Polish Cooking for Beginners
My grandmother’s hands are bloody. Red stains soak her fingers and splatter her arms, reaching their peak in a dab of crimson on her neck. She catches me looking and grins, waving her fingers like a ghoul from one of the bedtime stories she used to tell, the kind where terrible things happened to little boys who weren’t good to their grandmothers.
‘Babcia, you should wear gloves,’ I admonish her in Polish.
She wipes her cheek with the back of her hand, streaking it with beetroot. ‘What fun would that be? Besides, Krzysio,’ she says, resurrecting my childhood diminutive, ‘Your babcia’s too old to try to look pretty.’ She flutters her eyelids, making me laugh.
‘You’re not old. You just work too hard.’
‘Tak to jest,’ she sighs. This has always been her answer to life’s hardships: tak to jest, that’s how it is.
I get up from my chair. ‘Can I help with the borscht?’
‘No,’ she says, threatening to push me down with a bloodied hand.
‘Alright then… I’ll just get a tea, shall I?’ Squeezing past her, I put the kettle on and look around the kitchen. Years ago, when communism fell and you could buy things in the shops again, my grandmother purchased a red kettle. The kettle soon found company in a red pot, then a red frypan and spatulas and phone. Pretty soon, the entire kitchen was the same colour as the beetroot she is now grating in a bowl with her hardworking arms.
I am struck by the vision of my hefty grandmother in her tiny kitchen – a giant plonked in a doll’s house.
From the outside, her cottage looks even smaller for being the only house on the street. It is flanked on one side by a field where globe flowers grow in the spring. On the other side is the Namysłów Brewery, just down from the local abattoir.
My grandmother lifts the lid from a saucepan on the stove. Steam puffs out, flushing her face. ‘You always loved my food,’ she says, salting the boiling water. Her words are emphatic: there is no other way to speak in Polish. ‘When you were little, you told your parents you wanted to marry me, remember? Oh, how they laughed. You always hated being laughed at. Remember how I stopped your tears?’ She points a wooden spoon in my direction. ‘By promising to teach your wife how to cook.’
I look out the window at the backyard, where a dog is chained to a gatepost. It scratches itself with a hind leg, then belly-flops to the ground. ‘That was a long time ago.’
‘It was,’ she says. ‘But promises are promises. When you find a nice girl, I will teach her to cook. Borscht, pirogi, kotlety… Everything!’
The dog stands up and pulls at its chain, trying to get at a tennis ball that lies just beyond its reach.
‘Now for the stock,’ my grandmother says. She lifts a tea towel to reveal a pale-skinned chicken on a plate. Using a knife, she hacks off the neck, drops it in the saucepan.
‘Babcia! I don’t eat meat, remember?’
‘What meat?’ she asks. ‘There’s no meat in my borscht. Just a bit of chicken.’ She gives me a dismissive wave and returns to the stock. ‘It will be good for you,’ she says, her back towards me.
That morning, she asked me to pick out a chicken for dinner. I surveyed the hens and lone rooster shuffling in the yard. ‘Isn’t that a bit much? For just one person?’ I said.
‘We always have chicken on special occasions,’ she replied. ‘And what’s more special than the return of my grandson? Besides, I might be able to tempt you…’ She shook breadcrumbs from her apron and the chickens came running. ‘What about that one?’ She pointed to a hen with chestnut feathers, its crest flopped over one eye.
‘Whatever you think,’ I said, retreating inside, where an American soap was playing on TV.
The dubbing of Polish television has always struck me as schizophrenic. Rather than wiping out the English language, they let it run, putting the Polish translations on top. Onscreen, a woman sobbed: ‘You can’t do this to me!’ The translator’s voice cut over her cries. ‘Nie rób mi tego,’ he said impassively. When the credits rolled, I went to the backyard and saw a chicken – stripped of its feathers – lying in a green plastic bowl.
The kitchen fills with the odour of hot flesh. I open the window; I am not used to this. At home, Joshua mostly cooks vegetarian, on my account. But every now and then, he informs me with a wink, a guy needs his meat. The stuff Joshua buys has been sanitised by plastic wrap and air-conditioning. at home, the meat is two steps away from death. Not like here.
