Until she died, my grandmother wore her hair in the peasant braid popularized by Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister of Ukraine just released from prison in the wake of the recent uprising in Kiev.
Yulia Tymoshenko, with her signature peasant braid.
But, unlike Yulia, Thecla Smytana was an actual Ukrainian peasant. In 1911, at 19 years of age, she spoke no English and possessed no skills. But this illiterate farm girl somehow got herself 6,000 miles to the United States, where she found work cooking and cleaning for well-to-do families in Manhattan -- and tasted meat for the first time.
Namesake St. Thecla, the first female martyr.
She was a hard-as-nails, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps woman who loved me dearly and had an immense influence on my life.
While my parents were at their jobs, I spent long days in her Staten Island kitchen keeping her company as she cooked and baked. She told me the folk stories of the old country and sang the songs she learned as a girl. She’d let me use an overturned tumbler to form dough circles that she formed into the stuffed patties called pyrohy in Ukrainian.
At sunset, she went about the house turning on lights and reciting in a loud whisper her prayers against the night, which she’d memorized as a girl.
But more than anything, she shared with me the central mantra of her own life: Treba zmusyty sebe. You have to push yourself.
Calvin Trillin once joked that, “The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.”
That wasn’t true of my grandmother.
She cooked a stable of Ukrainian dishes, most centered on vegetables that grow in or close to the soil -- potatoes, beets, cabbage.
Peasant cuisine, you say? Ha! A rose may look prettier, but cabbage makes a better soup.
When my aunts and uncle returned home from their office jobs in Manhattan every evening precisely at seven, a fresh meal was waiting for them.
And for dessert were the jelly donuts. Pampushky.
Grandma made them from scratch. Deep-fried and sporting a thick coat of granulated sugar. In my little-boy eyes, they were as big as softballs.
James Beard may have said that good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods. But I say stuff it with jelly and see what happens.
My idyllic time alone with Grandma ended when I started kindergarten. I began the business of growing up, and it wasn’t until I was a young man and Grandma was gone that I realized I had never thought to ask her to teach me to make the pampushky.
Her three daughters never asked, either. As first-generation immigrants, they distanced themselves from their eastern European heritage because they so wanted to be “American.”
Pre-school Peter with my mother, Grandma and aunts.
I know Grandma would have given the recipe to me if I had asked for it. But I never did.
Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American writer of the Harlem Renaissance, describes the way I took things for granted in those long-gone days as a chubby child:
“You don’t take no steps at all, just stand around and hope for things to happen outright, unthankful and unknowing, like a hog under an acorn tree, eating, grunting, with your ears hanging over your eyes and never even looking up to see where the acorns are coming from.”
Grandmothers as a species don’t write down their recipes. After all, as author Linda Henley says,“If God had intended us to follow recipes, He wouldn't have given us grandmothers.”
My grandmother’s dishes were not written down because she didn’t know how to write.
But whatever magic yielded those unforgettable donuts, it went to the grave with Grandma.
In my next post, “An Amazing, Awesome Blog”