Wednesday, October 17, 2007

I Love The Smell Of Ciorba In The Morning.


First of all, Ciorba (chore-bah). What it means I’ll get to in a few paragraphs.

Before that, I’d like to introduce you to my long-gone grandmother. A perfect grandmother, who loved me unconditionally. Not the “unconditionally” that your parents promised which conveniently faded at the first spilled nail polish remover on the new parquet floors. Real unconditionally. Like from your grandmother. Or at least like from mine.

As to the rest, well, you now know the most important part, unconditional love. Also a lap to crawl into, and a strange language which she shared with my grandfather that was mysterious and fun to listen to but unknowable.

Here’s what little else I know: My grandmother arrived in the United States at the age of 18 from Georgia. No, y’all, not THAT Georgia in the US South, the other one that’s part of northwest Russia. I don’t know how she got to the US. By boat, I suspect. How else? I don’t know where the money came from for the passage. Or the inspiration. Alas, no one in the family ever talked about her journey, being so busy assimilating. And her English wasn’t all that good, nor would it occur to her to tell an eight year old whether she arrived at Ellis Island from steerage, or skipped, as the better people got to do, that part, and debarked directly in New York City. Those are only the first few things I don’t know about my perfect grandmother.

How she got to Chicago from New York? Unknown. How she met my grandfather, who’d come over when he was barely twelve? Clueless. How they hooked up or whatever it was called in numbers marking centuries and not just decades? A complete mystery. Why she never found the time to learn to read English in a country she would spend the better part of 60+ years in? There’s no one left to tell it.

But Grandma could cook. Dishes my friends found strange, that were everyday occurrences at family meetups. Ground whitefish balls with carrots and clear yellow jelly. Omigood. And as familiar to me as her traditional lutefisk was to my old Norwegian friend. And as odd to each of us as the other. Roasted chicken with herbs and spices I still can’t find in my hypermarket. Delishes that still flood my memory’s nostrils.

Then there was her soup. Which is now my soup.

Grandma and Grandpa never made it rich, though they did live their part of the American dream. What little family legend there is tells us Granddad started out with a pushcart on the streets of Chicago. He sold spools of sewing thread, and needles and notions for pennies a card I’m told. Hard work and true belief and more hard work and after enough pennies, they owned a dry goods store. This was long before I was ever ingesting oxygen. And they must have done okay because by the time I knew them, though the dry goods store was long shuttered, I never knew them, in their later years, to be in lack of life’s necessities. Maybe not luxuries, but we never had to take up a collection.

But back to the soup.

Even now, though an apartment or cash would have been nice too, I consider the recipe my only true ancestral inheritance. Not that I’m complaining. After all, I did get the soup.

It’s a sweet and sour cabbage soup that apparently Grandmother only knew how to make in quantities large enough to feed a large family, or maybe half a small village. I only know the recipe in that extravagant battalion size. So I make it in the winter when I have a hungry gang arriving. Or I’m wanting to eat the same soup for days on end. And, no matter what part of the world I set up house keeping into, I always somehow manage to transport my huge, heavy stockpot. For the soup.

It’s an easy recipe, made with patience and cabbages. Canned tomatoes, salt, pepper, sugar, crystallized citric acid, beef short ribs and time. It cooks best for at least three days. For the first two it tests the tolerance of the neighbors. Because for those critical first 24 -48 hours the house, the hallway, probably the neighborhood reeks like an Irish tenement. Cabbage is not subtle.

The soup never leaves the stove. The first day it boils for hours as the chopped cabbage shrinks, and the beef drinks the liquid. Then it simmers till you remember that it is still on the stove and you turn it off. Then it rests like a living thing. It is boiled hard before bedtime, and again at first light. If you’re staying at home that day, it simmers on and on for hours. If you’re not, then you’d best not be cooking the soup in the wrong month. Cold Octobers through Februarys are the best ways to avoid ptomaine. When the beef falls from the bone, the meat is pulled and shredded with two forks in a secret family method dating who knows how far back, returned to the pot, and kept at a constant under-simmer till, well, you’ll know.

If you’re lucky and the stars are all aligned the magic happens. It’s a phenomenon known most intimately to French cooks and confirmed foodies. The breathtaking instant when water and everything else merge, become something far beyond the sum of its ordinary parts. The moment when ingredients morph into manna. Into a slightly thicker mélange of beefiness and sharp savor leavened by the tiniest sampling of sugar. Grandmother’s soup is a one bowl feast that an on-hand dollop of sour cream adorns well. Rarely, if the magic fusion occurs earlier, will it ever get to the third day unsampled. Some nearby hungry, impatient someone almost always just has to dip a little ladle.

It has been one of my top three comfort foods since slightly after I attained consciousness. Grandma’s Sweet And Sour Soup. It always makes me feel dear. Unconditionally.

Then I came to Romania with a hunger to learn the language. I read on every restaurant menu a special offering called “Ciorba” and I confess I left it off my order. I just didn’t know what it was, and even I just wasn’t adventurous enough to try any, in case it contained shuddery foreign things like tripe. Or eyeballs. Or brains.

Finally, my curiosity overcame my fearful palate and I asked. “Okay, Okay, what’s the ciorba?”

“Oh, it’s a delicious sweet and sour soup. Kind of an acquired taste though. Most foreigners don’t like it. Mostly, it comes from the villages.”, I was told.

“Comes from the villages" is a convenient Romanian euphemism for peasant. Ciorba is a mulligatawny peasant creation colored by whatever’s left in the pantry or the root cellar and what’s in the piata (pee-ah-tsah) (fresh markets). There are chicken ciorbas, and beef ciorbas and fish and sausage and ham ciorbas, depending on what season it is. Curious about how familiar it sounded, I gave in and ordered a bowl. Funny how sense memory works. Grandma’s connection reached out to me with a spoon over all those miles, and years.

In Bucharest, in the early morning, before the sunrise, when the dog is insistent that outside is a better choice for her than leaving me unwanted presents on the tile floor in the hallway by the front door, we walk the blocs to let her sniff out any recent messages from canine passersby. While she’s reading her pee-mail, what I smell is the start of the morning’s cookpots wafting through open windows. Here cabbage isn’t so much a mainstay - at least not now in mid-October - as tomatoes and local vegetables. But the smell of the ciorba is identifiable. And unmistakable.

Whether it is the first day or the third, my olfactories say it makes no difference. In that faint blue first light, the ghost of my grandmother taps me lightly on the shoulder in an Eastern European city I’m pretty sure she never set a single size 5 slipper in. Apparently there is a shared common peasant cooking heritage throughout the Balkans, the Ukraine, and the old pieces of Mother Russia. We called it “Grandma’s Sweet and Sour Soup.” Here, the Romanians call it “ciorba.”

As the sun rises in the foreign country I never expected to feel so quite at home in, I find myself feel inexplicably loved unconditionally, happy and comforted.

Is it any wonder that I love the smell of ciorba in the morning?


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