While the culinary arts are generally lost on me, I hold with reverence the power of family recipes and the homecooked traditions that include storytelling as a key ingredient. It is no small thing for one person to welcome another into their history with the hope that a treasured meal lands in a gustatorily and spiritually pleasing way. And when the receiver feels a nostalgic synergy over a specific dish, the result can be transcendent.
An unexpected dinner invitation came as I marked two years of disconnect from my extended family, furthered by a cancelled reunion trip due to a global pandemic and Mother Nature. It was also the end of a personally pivotal year, leaving me to ponder how to make sense of it all. Truthfully, I was a bit unglued, and I let my scattered thoughts and feelings drift as we drove through the snowy streets to our friends’ home.
As we approached the front door, once forgotten smells wrapped me in a full embrace. Upon knocking, warm smiling faces and open arms greeted us followed by inspection from a small canine companion.
We made our way to the kitchen to socialize, as people tend to do at dinner parties. The chit chat between the ladies turned to the food.
My friend said, “I make cabbage rolls every New Years Eve. We eat them at midnight.”
Cabbage rolls, piggies, or gwumpki….I have heard them called many names over the years. And while the gwumpki of my childhood were not made specifically for New Years Eve, I felt excitement begin to bubble. I hadn’t eaten this dish for decades. Would these taste the same? She told me about her preparations that took most of the day.
“I make them in the Hungarian style. I use lots of paprika. But everyone has their own version. Polish, German...”
My heart soared.
A young person cannot always fully understand the craft of a legacy recipe. I surely didn’t when my Gram made her version. New found familial appreciation is one of the gifts of aging, and I was simultaneously living in the warm memories of the past while also enjoying every moment of the present as my friend and I traded stories, marveling over the effort of the women who came before us.
I ate with such contentment, relishing every bite. I thought about the way people’s lives intertwine at just the right time. I felt gratitude for the serendipitous invitation that healed my weary heart. And I left grounded by the notion of a thread that runs through my 46 years. That thread brings continuity and will carry me forward. All of this from cabbage rolls. It’s amazing what good friends and food can do.