A couple of years ago I spoke with my mother over Skype.
– So, she is sleeping? – she asked.
My mom was waiting to see her granddaughter.
– Yes, she fell asleep half an hour ago. She didn’t sleep well last night. She woke up several times and probably needs to sleep now to make up for it – my daughter was usually up playing at this time. That’s why I arranged this Skype meeting. I knew my mom wanted to see her.
– Is she napping twice during the day or only once? – she had already asked me that, at least a dozen times. It was obvious she missed her grandchild because she continued talking about her.
– Once – I answered and start whining: – Twice, I wish I was that lucky?!
When I was breastfeeding my daughter, we would nap together. I would fall asleep next to her and get an hour to gather strength for the rest of the day. But since she switched to solid food, my napping and alone time was over.
– Those are sweet troubles!
– I know – I said. I just wanted to share with someone how I was feeling.
– Hey, what are you cooking? – she jumped to another topic when she saw me looking towards the kitchen.
– Sweet cabbage – I answered.
– What?! Come on, even in Canada?!
Back in the day, my mom used to work in an office. She had colleagues who were surprised when she mentioned how her children would eat sweet cabbage. Their kids, apparently, did not even want to try it. For years I didn’t understand that story, but eventually, I got the chance to try sweet cabbage in other homes. I realized that some people, like my mother, knew how to prepare it.
Before I continue, let me say this. I’m not an immigrant who only cooks traditional meals. I enjoy exploring different cuisines and experimenting with new spices, salads, and side dishes. But there are times when I crave the flavours and scents of home. On cold long winter days, I usually find myself yearning for warm, rich foods. That day I decided to make sweet cabbage, my other go-to recipes are stuffed peppers, moussaka or white chowder with zucchini.
– Yes. Even in Canada – I was nodding.
She was pleased to hear that. Before, I didn’t understand it, but today, I do. She was taking my words as a compliment. And she was right, thanks to her I love eating and preparing that dish.
– Reduce the temperature and then you won’t be worrying all the time – she said when she saw me turning my head again to the side.
-It’s not about the food – I told her. – Somebody is buzzing the front door.
Half a minute later I came back to the table.
– I have to go – I told her rushing. – My friend is here.
– Which one? – she asked even though she didn’t know anybody. Without hearing my answer she proceeded: – Do you have any food to offer her?
A younger me would have been triggered just by hearing this question.
-Oh, no! – I was pretending that I was worried. – I didn’t expect anyone. My fridge is empty.
-You always need to plan ahead – she believed me – you never know who might knock on your door.
Yes, she was preaching but also giving me advice. She began listing a number of things I could serve to my guest. She treated me as if I were nine or ten years old. In her mind, she still sees me that way.
– No worries – I told her to relax. – If I don’t find anything, I will offer her sweet cabbage – I meant it but I knew she wouldn’t approve. That’s why I laughed.
-You wouldn’t dare?! – she knew I would, so she tried to stop me. – Who would offer such a common dish to a dear guest?!
-I have to go – I left her without an answer. – See you soon – I waved with a smile while disconnecting from Skype.
Her face remained frozen on the screen. Her lips were silent but somehow I could hear her saying: I didn’t raise you to be that way!
When we had our next meeting on Skype, she was kissing the screen and singing a famous Serbian song for my daughter. She also waited for a moment to ask me about that episode. I told her that a friend was passing by my building. She had gone to the nearby store and decided to look for me. We hadn’t met for days. Her daughter was a few months older than mine and they had a different daily routine. She wanted to ask if we would be free to meet tomorrow.
When I opened the door I heard: – Is that yummy smell coming from your apartment?! She sensed it the moment she stepped out of the elevator. When I offered her to have lunch with me, she agreed and finished off a whole plate of sweet cabbage. She then wrote the recipe down and went to the store to buy the ingredients to make it. That night she sent me a picture of a large bowl of sweet cabbage.
– Come on, that isn’t true – my mom still had a hard time believing – you are just joking, right?!
