Mom and I come up to help you and Pap after you get your knees replaced. Pap’s old-school, a Greatest Generation guy who’s only comfortable cooking BLTs, maybe an egg or two. Mom and I trade off tasks, but we want to leave you with sustenance: your trademark cabbage rolls.
From your bed, you sleepily tell us the ingredients. The filling is half ground pork, half ground beef, a kind of rice they don’t make anymore (I parboil regular rice), chopped onion, eggs. The cabbage, you say, should be dense. Feel how much it weighs. For the sauce, get Campbell’s tomato soup, the big cans. We’ll also want to get a can of chopped tomatoes to put on the bottom on the pot along with the pieces of the cabbage we cut off so the bottom rolls don’t burn. The sauerkraut should be the kind with caraway seeds. Remember to squeeze it.
Pap helps you out of your room while Mom and I smoosh together the filling. We’re using your big pot to boil the cabbage—not the heavy one of my childhood that gave us your pot roasts, but a lighter one that one of your kids must have gotten you. You tell us to put the whole head in there; stick a fork in the core, and with a knife, cut off the leaves as they get tender and stack them off to the side. “Be careful. You’ll get …”—you search for words, even though you’re nothing if not precise—“… hot hands.” Mom and I look at each other and realize that you’re kind of high from your pain medication. But you’re also right. You remember all this, even behind the curtain of Vicodin, the lessons of your Polish mother.
You show us how to form the cabbage rolls, using a sharp knife to trim the edges. “Tuck in the ends. Not like that. Like this. You don’t want them to fall apart.” You do one before you need to rest. Mom and I are both amateurs at this—it’s a miracle of pharmacology and aging that we’re allowed to use your kitchen—but we do our best.
I’m assembling and layering the cabbage rolls in the pot, and I run out of tomato soup. I scrabble through the cupboards because I know I don’t have time to go to the store, not if you and Pap will eat at a decent hour. I come up with some Prego.
We wake you. We ask you if it’s okay that we use Prego in the cabbage rolls. “Some people do,” you say.
“Some people,” I realize too late, translates into “some poor fools who weren’t taught right.” (Later, you’ll tell Mom, “I don’t know why I said that!” and laugh.) We ruin the cabbage rolls and know it almost immediately—but you eat a little over the mashed potatoes that Mom made and say, “I love you, my angels.”
- Jennifer Niesslein is the editor of Full Grown People and the author of Practically Perfect in Every Way. You can read more about her Gram, a bootlegger’s granddaughter, in Jennifer’s essay “Before We Were Good White.”