Cabbage Rolls On Vicodin

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.

Gram, on the phone with the author

Gram, on the phone with the author

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.”

 

How to Grow Onions

Wear navy blue coveralls when you plant onions. They will have the earthy, oaky smell of the distillery where you are a cooper. For your granddaughter that will become the smell of her childhood. In fact you will wear these for all manual activities. Most other times you will wear a shirt and tie. And my, you will be handsome.

Smile with your fuzzy, black curls billowing in the wind as you explain the process to your four-year-old apprentice. She will look up at you with wide eyes and marvel at your endless knowledge.

Make the holes for the onions by pressing into the fertile earth with your strong, hard-working fingers and instruct your eager assistant to drop a single bulb upright into each nest.

The Scottish rain will help them on their way. Spend as much time in the garden as you do in the house, tending to everything outdoors with equal care. Your garden will be perfect.

When the onions are ready share them with family and neighbours. In fact you will give and share for many years in many ways.

In the days before your passing be sure to take your now-grown granddaughter’s hand in yours and remind her of these rules. Tell her how her company pleased you as you planted those vegetables and remind her how well she listened. Tell her how perfectly she positioned each bulb. And tell her how much you love her. Because you didn’t just teach her how to grow onions. You also taught her to love.


In the last five years Donna Richardson has lived in seven homes in five countries with her two children and one husband - most recently in Dubai. She spends much of her time lost in the desert and drinking tea. 

Christmas Day

Wake up early, but don't get up until your children do.  Your father-in-law would have woken everyone, but you'll wait. They will be up soon.

When you hear them, turn on the Christmas lights and the music; Christmas morning is incomplete without Donny Hathaway. Go to the kitchen to get some coffee. If your grown daughter has already made it, thank her. She doesn't drink coffee, and this looks like tar, but try to drink it anyway. Don't let your elderly father near this stuff. Make him a fresh pot.

image by Ulysses Campbell

image by Ulysses Campbell

Ooh and ahh over the presents. You are an excellent shopper and it pleases you when you get the gifts right. Take lots of pictures. Play with the toys.

After breakfast, get started on the meat for dinner. Your wife and daughter will be working on the side dishes. Trade one-liners with your daughter until the two of you are laughing like fools and your wife puts you both out of the kitchen. It's temporary; that standing rib won't season itself.

When you sit down at the beautifully decorated table for dinner, take a moment to give thanks. There is an abundance of food, your family is healthy and joyful. Soon there will be in-laws and grandchildren, cancer and funerals, but today it is just the five of you, eating by candlelight. Today all is calm, and all is bright. 


- This is the finale of three Christmas entries by contributing editor Jacqueline Bryant Campbell

Bitter Gourd Over a Low Flame

She will teach you to cook bitter gourd even if you yourself hate the vegetable. “We do such things for love,” she says, “learning a dish is nothing.”

            Before she slices the korolla, the bitter gourd, as thinly as possible, admire the bright green, ridged outer skin. Like a palm-size crocodile it sleeps in her hand. Remember to scoop out the seeds earlier if they’ve begun to harden. The younger, the softer, the better.

flickr photo by  Aruna Radhakrishnan

flickr photo by Aruna Radhakrishnan

            Salt the korolla rounds, and let them sit. If you let the slices sit quietly, the bitterness will drain. While you wait, keep busy. Talk about love. You do not yet know, and she never will, that you will learn not only to swallow bitterness but to hold it in your mouth and smile. Chop up onions and lots of garlic.

            Once the korolla releases liquid, wash thoroughly. Rub with turmeric powder. Heat cooking oil (mustard oil is best), and fry whole cumin until it sputters. Add the onions and garlic. When they’re translucent, add dried red chili. Throw in the korolla. Add salt if you need. Do not cover. Let it cook on medium heat. The longer you leave it the crispier.

            Place a slice on your tongue. If you still don’t like it, spit it out. Some tongues are not meant for bitter. Remember: no matter how many times you wash and no matter how long you salt it, some bitterness will remain. Who can change, through mere cleansing, the essence of a thing? 

- Shabnam Nadiya