But I wasn’t. Within an hour I could share a dozen stories like that. Over the years I had many opportunities to invite people to my home. They were mostly from other countries, so I spent a lot of time thinking about what to put on my menu. In the beginning, it was a struggle. I always worried whether they would like what I had to offer. Depending on the season or if we were gathering for dinner or brunch, I guessed what they might love the best. I would follow what they were putting on plates or listening to their impressions. Little by little I learned a very important lesson: What was for me a regular Serbian meal, people enjoyed and appreciated as if it was the finest treat.
But, there is one more important detail in this story.
Recently I made my husband laugh by saying:
-Next time when someone from our country asks me what I’m doing in Canada, I will tell her/him that I’m on a diplomatic mission.
For us, it was funny just to anticipate how some friends and relatives would react.
– Come on, I am not kidding – I said – I know I am not the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia. We don’t have a residence or a private cook, I am not signing important contracts or solving global issues, but in a way, I am the one who is hosting representatives of foreign countries with some homemade yummy food. And on occasion, I am also doing PR for my country – we agreed that the immigrants today are the emissaries of their countries and cultures, even though many are not aware of their role. I can say for myself that in the last two decades, I built many connections. I see them as bridges.
When a person is exposed to cuisines of other countries, there are a lot of situations in which one can question what is really the national, traditional dish, the one you can’t find anywhere else. A few years ago when we were on vacation in Mexico, we went to the ancient city of Chichen Itza. On our way back to our hotel, we stopped at a Mayan restaurant for lunch. After an hour I was sitting at the table, sipping on my water and watching the waiter. He was slim, medium height and dressed in traditional clothes. He was walking skillfully between the tables, holding a large serving tray above the heads of visitors and offering treats. I am not a big fan of sweets but I said I would love to try one, especially if it was traditional.
– We have something Mayan – he explained that most tourists choose ice cream or fruit, so he wasn’t sure whether I would like it.
– I’ll try it! – I promised I would be honest.
When he put the tray on our table, I saw a dozen servings of rice pudding. They had not been sprinkled with cinnamon, but I didn’t mind. I took one portion and even before I tried it I looked at the guy and said: – I like it.
He didn’t know what to say: – How can you be sure?
-Believe it or not, I just realized that my grandmother was also Mayan – I had him even more confused.
I probably looked like a typical gringo to him, so I first rushed to explain that I grew up across the world from there. As a kid, every week I used to eat rice pudding either at home or in my Kindergarten class. The waiter became interested in my story and called the other guy, probably a friend, to join us and hear what we’re talking about. In a way, I disappointed them just by discovering that many national cuisines have rice pudding on their menu. But I hoped they understood. – There are days – I told them – when I wonder whether there is an actual dish which belongs to just one single country. The more I learn about the world, the more I am able to see that the differences are only in finesses.
I was reminded of those and many other anecdotes just last week. I was having a friend come over in the morning and help cook with me. The situation was quite interesting. While making lunch for our families my friend and I shared my kitchen, but everything else was separate: two burners, two pots, two pieces of beef, two piles of vegetables and so on. My Japanese friend wanted to learn to make goulash and I thought the best way to pass on the recipe was by showing her how I make it.
I cut the onions, meat, peppers. I also answered her questions while she was stirring the stew and writing down the recipe.
Goulash is not a dish from Serbia. You can find it in all Balkan’s and central European kitchens and everyone will say it is Hungarian. Fortunately, we haven’t dealt with its origins, only its distinctive taste, and flavour. I mentioned different seasonings( paprika, sweet chili, Vegeta) and the ways I usually serve goulash in my house.
We talked a lot and shared many stories. The hours passed in a blink of an eye. We didn’t even notice that it was already lunchtime.
– This Pro-D Day was fun – I told her on the way out. Our daughters were not pleased. They still wanted to play. – We will get together again. But next time we can prepare something Japanese.
– No worries – she waved from the car.
And as for the Pro-D day, in education, the term is used in reference to a wide variety of specialized training or advanced learning intended to help administrators, teachers, and other educators improve their professional knowledge, competence, skill, and effectiveness. A Professional Development Day usually falls on either a Monday or Friday and the schools are closed. It is a day off for the students, but not for the teachers. They are in the classroom learning together. As a former teacher, I sometimes wish I could join them and hear about new educational methods and approaches. But as a newcomer, I find myself enjoying anyway. Somehow whichever road I take, I always learn something.