Roza Naumovna's Recipes: Sour Cabbage Soup
By Maria Bloshteyn
So now you come. Nu, better late than never. I suppose I have to thank that creative writing program of yours. What a woman your age is doing in a creative writing program I cannot understand. First Bali, then Italy, then . . . where was it you went to? That’s right, then was India. Then you taught English in Korea. So where does it end? I’ve been telling your mother for years where it ends. Right here, living alone with two cats and enrolling in a creative writing program.
What you should have really done is taken something for working with old people. Because everyone is getting old. And it just keeps going, the oldness. Look at me: who’d ever think I’d be old for so long? I had the flu a month ago. I was lying on the pillow and thinking, maybe now it ends. But no, first day fever, second day fever, third day the temperature goes down and I am still going on, older. Yes, everyone gets old. Even here with their face lifts and tucks and lasers, and their golden age lie. Don’t think you are exempt. I remember you as a chubby toddler and now you have no bum to speak of and wrinkles around your eyes.
And now you want a recipe with a story. Is that the college teacher’s assignment or you came up with this gem yourself? Because, what do you think I can give you? Rose petals over a chicken, like in that movie they showed us at the Sima Rosenthal Wellness Centre? In the first place, I say, keep flowers out of food. In the second, what country do you think I lived in? Once, you knew well enough. You used to lie there as a four-year-old on your stomach, your nose stuck in the Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, drooling over the pictures of food that was missing from the store shelves. They came out with that the year after Stalin died. Big heavy book with beautiful pictures. I still remember the lines there about freeing the woman from domestic drudgery with Soviet mass-produced food products. Hah . . .
Let me tell you what the freedom of the Soviet woman was. It was putting in a full day working at the hospital or the factory or wherever, then standing in endless line-ups to buy whatever meagre food products were available, then coming home, cooking, feeding everyone, cleaning up, collapsing into sleep, and starting all over on the next day. Just as it is here, don’t think that it’s any different. Except with more food, of course. You know, Bella from the third floor sometimes comes over and we watch television together. Bella is a cultured woman. She was a physicist in a secret research institute, which is why they did not let her get out of the country to live with her kids, until the whole thing went belly up and they no longer cared. Usually we watch politics from Moscow, but sometimes we switch on the Steel Chef. All the English classes I took in this country, and their language is still a stone wall for me, but you don’t need it for this. There are chefs and their assistants and every food ingredient under the sun, and they fuss over the food, and whoever does a better job is the steel chef. So Bella and I, we have a lot of past between the two of us, we don’t need to explain things to each other, we sit there and watch these men cook. Steel chefs? How would they do if all they were given was some frozen potatoes and sour cabbage?
Mind you, to us back then it seemed a pretty good selection. Given what we’ve been through. And we were the lucky ones. We managed to leave before the siege. Your grandfather was at the front, an officer already, and trying to arrange things from there in his inimitable fashion. He sends me instructions to take your mother and aunt to his best friend’s village, where there is a house with apple trees over a lake and his best friend’s mother will welcome us with open arms. Fine, except that as we get to the train station they tell us that the front is advancing and we are going right to the Germans. But it turns out that there are two trains at the station evacuating the Red Triangle factory as well as anyone else who happens to be at the train station at the time. We get on. My cousin Lenochka and her children were not so lucky. They get stuck in Pushkin, and when the Germans come, the first thing they do is round up all the Jews, and the rest is known . . .
But we end up in a village on the uncivilized side of the Urals. Houses behind fences three metres tall. In tsarist days there were runaway convicts in those parts, so the people are not overly friendly. Besides, they had already sampled collectivization, dekulakization, and other pleasures offered by the regime. We rent a room from one woman, but her cow dies and she claims that your aunt gave it the evil eye—who are you going to blame if not a redhead?—so we have to move. We make it through the winter, and in the spring we borrow a small section of the vegetable plot from our new landlady, and your mom starts planting tobacco and trading it, and then your grandfather finds us and we start getting an officer’s family allowance, so life becomes pretty bearable, as far as things go in those days. But then they lift the siege and the girls start clamouring to go back and, just then, your grandfather sends a formal invitation for us to return. “What’s the rush?” I ask. “I am working with the cows at the collective farm, you are going to school, the war is still going, let’s wait.” But no, they have to go back, they won’t stay there a day longer, they want to go home. So we pack up what little we have, and take the train back.
No one is waiting for us with open arms, but the two of them don’t care. They are standing at the train station, hugging each other and bawling. I am watching them and Mandelshtam’s lines are circling in my head, “I have returned to my town, familiar as tears,” coupled with another thought: sentiment is nice; now how are we going to live? But the world is not without good people. A friend of a friend lets me know that a factory canteen is looking for a cook. They don’t even mind that I am overqualified: a chef with first-level certification does not work in a factory canteen. So now I am in a factory canteen and there are hungry workers to feed and the only foodstuffs they can give me are frozen sour cabbage and rotten potatoes, half of them frozen too, some onions, and some carrots. Well, if that isn’t God’s way of saying make sour cabbage soup, I don’t know what is.
So I put water on the boil in those huge factory pots, and I add allspice and laurel leaf and coriander. During the siege, they ate up all the foodstuffs, but the spices no one touched—there’s an insight into human nature for you. Then I cube what can be salvaged of the potatoes and put them into the boiling water. I take their oversized pan, which I can barely lift, and sauté the onion and the shredded carrots in what passes for oil, and then, when they are soft and browning, I add the sour cabbage. I let it simmer and I pour all of it into the pots with the potatoes. Then I cook it until it is done. Add salt, adjust seasonings, and “Roza Naumovna, that is the best sour cabbage soup we’ve had in a long time,” they tell me, and they eat it with black bread, and ask for seconds.
Just then your mother and aunt happen to visit. “Eat,” I tell them. “Have some soup.” But they act all mysterious, and ask me to ladle some soup into tin mugs. I do. Then they disappear, come back, and ask for more. “Why?” I ask them. But no answer is forthcoming. So I excuse myself from the kitchen, telling my co-workers that I am no deserter of the work front, but merely need to step outside to get some fresh air. I walk up the stairs, go outside, and what do you think I see? Right outside the factory is a boarded-up construction site—they are rebuilding what was demolished in the air bombing. At the bottom of one of the boards there is a round hole. Your mother and your aunt knock on the board and a face appears in the middle. A boy’s face: blond, blue-eyed, pimpled, dirty . . . looks fourteen or a bit older. Your mother shows the mug and the face disappears, to be replaced by a grubby hand. She carefully extends the mug and it disappears on the other side. Then the mug reappears empty, followed by the face, saying very earnestly, “Spasibo, danke schon, spasibo!” So there it is, they are bringing my soup to the German POWs, out there fixing what they themselves tried to destroy only months ago.
I confront them, of course, right there and then. “Why?” I ask them, “What is this foolishness?! That runty Hitler Junger would not pity you. You’d get a bullet through your head if you were lucky.” But your mother turns around and says, “Mama, don’t we know what hunger is?” Your aunt doesn’t say anything. She just looks at me with those green eyes of hers. So I sigh and tell them, “Nu, what are you standing there for? Let’s go get some more of that sour cabbage soup.”