Cooking in the Footsteps of My Ancestors
My mother was always blunt, or “direct” if you want to be polite. I learned to live with comments like, “Well, that hairstyle doesn’t look good on you,” or “You just have no sense of style,” (when I preferred my own tailored look to her more flamboyant, sequin-bedecked clothing suggestions).
So it didn’t really surprise me when she looked at her plate one Christmas day and said, “These aren’t right.”
She was looking at the strudels I’d prepared, based on her own recipe. Little pockets of fluffy, dumpling-like goodness—tossed in the air until they’re tissue paper thin, rolled up and steamed over potatoes, and then served with gravy, sauerkraut, and North Dakota sausage. A delectable treat for anyone who grew up in a Black Sea German home. They were my favorite of all the German dishes my mom cooked when I was growing up. I’d spent years learning to make them myself, including coaching from my mom, my dad’s cousin (for effective dough stretching techniques), and my Aunt Idella.
“What’s not right?”
“These. They’re sort of hard.”
Well, they tasted the same as always to me. When I pointed out that this hadn’t prevented either of us from eating a plateful (I could be direct, too), the conversation ended. Until the next day.
The phone rang and when I answered it, the voice on the other end said, “Baking powder.”
It took me a moment to realize this wasn’t the typical approach of a telemarketer and that it was my mother’s voice.
“How old is your baking powder? That’s it. That’s why they weren’t right.”
She obviously had been stewing on this all night. But I confess, I was a little annoyed with the “not right strudel” conversation, so I rolled my eyes, promised to check, and hung up. Later that morning, when I got around to making good on my promise, I discovered that my baking powder was past its expiration date—by seven years. Woops.
Fast forward to yesterday. It was a cold, rainy weekend in Seattle, and strudels seemed like the perfect antidote. Another important factor was that I planned to be home all day. The strudel recipe calls for the dough to rest a lot, so you have to be nearby to tend it.
I’ve learned to check my baking powder these days, and sure enough, mine was expired. But only by a month and I didn’t want to run to the grocery store. I decided it was still fine.
But it wasn’t. My strudels did not live up to my mother’s, aunts’, or grandmothers’ cooking. Probably not my great-grandmothers’ either, but I never had a chance to try their strudels for myself.
Baking powder seems to be my Achilles heel of strudels. I can just sense the disappointment of centuries of Black Sea German ancestresses. I’m sure they whipped up a pot of strudels for the family dinner, flipping the dough up in the air while doing laundry with the other hand and tending small children underfoot.
They created doughy goodness in their primitive kitchens—no running water, wood-fired stoves, a cellar across the yard providing the only refrigeration. By contrast, my kitchen is 21st century elegance—granite tile, gas range, stainless steel appliances, and lots of doodads that peel, core, and chop. And yet, I was foiled by baking powder.
I’ve often visited my ancestral towns to walk in the footsteps of my ancestors. But I still struggle to cook in the footsteps of my ancestors. Sigh. Off to the store for more baking powder.