My grandmother puts the lid on the saucepan and turns to me, her brow scrunched. ‘You’re too skinny. You used to be such a healthy child.’
‘I was fat, Babcia.’ There is resentment in my voice – I still haven’t forgiven her for throwing fistfuls of sugar in my milk.
‘Pah!’ she exclaims. ‘This is fat.’ She grabs her belly and shakes it. ‘Eating well is part of loving well, Krzysio. Don’t forget that.’
In the centre of Namysłów is a cobblestone square lined with small shops. The autumn sun casts a grey light, making everything look faded. When my grandmother emerges from the chemist, I present her with yellow roses wrapped in blue paper. She takes them, a mournful expression on her face. ‘How much did they cost?’ she asks.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ I say. ‘Do you like them?’
She gives the roses a cautious sniff. ‘They’re nice. But soon they will die and your money will be wasted.’ There is a rustle as she positions the flowers in her bag, where their heads, bright as yolks, stick out the top.
For most of her life, my grandmother worked as a cleaner at the Namysłów Bank. They still send her a calendar every Christmas, she tells me with pride. It hangs in her kitchen, displaying the same picture every month: a photo of the bank, signed by the manager. Now, we stand outside the real thing, which somehow looks less impressive than its two-dimensional counterpart.
Inside, I wait at the back while my grandmother bustles towards the tellers. I lean on a counter and look at a poster of a guy with a handlebar moustache dressed in karate gear. The sliver of his hand is poised above a stack of cash, and a slogan declares that the bank gives credit faster than you can say ‘karate chop’. He looks like the type you’d see down at The Peel, buying cocktails for beautiful young things in nipple-tight singlets. I study the poster and decide I have seen him before: he’s a washed-up American actor. It bothers me that I can’t remember his name. If Joshua were here, he’d tell me not just the guy’s name, but some scandalous detail from his past. But then, if Joshua were here, this would be a different trip. I try to imagine him in the bank, or my grandmother’s cottage, and fail.
There are parts of my life I’ve never put together. Joshua tells me it’s time I did. He wanted to come to Poland, and was pretty pissed when I said no. ‘What are you going to do?’ he said. ‘Pretend I don’t exist?’
‘Look,’ I said, ‘you’ve got to understand, my grandmother’s from a small village.’ Ever since we moved to Australia, my parents have told her things on a strictly need-to-know basis. The things she doesn’t need to know about include Dad’s heart attack, Mum quitting teaching to become a masseuse, and Joshua.
‘That’s crazy,’ said Joshua, pushing his thumb and forefinger under his glasses and rubbing his eyes. ‘Why would you lie like that?’
‘We don’t want to worry her,’ I said. That sounded weak, so I tried again. ‘My grandmother has a very particular idea of the world, of how things are for us in Australia. Maybe it would be different if we lived in the same country. The truth sounds worse when it comes from so far away.’
I take a bank slip and do a sketch of the ad, thinking I’ll put it in a letter to Joshua. Just as I’m adding the words ‘karate chop’, my grandmother taps me on the shoulder. ‘This is Krzysztof,’ she says.
I look up to see a tall girl. Her hair is pale blonde, like mine was as a kid. She is wearing a blouse with a bow at the front; it is the same bright white as her teeth. ‘Agnieszka’ is written on her nametag.
We make small talk until my grandmother intervenes: ‘Krzysztof is a good boy,’ she announces, ‘he bought me flowers.’ She holds up the string bag and Agnieszka leans in to smell.
‘Beautiful,’ she confirms.
‘He’s very generous,’ my grandmother says, beaming. ‘And smart. He works for a bank too, you know.’
‘No I don’t,’ I say quickly. ‘I’m a graphic designer. I’ve done a few jobs for a bank, but I work for myself.’
Agnieszka considers this. ‘Being your own boss is good. But sometimes you make money and sometimes you don’t.’
‘He earns good money,’ my grandmother says firmly. ‘In Australia he has a car, a house–‘
‘It’s just an apartment,’ I say.
‘Now all he needs is a wife.’ My grandmother looks at me as if to say: isn’t that right?
I am figuring out how to respond, when Agnieszka makes some comment about Polish women making great wives. I give her a tight smile and turn to my grandmother. ‘Let me carry that, Babcia,’ I say, taking her string bag and inspecting the roses. ‘We need to get these home. They don’t like to be out of water too long.’
