Grandma was a tall, slender German woman with a stern disposition. Each year she softened a bit. By the end of her life, nearly all of her harsh edges had entirely worn away. She wasn’t much of talker, more of a pleasant but passive observer. She usually smiled except during those periodic, manipulative occasions when she’d say things like, “Why do you want to go out and play with your friends...don’t you want to stay here with me??” In those instances the smile stretched out across the lower portion of her face into a thin, tight, straight line; not really much of a smile anymore, but still not quite a frown. We never wanted her to feel unwanted but in truth, as kids, we didn’t find grandma to be very much fun.
Grandma had fair skin, harsh features and a large nose. Some days...when I look in the mirror at just the right angle, under just the right light, the reflection I see staring back at me is hers. As a kid I didn’t think I looked at all like grandma! These days, well into adulthood, I’m pretty sure I’ve inherited the “Wood nose”, straight from grandma; a piece of her legacy. I’m ashamed to admit that I never thought grandma was very pretty. But the older I get and the more acutely I assess her, the more beautiful I find her to be.
My Grandma was much older than any of my friends grandmas. And being that she was quite a bit older also meant that she was different. Her life experiences were different and she was funny about certain things. She lived a hard life and endured The Great Depression. Through those years she learned how to live sparingly and she never stopped living sparingly. As a kid, baths at her house consisted of one (maybe two) inches of warm water in the bottom of the bathtub. There was no pleasure in bathing, only freezing. She used and permitted only what was necessary and practical, nothing more. She’d even wash and reuse paper towels and she dried all her clothes on the line in her backyard. I actually loved the clothes line thing. Being that the use of a clothes line was quaintly old-fashioned made it a very endearing practice.
She was a wonderful baker. Her apple pies were amazing. She was an ‘Expert Apple Peeler’ (should such a title exist). The way she’d hold her paring knife...I would have quickly sliced my thumb off, but she could nimbly peel a dozen apples without a single nick.
There were a couple of German dishes that she used to bake regularly for us when she'd invite us to come for dinner. We LOVED them! They were uniquely hers, in a sense; there was no one else in the world, that I knew of, who made them. Those German recipes were our one, thin connection to our seemingly imaginary German heritage. Even though grandma was 100% German, she neither remembered living in Germany nor spoke the language. So those recipes...those 2 dishes were IT! They were all of what we knew about being German. Grandma knew the recipes by memory from her childhood. When she died, we thought her recipes and our heritage did too.
Until a few months back…
One of my cousins posted a recipe on Facebook that she’d found in the abyss that is the internet. She’d happened to find one of the much loved and feared lost forever, recipes. After months of seeing this recipe sitting in my inbox, beckoning me to resurrect grandma, I finally, yesterday, did it! I embarked on the journey of making "bierok" (pronounced bay-ruk). I use the word ‘journey’ not merely for dramatic appeal but because yesterday, making bierok required me to traverse the peaks and valleys of my emotions and memories of my grandma. It was a tender but weepy journey through time.
I didn’t expect that sautéing ground beef, chopped onions and minced garlic would make my throat feel quite so tight. As I simmered and baked my kitchen transformed into a time capsule. The aroma...I was suddenly a little girl again, perched on an aluminum and vinyl kitchen chair, excited to bite into one of my favorite meals at my grandma’s circa 1960’s blue linoleum kitchen table.
Making bierok took a good amount of my time. I had to make dough, from scratch, wait for it to rise a couple of times, roll it out, cut square pieces, fill the dough with the ground meat mixture and then bake. I suddenly realized how much effort my grandma had put into preparing for our visits; how much intention and love she must have had in order to cheerfully create this meal. Plus, the expense of it all. A large amount of flour was needed (8 cups) plus the cost of all the other ingredients and side dishes. And my grandma lived sparingly with intention. she always had just enough but no extra. And let’s not forget, this is the same grandma who allowed no more than two inches of bath water, but when we’d come for dinner, she ALWAYS cheerfully purchased ALL the extra ingredients and spent her time preparing, on us. And she always had a homemade pie with vanilla ice cream ready for dessert too.
As I baked I wondered if grandma ever felt strapped financially preparing for us to come for dinner...if she did, we never knew it.
Making bierok and drowning in the smells of my childhood showed me how much my grandma loved us. She spoiled us the only way she knew. Love stirs up generosity. With love, money is an afterthought and time is an investment not a sacrifice. Love is worth each minute and every penny. I wish I’d understood these things years ago. I wish I’d appreciated more and presumed less about my grandma.
Making this meal allowed me to share some really precious memories with my kids. I love that ALL 4 of my kiddos seem to also share my love for bierok. Bierok is a part of them now...and I am German once again!