Those fairy tales they told you to make you sleep always had a disturbing end to them, and the fact that they spoke with guttural European accents, like the bad guys in movies, didn't help.
You STILL remember the evil dragon threatening to cut off the fingers and toes of Princess Zjitnyakhleiba, to be used in a delicious spicy salami for his friends. There were other physical parts that he lovingly dwelt upon too. Seemingly his friends were insatiable, bestial, and terrible. And very hungry.
All of this detailed in uncle Janosc's severe gulag-guard growl.
Your parents wondered why you lost weight.
And had dark-shadows.
Good thing Prince Shynkuyayechni came to her rescue.
How horrible that he smelled of pigs and chickens!
There's moral there somewhere, but you forgot.
Something about luck balanced by curses.
Aunt Gertrude's lessons in cookery made the problem worse. Everything she and her husband ate involved offal and cabbage. Usually cooked with vinegar, caraway, and paprika. Offal rolled in cabbage leaves, served in sauce. Chopped-cabbage stuffed offal, with a spicy glaze. Festive offal and cabbage compote, on a bed of groats. With a spicy sour-sauce. It might not have been so bad if these dishes had been mostly cabbage. Squeaky gaseous food, to be sure, but digestible, with enough vodka. But the two of them had survived the war, so they overloaded on the animal component. Very dubious proteins.
Children are NOT supposed to rely on vodka to keep their dinner down.
Then you got married to Stanko, and aunt Gertrude insisted that you wear her grandmother's wedding dress -- the one with the fifty thousand roubles sewn into the lining of the cape "for good luck" -- and carefully explained in detail about the bucket of fresh chicken blood you should hide under the bed.
In her village, apparently, the ceremonial procession with proof of virginity was quite the show. All the relatives expected a theatrical overload of evidence. Whereupon the priest would bless it, screaming aloud so all the saints in the church could hear "osvetiba oba chisto kruv", and the ladies garbed in black would beat their breasts, singing in response "svekako iesto chistohi kruv".
The wedding feast included onions, offal, and cabbage.
And that, of course, explains why you left Detroit and came to California. Their voices still give you the willies. You've destroyed half of your wedding pictures, because the darn things caused nightmares. You got married again, this time in a nice normal ceremony on top of a hill in Marin county, with vows that you and darling Reynaldo had written yourselves.
Your mother, now hitched to yet another muscle-bound blond young German (the fifth one in ten years!), calls you from back east.
Why don't you come home, she asks. The whole family will be there.
It's your uncle Janosc's hundredth birthday.
Silently, you shudder.
And yet, for some reason, you actually look forward to the aromatic pungency of caraway and the sharp sting of malt vinegar. With just a hint of burnt paprika, oh subtle perfume.
* * * * *
Yeah, I listened to some crusty immigrant talk about the old country again.
Tried explaining that for me the old country was nowhere even near Hurski Naselnyi Vidmami -- where so ever the heck that is -- but somewhere much further west. I couldn't get a word in edgewise. And because he was having a grand old time reliving the past, I just let him go on, and occasionally looked quizzical, so that he would explain the cuisine or fascinating folklore in more detail. A nice old fellow. Keen appreciation for coffee.
And he didn't mind my pipe.
This post is dedicated to Lipman and e-kvetcher, because they once explained to me what 'subranie' meant, and also to Midianite Manna, because it contains tons of paprika.
And I suspect all three of them know such people.
NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.