We are our recipes


The gabbing old women were waiting for me outside the Ukrainian church on Easter morning like harpies intent on eating my insides for breakfast.

These were church women with whom I had taken a parish-sponsored course in Ukrainian baking. Our culminating assignment was to prepare the paska that would be the centerpiece of the traditional basket of Resurrection food brought to the church for blessing on Easter morning.

Now, paska is to Ukrainian women what “size” is to men. Paska is a sweet bread made only at Easter (paska is our word for Easter). Almost a dozen eggs go into the preparation, and success is measured in how high the dough rises. My grandmother and my mother both said a prayer of blessing before shoving theirs into the oven.

When they bring their baskets to church, the women bakers eye the height of one another’s paskas to assess whose is the tallest.

On the Easter morning that I’m writing about, the question was, did I discover the typo in the teacher’s recipe. The Sisterhood of the Varicose Veins hoped that I—the only man in the class—had mistakenly followed the flawed recipe and produced a stubby paska.

Ha! As an editor by profession, the typo had sprung from the page to poke me in the nose.

My eight-inch-tall paska stood proudly erect for all to admire.

It was on that Easter morning when I learned that there is more to food than eating it.

In fact, food is an emerging branch of philosophy.

The philosophy of food is based on the idea that food is a mirror. Eating mirrors the array of decisions and circumstances that bring us to eat the way we do. In them, we can see reflected a comprehensive image of ourselves.

The philosophy of food reflects on the ethical, political, social, artistic, identity-defining aspects of food. It challenges us to more actively ponder our diets and eating habits to understand who we are in a deeper, more authentic way.

As with so many things, this discussion started with ancient Greek philosopher Plato. In Gorgias, Plato presents cooking as only a skill, compared to a genuine art like medicine.

Which brings us to my grandmother, who never read Plato.

Grandma Smytana (which in our lovely, mellifluous language means cream) cooked a stable of Ukrainian dishes, most centered on vegetables that grow in or close to the soil—like potatoes, beets, and cabbage.

Peasant cuisine, you say? Ha! A rose may look prettier, but cabbage makes a better soup.

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.

I am in awe of where she learned the recipes. How far back in murky Slavic time did her knowledge stretch?


Easter Morning Prayer, Mykola Pymonenko, Art Museum of Ukraine, Kiev

This Pymonenko painting dates to 1891 Ukraine, two decades before Grandma’s emigration to the United States. It displays my heritage, and the heritage of my daughters and grandsons. So when we cook Grandma’s recipes today, we are watering our roots.

Richard Shusterman of Temple University calls this “artful living:”

Stomachs don’t waste time with universal doubt. They begin with inherited cultural wisdom, which they seek to further.

It’s an unstudied phenomenon of anthropology, I think, this chain of grandmothers’ recipes that evolve through generations.

For example, I am cooking recipes that my grandmother passed to my mother . . . which were cooked by my wife and me . . . and are now being cooked by my daughters.

I have three grandsons who have entered adulthood. They all cook. My hope is that when I am gone, they will cook my grandmother’s recipes . . . their grandmother’s . . . and their mother’s . . . thereby keeping those loving memories alive for the generation that follows them.


My Grandma

If you enjoyed reading this, you will like my newest book, Saints and Poets, Maybe: One Hundred Wanderings, available at Amazon.

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