All of my childhood memories include the fragrant aromas of something bubbling on the stove or baking in the oven. The scent hit the minute the screen door slammed shut behind me. Our family of five sat down for dinner prepared by my mother every night, precisely at six, when my father came home from work. Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but I remember everything was delicious.
My mother loved having family and friends seated around her dining table as dish after dish emerged from her little kitchen. Holidays such as Christmas and Easter were epic, but so were birthdays and Sunday brunch after church. As a kid though, I did not appreciate why food was such a big deal for her.
I spent much of my childhood being awkwardly aware I was the only kid in my elementary school class whose parents were immigrants. I dreamed of finding a small box of raisins in my school bag for recess snack instead of the usual slice of leftover babka or szarlotka (apple cake). I wished my mother spoke better English and didn’t send me to school in plaid flannel pants underneath my dress.
During World War II, my mother was transported to Germany from her home in Poland to work as an unpaid labourer in a munitions factory. Following the war, she was resettled in Holland by the United Nations refugee organization.
She arrived in Canada in the early 1950s, taking advantage of a Canadian government program to help resettle displaced people after the war. The sponsored immigrants ended up mainly in mines or on farms where workers were in short supply. My mother was placed as a housekeeper for a Montreal family.
At the end of the obligatory one-year tenure with the family, my mother boarded a train, carrying her wedding dress, to join my (yet to be) father in the small town in Ontario where he had landed a job. The wedding dress was a parting gift from her employers.
Growing up, I knew little about my parents’ early life and wartime experiences — like many immigrants after the war, they did not talk about them. They were busy building their new lives and forgetting about the past. It’s only recently, as I have pieced together my mother’s story, I realized all she wanted was a quiet life with her family sitting happily around her table, enjoying the offerings she prepared. I thought she had settled for too little in her life; she probably felt like she had captured lightning in a bottle.
The meal always started with homemade soup — krupnik a barley soup with diced potatoes, carrots, and little tiny cubes of beef, or chicken broth simmered on the stove for several hours with kluski made from cornmeal and egg, or clear beet soup called barszcz with an additional dollop of sour cream — my mother’s soup repertoire was endless. The main course was different every evening. No leftovers were served in my mother’s home. Dessert never followed, at least not for regular weeknight dinners, but I didn’t care because I was always in a hurry to get back outside with my friends.
Wigilia — Christmas Eve — is a culinary celebration in every Polish household and our home was no exception. My mother prepared a rich, creamy mushroom soup made with dried mushrooms from Poland and sledz (salted herrings) topped with thinly sliced red onions. The Polish tradition is a meatless meal, served when the first star came out. We ate white fish with cream sauce and perfect fragrant rice — no potatoes were ever served following an edict from my father who always claimed he had eaten his lifetime quota during the war. There was makowiec (poppyseed cake) and way too many other decadent sweets and cookies.
The meal started with the sharing of the Opaltek, a beautifully embossed Christmas scene on a communion-like wafer that we offered one another with wishes for a happy, healthy coming year (or something silly when we were kids). We went to midnight Mass at the Polish church, sang kolędy, and came home to open the gifts piled under a twinkling Christmas tree.
The big change came in our family when a Jewish man sat down with us for a Christmas Eve meal. He loved it. He proposed to me two years later on December 23rd, because he didn’t think he could show up for another Wigilia without a marriage proposal. He is my husband of 33 years.
On Easter Saturday we took a basket of pisanki (coloured eggs), salt, kiełbasa, and bread to the church to be blessed. Easter morning after Mass, we ate jajecznica (scrambled eggs), pancakes with apple slices inside, and shared the contents of the basket. The feast continued, and for Easter dinner, my mother served ham, braised red cabbage, and pierogies or savoury naleśniki — think thin crepes rolled around spoonfuls of finely ground and savoury meat, fried golden and crispy.
We celebrated birthdays with a special six-layer buttercream-iced torte. Sunday brunch after church was a weekly family celebration, with heaping plates of scrambled eggs, steaming Polish sausages, and more babka to go with the coffee.
I might have been despondent over a fight with my best friend or upset that I had done poorly on an exam, but I was never miserable while eating a slice of my mother’s to-die-for sernik (cheesecake) with a sour cream topping. But my favourite was light-as-a-feather chrusciki (deep-fried dough) sprinkled with powdered sugar.
I left home at seventeen to go to university 700 kilometers away; I couldn’t get out of that small Ontario town fast enough. But I returned home a few times a year. I drove, flew, took the train, and once still in my teens, I even hitchhiked. The driver dropped me off right at the door. After each visit, I returned to my small apartment laden with a huge care package from my mother — and not always totally appreciative about having to schlep it back.
My parents are gone. I haven’t been “home” for many years. My grown children sometimes reminisce about what they ate at their babcia’s house when they were young. In my own home, I ‘attempt to replicate my mother’s Polish recipes. But nothing I make quite lives up to the memories of the feasts my mother prepared.
At least my husband has taken responsibility for procuring the opłatek for our Wigilia, which he found at our local Polish bakery. And he occasionally brings home the jam-filled Polish doughnuts they make. And for that, I am grateful.
It’s been another heartbreaking and devastating week. I don’t think any of us watch the news without thinking “there but for the grace of God go I.” These days more than ever, I am deeply grateful for the lucky circumstances of my birth and that my parents made their way to Canada from the wreckage of what was post-World War II Europe. Writing is my balm and I appreciate that you read. See you next week, I hope.
This is wonderfully evocative. I've celebrated many no-meat Christmas Eves with my Italian husband. Thank you for introducing me to the names of all the Polish dishes and the deep feeling of home you experienced in Polish Ontario.
As usual, Alice hits it out of the park. Also, I happen to love plaid pants.