Lately people have been asking me, so how did you come to love food... As a person who's pretty obsessed with all things culinary, I had to scratch my head & think, so how did this all start? I was a picky eater as a kid, my most requested birthday dinner was Kraft macaroni & cheese and hot dogs, I wouldn't even touch a lobster on all our vacations to Maine (what a shame), and then there was my vegetarian phase.
But all while, even if I shunned the turkey at Thanksgiving or the honey ham at Easter, I made sure my plate was full of pierogi's, the traditional Polish dumplings I looked forward to all year on special occasions, I dove into the kraut with abandon, and made sure to save some room for apricot kolaczkis for dessert. And that is where my gram comes in... She loved her family so much, & her generosity was endless, just like the dishes on her table which always overflowed with food whenever we all got together. Even when I boycotted pork, she'd look at my plate & say, "No kielbasa??? But you LOVE kielbasa!" & I'd guiltily fork a link onto it.
My family moved to Schenectady when I was five, so while everyone else stayed in the Chicago area, we made a couple of pilgrimages a year to River Forest in the old wood-paneled station wagon, & later, flying into O'Hare, and I would look forward to entering the land of Bob's Big Boy along the road & Bill Knapp's where I could get my fix for chicken fried steak. But once we arrived in Chicago, Polish food was my soul food. And while my grandmother stopped making her own pierogi after my Busia (great grandmother) died, she sure knew where to find the best.
My mother speaks with reverance when she mentions their secret spot, known simply as "The Hole in the Wall". Apparently, she & my gram would show up to this place where there was no store front, only a hallway & a door, & when you rang the bell someone would appear, dart back in, & then deliver the goods like a pierogi gangster. I guess they weren't so secret, because when I finally begged to come along, "THITW" had become Old World Pierogi's (now Alexandra's) a shiny operation with a full-on menu & a line of customers on N. Central Ave. I loved everything about these excursions, they taught me the joy of entering a butcher shop where the air was thick with garlic, or the rich buttery aromas wafting from a family bakery where we'd pick up a round of bobka & boxes of cookies, and the pleasure of piling into the car with your hidden treasures.
And so food became the fastest way to find our way back home, to connect all the days apart after living so many miles away. I often envied my cousins who got to spend so much time with my grandparents, sleeping over the garage at their tudor house, & opening up the drawers on the nightstand where my grandfather would hide Cracker Jack toys for us on our visits. Later in life, when my grandparents sold the family home & moved into an assisted living facility, I would visit & cook up a storm for them to give them a break from the cafeteria--one time I almost set off the sprinklers trying to fry up some store bought pierogi's for them, but they ate every last burnt one & laughed.
My grandmother has always said that I remind her of her mother, who was apparently an amazing cook with a lovely smile & thick brown curly hair. "She could even make a pigeon taste good," my gram would say. Now that's quite a compliment.
I love you gram! I'll miss you! And I'll never turn down a plate of kielbasa again, I promise.
Your loving granddaughter,