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Staying Put, With the Flavors of Faraway Places
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Staying Put, With the Flavors of Faraway Places

My recent winter vacation involved nearly $4,000 in airfare, six round-trip flights and three separate itineraries on two continents.

And I never made it farther than my living room.

Well, technically, I made it nine blocks west to the hospital and back. But when a week of flu developed into pneumonia, I knew my carefully laid plans — a family Chanukah in Florida with my parents — needed a reboot.

I’ve always been a spontaneous traveler. But with my daughter, Zelda, now in kindergarten, we’ve arrived at the stage of life where you buy tickets in August for the December break. It felt so grown-up to schedule flights that got us there and back without missing a single day of either school or Chanukah, and shuttled my husband, Oggi, back to work in between.

Illness was not part of this plan. But two days before our scheduled departure, I was shivering with fever and unable to stop coughing, let alone to care for Zelda while school was out. That’s when we bought the last set of tickets, this time for my in-laws: Sofia, Bulgaria, via Frankfurt to Newark.

The night I was supposed to come home from the hospital, Zelda developed a high fever. Oggi gave her Motrin, put her to bed and asked our neighbor, Mohammed, to stay with one of his sick ladies while he dashed to pick up the other from Isolation Room 7.

The next day — after a doctor heard ominous sounds in Zelda’s chest, and put her on an antibiotic similar to the one that cleared my fouled lungs — my in-laws arrived, set down their bags and got to work in the kitchen.

They cooked the tastes of a home that wasn’t mine, but was infinitely nourishing nonetheless. Beef bone soup, an elixir to restore red blood cells. Chicken livers sautéed with onions, the comfort food of my Galicia-born grandfather. Flaky feta-cheese pastries of the sort I snacked on at market stalls across the Balkans in 2006, on my first visit to Europe with Oggi.

Eggs stuffed with olive paste, an Old World twist on the deviled hors d’oeuvre. Spiced meatballs fragrant with parsley — kyufte, in Bulgarian — that evoked summer afternoon picnics, served with lyutenitsa, a spicy, bright-orange spread of red peppers, eggplants, garlic, carrots and hot chilis.

They were the flavors of Southeastern Europe — of vacations we’d taken along the Black Sea, tavernas by the Aegean, roadside grills deep in the Balkan Mountains.

One afternoon, the spicy aroma of cardamom wafted into the bedroom where I’d quarantined myself. I immediately recognized my Bulgarian grandmother-in-law’s apple cake, studded with walnuts and perfumed with cloves; I could picture her carrying slices of it on porcelain dishes to guests in her Sofia living room, where we’d sip Turkish-style coffee and watch the afternoon clouds gather over Mt. Vitosha.

“I thought Zelda might like a snack when she came home from school,” my father-in-law said, bringing me out of my reverie as he cut the cake. I wondered if Zelda would think of her great-grandmother when she tasted it.

I knew she missed her grandparents in Florida, which for Zelda is a cherished hibernal Brigadoon of swimming pools and frozen yogurt. But every evening, as they prepared to light the Chanukah candles, Mom and Dad beamed onto our dinner table via Skype, palm fronds visible in the background. “I’ve got the shamash right here,” Zelda would announce to the screen as my parents and daughter lit the flames in tandem, a thousand miles apart.

Because I’d lost my voice to laryngitis, Mom sang us the blessings over the candles, even though she can’t carry a tune and we always let her know it. “How’d I do that time?” she’d laughingly ask afterwards. I didn’t have the strength to tell her, but the melody never sounded sweeter.

“Could you try to make latkes?” I begged my mother-in-law, who could try to make anything, and almost always succeeded. Her first batch mixed potatoes with feta cheese and green onions, and they were marvelous. A second round, from shreds of leftover sour cabbage, were pungent and salty in the best possible way.

After all that, it seemed an insult to my mother-in-law’s creativity to suggest the Manischewitz matzah meal latke recipe. But I was nostalgic for what I grew up with, and she was game. I had forgotten about my parents’ phobic aversion to frying (Pam is their staple), so I was shocked by the oily crispiness of my mother-in-law’s version, more faithful to the Maccabees than to Mom.

By the end of the visit, Chanukah had finished and so had my antibiotics. Over a dinner of roast chicken stuffed with rice and raisins, I was finally able to add my still-hoarse voice to the conversation, and to lift a glass of wine for a good-bye toast.

I’d miss the familiar flavors of faraway places, even though I’d never left home. 

Hilary Danailova writes about travel for the paper.

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