to our Grandma Baich, who passed away over thirty years ago.

She was a twelve-year old orphan when she came to this country in the early 1900's as a virtual indentured servant. Grandma never spoke much about the old country, but we gather her life there hadn't been easy. For instance, we know that just before embarking on the voyage she had gotten her first ever pair of shoes.

For three years she cooked and cleaned for the family that had paid her fare. At age fifteen she married my Grandfather, in what we suspect was something like an arranged marriage. He had immigrated several years earlier, and was already a successful local businessman.

She raised seven children, (and lost one), and kept house in the rooms above my Grandfather's clothing store during the school year, and at their farm outside town in the summer. Like most women of her generation, homemaking occupied most of her time, and a good percentage of the time was spent in the kitchen.

Grandma's cooking and baking was legendary. The culinary high-point of every year was the pig she'd roast for Orthodox Christmas. Her apple and cheese strudels, using her homemade phyllo, has proven impossible to replicate.  She taught my Mother and Aunts to cook, but nothing ever turned out quite the same as when Grandma made it.

I have the cookbook she brought with her from Serbia, bound together with rubber bands, but it does me about as much good as it did her. I can't read Serbo-Croation, (in Cyrillic Script yet), and she could barely read any language at all.  Her basic bread, Pogacha,  however, was quite similar to this recipe:

http://easteuropeanfood.about.com/od/breads/r/pogacha.htm

Oddly, Grandma never are with the rest of the family, but stayed by herself in the kitchen during the meal. My Sister theorizes this was a habit from having been a servant before marrying, but I suspect she may have enjoyed this brief time to be alone and relax.

Grandma Baich used lots of colorful sayings, even if they probably lost something in translation. Many of them, not surprisingly, had to do with food. If she had to repeat something you'd missed by not paying attention, she would say, “I don't chew my cabbage twice.” A common saying at mealtime was the self-explanatory, “You want it or not, you got it.”

My favorite though, partly because it's such a typical Serbian sentiment, is, “It smells of it's nothingness.” While this was generally applied in the case where everyone wanted the last piece of something just because there wasn't enough to go around, I wonder if maybe Grandma hadn't first heard the expression as a little girl when the “nothingness” referred to was not virtual, but quite literal?

Although Grandma had no formal education, that concept of “nothingness”, expressed through an adage about food, is positively existential in scope when applied as an observation about life in general.

As we gather for Easter; my Mother, (now also deceased), the last survivor among her siblings, and my cousins and their partners, numbering among them a doctor, a nurse, two teachers, two engineers, an international industrialist, a philosopher/caterer, the administrator of a world wide charity organization, an architect, and yours truly, with all our fancy educations, will pay homage to the barefoot twelve-year old orphan who risked the only thing she had, her life, to come here and spend that life caring for others, never expecting or asking for anything more.

Life may smell of it's nothingness, but it's rendered meaningful by the “somethingness” left for us by prior generations.

Easter Dinner, as usual, will feature great food, fine wines, and stimulating conversation. None the less, I'm sure all of us who are her direct descendants would gladly trade the experience just for one chance to eat in the kitchen with Grandma Baich.

Note: The picture with my account is a Serbian Easter Egg Bread I make every year in her memory.

isand66's picture
isand66

Thank you Steve for sharing that beautiful story about your Grandmother.  It reminds me a little of my own Grandma Ester who came over from Russia in steerage to escape the Pogroms in the late 19th century.

She married my Grandfather Joe and raised 2 daughters, one being my Mother in a small apartment in Bensonhurst Brooklyn, NY.  Like your Grandmother, she was an excellent cook and holiday time was always one of my favorites when I would get to help (mostly watch) her prepare the food for the big feast.  All the kids would love to watch her make the "white snow" for the Sponge Cake.

My Mother and Aunt tried to get her to write down some of her recipes, but they were all done by feel and memory and whenever my Mother tried to duplicate something it usually ended up a failure.

Regards,
Ian

steve baker's picture
steve baker

Ian,

When my grandmother took classes to become a US Citizen she learned to read and write well enough to read a newspaper, but that was about it.

Her old recipe book has little marks and scratches written next to some of the recipes, which we figure was her own way of keeping notes.  Of course, like your grandmother, she never explained them to anyone else!

THANX SB

clazar123's picture
clazar123

The love and gratitude come through. That is a lovely introduction. Welcome and I look forward to your sharing.

The Pogacha recipe is interesting. It reflects the availablility of dairy in goodly amounts, having both butter and sour cream.

steve baker's picture
steve baker

This would have been the "Special Occasion" or "American" version of Pogacha.  More like the way my mother made it.

I suspect that in earlier times, and back in the Old Country, the "Lenten Version" was more common.  I believe the Eastern European Food Forum recipe has a link for that?

 

THANX SB