My friend, Anne, is a transplant. She ventured here from everywhere: New Mexico, Virginia, New Hampshire and somewhere else, but I usually stop listening after the New Hampshire part. Although I have lived in California, Philadelphia and New Jersey at various times in my life, my heart and palate have always resided deep within The Valley. You’ve heard me say many times that I am a sturdy Polack, and I cook like a sturdy Polack.
I make my chicken soup exactly as my mother made it, to the letter. Many of you will agree with me when I say the difference between a mediocre chicken soup and a tremendous chicken soup lies within the hearts and gizzards. Am I right? I never realized not everyone knows this to be gospel until Anne was slurping down my soup the other day and I offhandedly remarked: “It’s the gizzards that make it so tasty.” She spit out the soup and screamed: “Why the *&$# did you tell me that? Why?!” Well, because it’s a fact, Jack. She will never touch a food product made in the Kitchen of Heck again. Especially after she Googled gizzard, turned green and ran into the bathroom. Rookie. Imagine what would’ve happened if I mentioned the hearts.
You cook the products of your childhood to bring you a familiar comfort, a culinary hug. Each time I have surgery, I lose my appetite for several weeks. While everyone is trying to force Ensure down my throat, all I want are my grandmother’s homemade noodles and milk. Everyone out there who’s now gagging, I’m guessing, aren’t sprung from the loins of a Polish mother.
Kluski noodles floating in a warm milky pool of butter, salt and pepper? Ambrosia! Each time I make it, my husband clutches his belly and grimaces. “Who eats noodles in warm milk? Yuck. It makes my stomach hurt just looking at it!” I think: “No. Your stomach hurts because your Happy Hour last night turned into seven happy hours.”
My Grandma Plesnar often babysat for us six kids and would resort to her depression-era food offerings when we whined hunger. An enormous treat was a slice of white bread coated in a thick layer of butter and topped with an achingly sweet coating of white sugar. Dinner and dessert in one slab! We loved it. And that may explain my almost constant cravings for anything that can either chip an incisor or cause diabetes.
My grandmother also made her own pierogies and kielbasi. I can’t tell you how she made her kielbasi because then I would have to kill you. Plus, who knows if it was even legal? You don’t want to know the by-products she threw into that grinder, or what the casing is actually made from, but slap some red horseradish on that bad boy and you’ve got yourself half a Christmas dinner (the reasons for my irritable bowel just now occurred to me).
After Anne spit-up my chicken soup, I regaled her with tales of my grandmother also making a special soup, called czarnina, where she added the blood from deceased chickens. As I write that, it sounds so macabre, but think of the iron and protein we were ingesting. It’s true, people of that era had a younger death rate, and perhaps it was because of their dietary delicacies, but homemade kruschiki without lard? It’s a world in which I do not want to live. Please pass the haluski and embrace your high-fat, high-cholesterol heritage.
Maria Jiunta Heck of West Pittston is a mother of three, a librarian and a business owner who lives to dissect the minutiae of life.