By day, my grandmother’s house has no bedrooms. These only appear at night, when the furniture is pushed aside and the couches unfold into beds. I have been lax about observing these boundaries. It is late afternoon and the dining room still looks slept in; it is scattered with pillows, blankets and books.
I start preparing the room for dinner, clearing my things from the table. When I open my organiser I come to a photo of Joshua and me, taken on his birthday. With his black hair, his floral shirt and his lei, he looks like a Hawaiian Elvis. I am his adoring fan, leaning in for a kiss.
My grandmother puts a glass vase on the table and arranges the roses. I am holding the photo, its back towards her.
‘Angieszka is a beautiful girl, don’t you think?’ she says. She doesn’t wait for an answer. ‘I told her we will visit tomorrow, at her mother’s place. You should wear your new shirt, it sets off the blue of your eyes.’
I have an image of the three of them: Agnieszka, her mother and my grandmother. There will be a crucifix on the wall and Agnieszka’s mother will offer me cake. She and my grandmother will excuse themselves to another room while Agnieszka, with her bright white teeth, decides whether I am – or not – her type.
My grandmother is fussing with the roses. I notice they have suffered from our excursion that afternoon: their yellow edges are tinted brown.
‘Put aspirin in the water,’ I say, then quickly add: ‘That’s a trick I learned from Joshua. It keeps them fresh.’ Before she can say anything, before I can change my mind, I put the photo on the table and slide it towards her. She picks it up and looks at the photo, then me, then the photo.
‘That’s Joshua,’ I say, as lightly as I can. ‘We live together.’
Her eyes disappear under folds of flesh. ‘Two bachelors, living together…’ Her eyes are wide again. ‘So you’re not the only one who needs a Polish wife.’
She has given me a way out, but now that I’ve said Joshua’s name, I can’t take it back. ‘No Babcia. No wives. It’s just Josh and me. He’s special, you know, he takes care of me.’
I feel chilled. My stomach starts chewing itself, the way it does before meeting a big client. I wait while my grandmother stares at the photo, puts it down, surveys the room.
‘The table is too close to the couch,’ she says. ‘Move it back a bit.’ She walks outside. From the window I can see her forcefully sweeping the garden path. The chickens go running out of her way.
Inside the glass vase, the flower stems converge like pick-up-sticks. I move the vase to the cabinet and set the table for dinner. My grandmother is in the kitchen. The stove door clangs as she shuts it.
She appears in the dining room with a saucepan and begins to ladle borscht into our bowls. I wave the ladle away. ‘Babcia, it has chicken in it.’
‘Just a little,’ she says, filling my bowl to the brim. She finishes serving and we sit down. ‘Smacznego,’ we say, wishing each other a tasty meal.
My grandmother glances at the flowers. “I put aspirin in the water.”
‘Joshua swears by it,’ I say. I am hungry now, and spoon sour cream into my bowl. It is clean white against the red glow of the borscht, making the colours of the Polish flag. I dip in my spoon and try not to think of chicken as I raise it to my lips.
The borscht is equal parts sugar and vinegar, disguising the taste of meat. I have another spoonful. My grandmother looks at me, nods, and wipes her forehead with the tea towel on her shoulder.
‘Eat, eat,’ she says. She watches me take a few more spoonfuls and asks: ‘Your friend… Does he know how to cook?’
‘Joshua? Yeah. He’s always making a feast.’
‘Fried potatoes were the only meal your grandfather could make. But things are different now,’ she says philosophically. ‘Things are changing in Poland, not just in the city, but in Namysłów too. I’ve heard of it happening – of course I have.’
I swirl the sour cream in my soup, turning it a deep pink. ‘And what do you think? About all that?’
‘Things change, Krzysio, tak to jest.’ She picks up her spoon, examines it, puts it back down. ‘But it’s like they say, every man hungers for two things: food and love. So I’m not going to worry, knowing you have someone.’
The knot in my stomach unravels. I take some more soup.
She straightens in her chair, taps the table. ‘Tomorrow you will learn to cook with me. When you go home you can make your friend a proper meal – the Polish way.’
Photographs by Chris Gurney http://www.chrisgurney.com.au
This story first appeared in The Big Issue.