The Gestalt of Cooking
N is for Nothingness

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January 19, 2007

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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 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, have 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, but it does me about as much good as it did her. I can't read Serbo-Croation, (in Cyrillic Script yet), and she couldn't read any language at all.

Oddly, Grandma never ate 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 missing 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 its 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 had 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, 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 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 its 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.

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