An Appetite For Memory: Polish Americans in New York

Memories and emotions go hand in hand.  I believe that is why we have such vivid memories depending on the emotions we are feeling at the time.  Do you remember your great Aunt June Bug’s coconut cake at Easter every single year with out fail while you were growing up?  Do you remember the first year you couldn’t be with her for Easter and you attempted to make her coconut cake and failed?  This is a food memory and me being the all things food junkie that I am, I will be continuing this mini series with stories from my mother’s side of the family .

If you’ll remember from my Home page I am adopted.  My mother’s family is Polish and I catch up with my Aunt Carolyn nearly every week.  We are very close even though we live far apart.  I grew up seeing her the most in my family between her visits to Ohio every Christmas and Spring plus my parents, the dog and I would drive out to Long Island in the Summer.  To be clear, my family did not consist of wealthy New York City slickers.  The Musnicki family worked for the wealthy or farmed.  My grandfather Anthony Musnicki, I called him Papi, was a first generation American potato farmer.  In those days, part of Long Island was occupied by the very wealthy and the other by farmers.

My mother and aunt have told me many stories over the years including the one where my mother earned $.50 for picking two cucumbers.  She was no older than five or six but she wanted to earn money just like her older sisters.  The problem with picking cucumbers is that there are prickers on the plant and when a five year old discovers this the hard way there are inevitably tears and the refusal to keep picking.  My mothers two sisters on the other hand were old enough to know to avoid the prickers and earned a few dollars for picking an entire bushel.  This story is comical now but back then my aunts were not pleased with that circumstance.

There is an eight year gap between my mother and Carolyn so many of the food stories I heard came from Carolyn.  While she did not have a great Aunt June Bug growing up she did have an Aunt Bertha and she was the baker of the family.  Her dinner rolls at Easter and her fruit cakes at Christmas were famous within the family.  Everyone received fruit cake in December and it most certainly was not the fruit cake we think of today that has such a bad reputation.  “Getting ready for her fruit cake and dinner rolls was like a sport.” My aunt tells me.  “I don’t think she started before October but she started gathering her ingredients early.  Everyone got a fruit cake from her.  All the nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters[…]”  Many people in the family tried recreating and duplicating Aunt Bertha’s fruit cake but my late Aunt Mary Ann came the closest to doing so.

While in those days most food was made from scratch instead of all the convenience meals of our society today, Papi was particularly known for his soups and stews. About a year ago my aunt shared with me his recipe cards and a few community cook books that had other family members’ recipes in them.  I was trying to piece together memories and family stories for an ongoing project of mine and am grateful to have her as a resource.  We talked for over an hour, maybe even two about Papi and his recipe experiments.  His recipe cards are not the most detailed but they do show his personality to a degree.  There are ingredients and amounts but no directions.  Chatting with my aunt about his recipes is always entertaining because she recalls Papi saying things like, “We need the big pot…some meat…soup bones…oh yeah!  We need the instant onion soup [for a base].  It’s a big pot so just use the whole package….”  After he passed away she remembers some of the family talking and wondering why no one ever asked Papi what his process was so that they could write it down and pass it on.

 

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Papi’s recipe cards

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Community cook books

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is where my strong desire for sharing history, culture and knowledge comes into play.  In every culture there are people who say, “I wish I asked [insert family member name here] how this dish was made.  No one will ever make it the same.”  There is memory, there is feeling and there is nostalgia.

I have always wanted to learn about as many cultures as possible.  I find so much knowledge, power and beauty in cultural teachings.  Perhaps it is because I have to learn about my own culture in a more creative way than most people.  Perhaps having a family that knows so much about their own culture struck a chord in me years ago and made we want to know as much as possible about my own culture.  Either way, my family is a major factor in how I live my life and cook.  I may be an Andean Native but I was raised by a Polish American mother and a Scottish/English father in rural Ohio.  I have sensory memories from Venezuela and El Salvador even though I was very young.  I have nostalgic memories about visiting White House Fruit Farm in the Fall months and taking a hay ride through the orchard, eating their perfectly made doughnuts and taking a gallon of their apple cider home to enjoy with my parents.  Even though I am a trained pastry chef turned culinary chef, I always ask my Aunt Carolyn to make a batch of minced meat cookies when I see her.  She always laughs and says, “What do you want my cookies for?  You’re a better baker than me.”  I always tell her that she’s a perfectly good baker and that those cookies are nostalgic for me so could she pretty please make them?  Every time I eat her minced meat cookies they are every bit as good as I remember.

Food memories and emotions are a powerful force.  We can honor someone by preparing food.  We can comfort someone by preparing food.  We can celebrate by preparing food.  Food really is the common thread through out humanity.  We all need it to survive but often times, whether we realize it or not, we cook through memory, emotion and care.  The mother who says, I’m not much of a cook but I make sure my children always have food, is cooking out of care.  The three Michelin star chef who prepares a 20 course meal and his or her inspiration comes from a childhood of eating at Grandmothers house, is cooking through emotion and memory.  Food is poetic.  Take a closer look at what you prepare or what other people prepare for you and challenge yourself to see the story.

~Buen provecho

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