Before I started elementary school, I spent every day with my grandparents. My dad would drop me off in the morning before work, and I stayed from breakfast until dusk, taste-testing my grandmother’s pickling cucumbers, consuming cartoons on TV en masse. “She could turn dust into a cake,” my dad reminds everyone when Baba Xena is ever brought up. And it was true, her food was the stuff of magic. My favorite treat she would make were vareniki, a type of Ukrainian dumpling stuffed with mashed potato. I would watch her make them from start to finish, using water glass rims to make perfect circles in the flattened dough. I affectionately called them “ooshkee,” which means “ears” in Russian, because to me, they looked like a pile of pale ears.
The dumplings would go from being lined up on the kitchen table to floating in boiling water until they reached their final form. Once the dough turned just the right amount of gummy, my grandmother would drain the water; the steam from the pot smelled sweet and yeasty. She gave me five or six at a time, chopping and caramelizing onion for garnish, and shoveling a spoonful of sour cream on the side. They were always buttery, the potato filling just the right amount of salty. Best of all, I was the one who got to taste-test the vareniki before anyone else could get their paws on them—most days I had them for breakfast, smearing cherry jam and sour cream until the topping swirled pink. The greatest thing about vareniki is that you could eat them any time—breakfast, lunch, dinner, the middle of the night if you can’t sleep. These dumplings were diplomatic, they got along with every hour of the day.
Before I was born and she became a grandmother for the second time, before she developed arthritis and was moved to be mere minutes away from me and my parents, my grandmother worked part-time as a cook in a nursing home just a block away from her apartment. Before that, she worked in the coal mines in Ukraine. And before that, she and her sisters lived quarantined in a Ukrainian ghetto, held captive by Italian soldiers.
For Baba Xena, life was not for living, but for surviving. She survived the Holocaust while so many Jews did not, could not. Food was an integral part of her survival story, since there was never enough. To stay fed, my grandmother’s family smuggled food, bartered, traded, and chopped vegetables into confetti and flavored boiling water with it. They preserved tomatoes by tossing them in jars filled with vinegar and white sugar. Her best bet was scrounging and cooking and making sure everyone was eating, eating, eating.
The cartoon of the Jewish Grandmother is a woman who is relentlessly hounding her children to eat. She often makes too much: every side dish is fatty, every soup brimmed with glistening oil, every dinner is served with bread and butter. But she is this way because after years of oppression and starvation, the cultural expectation-turned-impulse to feed her family has become ingrained in her DNA.
When Baba Xena made me ooshkee, she made them from a place far more urgent than love. She fed me because there was a time she could not feed the ones she loved, nor feed herself. Food symbolized strength, and rebellion. It was a declaration of triumph that she, a Jewish woman, survived Hitler’s regime. She was indestructible.
Until she wasn’t. My grandmother died from kidney failure when I was fifteen. Years before that, she stopped cooking because the pain in her hands wouldn’t allow it. Her last days, she was fed through a tube. The only cruelty that could take her down was the body she spent her whole life shielding from massacre after massacre. My grandmother was a strong woman. I hope that I inherited her toughness, as well as her ability to adapt and refusal to fail. When I see troubling headlines in the news, that anti-semitism is on the rise, I think of what Baba Xena went through, what she fought for. That kind of vigor is everlasting.
Besides photographs and furniture, all that is really left of her are recipes, which are written down in pencil. The instructions are fragile, just a smudge away from becoming indecipherable. My family guards those recipes, my mom often times using them to recreate the food my grandmother made us for us, but it’s not quite the same. A few weeks ago, my brother and I visited home for Thanksgiving, and my mom made vareniki—my grandmother’s recipe of course. I piled as many as I could onto my plate. And when I bit into one, I tasted the magic, for just one second.