To have known my mother-in-law was to have tasted her cooking. Unfortunately, I never did.
I was an enigma to her, and she to me, from the very beginning. With the former Yugoslavia in the throes of violent civil war, I found myself — an observant, then twenty-something girl from the Upper West Side — in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, in the fall of 1992. Her son and I met in the local Jewish community center, where I spent my days at work with Jewish refugees from neighboring Bosnia and he volunteered between medical school exams.
One Sunday, he brought me home like a lost puppy to meet his family for dinner.
When we arrived, his mother was conducting a quartet of pots that hummed in unison over the burners on her small stove. The director of one of Croatia’s most important public galleries, she had a stylized, yet open-minded passion for art and for life. So, too, she cooked, as my nose attested, captivated by the aromas emanating from the kitchen.
Even with my shaky understanding of Croatian, I understood her excited reaction to the news of my dietary restrictions. Surely she remembered families keeping kosher when she was a child, but after 50 years of Yugoslav socialism, no one she knew did so anymore. Both awed and disappointed, she passed the sarma (pork-filled cabbage rolls) and French salad, eyeing me curiously as I peeled my banana.
Though she never kept a kosher home, she was — first and foremost — a Jewish mother. She longed to feed me, especially as she drew me closer into the family fold, and I longed to eat.
For want of a culinary exchange in which she plated and I partook, she instead offered me her well-roasted laugh and finely seasoned presence, which I consumed in large bites. In turn, she devoured my amusing stories of mishap and miscommunication as I mastered the local language and, less successfully, the metric system, while making my way through Zagreb’s outdoor food stalls.
Sipping an espresso, she broke it to me gently that the baby onions I had purchased were actually poisonous bulbs for planting, a kilo being too much of a good thing either way.
With the same generous humor, she denounced my meatless diet (in the absence of a kosher butcher) as ascetic, while applauding my forays into the fresh fish stalls in search of protein. She roared with laughter when I described how the fishmonger had instructed me in the unsubtle art of snapping the heads off fresh sardines and how I’d bought them anyway.
Soon she began to share tales of her own, about her internment with her mother and sister in an Italian concentration camp on the island of Rab. There the women would catalog the contents of their špajze, or food pantries, in a vain attempt to keep their hunger at bay with memories of home. After Italy’s capitulation, she ran with Tito’s partisans, and went on to become both a respected professional and a woman who showed her devotion to family through her cooking.
Over time, she and I came to respect and care for one another deeply, bound as we were by our love of cooking and, of course, her son. We hit a bump only when he also began keeping kosher, eschewing favorites like her homemade apple pie, for, well, just apples from her kitchen.
When my husband and I married and moved into our Manhattan apartment, my mother-in-law begged me to feed her son well: no store-bought meals and heaven forbid, no vegetarian diet once I had regular access to a kosher butcher. I promised, and to prove the point, we would bring out the big guns — brisket, roast, pastrami — during her visits. This, along with her son’s delight in my less restricted cooking, was all the reassurance she needed that he would do just fine in his new life in America, though it remained too far away from the kitchen in which she had raised him.
Years later, shortly after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I traveled to Zagreb to tend the oven from which I had never eaten. Standing at her counter — though not quite filling her shoes — I cooked for my father-in-law. My mother-in-law had little appetite, but seemed grateful. There I was, among her gadgets and pots, at home — if not eating — in her kitchen.
Merri Ukraincik is an artist and freelance writer in New Jersey. She spent five months in Zagreb as the JDC’s 1992 Ralph I. Goldman Fellow in International Jewish Communal Service. She blogs at http://mypaperedworld.blogspot.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.