Since I started writing (mostly about food), I look at memories and memoirs with a different eye. I grew up with a father who was constantly narrating stories and a mother who basically never did. When I was a kid, I listened to my father, but I was not fully aware of how important such transfer of information was. Now I have a different perspective.
A little voice inside me has been saying that I should record my father's stories. The voice grew firmer after I read Anna, Heart of a Peasant, by Carol Marie Davis. Ms. Davis is Anna's granddaughter and is also Rachel's mother and Rachel writes The Crispy Cook and co-hosts the Cook the Books Club.
Anna's story is different from that of any member of my family, since none of them traveled half-way across the world and started a new life in a place utterly different from the one in which they had grown up. My maternal grandmother moved from Croatia next door to Italy after marrying, but I have no idea what she thoughts of her adoptive country. I guess I did move half-way across the world, and I can tell you that it was not an easy transition, although I had several advantages over Anna, not the least of them the fact that I spoke the language and I had someone waiting for me in California. Anna was sent away from her native village in Byelorussia (now Belarus) following a terrible accident (I am trying not to give away too much here) and after a brief interlude, she boarded a ship headed towards America.
In the first part of the book, Ms. Davis recreates the life of Anna's family in the countryside of Byelorussia, a life steeped in popular traditions that coexist with religious faith. In the second part, we see Anna holding on to the traditional knowledge her grandmother had transmitted to her, while adjusting to the ups and downs of life in the US (having arrived in 1914, Anna experienced, among other things, the Great Depression).
The book follows Anna as she gets married, starts a family, moves into a house, raises children and grandchildren in Hastings-on-Hudson (NY). The last chapter includes a moving photograph of Anna and her husband, saying goodbye to each other on the grounds of a nursing home. The photo was taken by Ms. Davis and I want to think that it represents how she remembers her grandparents: looking at each other, holding hands. Together, they've gone through a lot.
The last pages of the book contain a set of recipes, a tribute to Anna's cooking. When I read them, I had no doubts about my choice: cabbage soup. Interestingly enough, the same recipe caught the attention of other readers of the book. In particular, Rachel, Anna's great-granddaughter, has made the soup and I refer you to her post on the topic for the original recipe. I made a number of changes to adapt it to my taste and ingredients I have available. I used a lovely purple Savoy cabbage, locally grown, and Red Russian kale from my garden. I added a bit of celery and thyme to the garlic, onion and carrot base, used fire-roasted crushed tomatoes instead of puréed tomatoes, omitted the sugar and cut down the lemon juice. Finally, I topped the soup with homemade kefir instead of sour cream.
- 1 1/4 pound Savoy cabbage sliced into 1/2-inch ribbons
- 3/4 pound Red Russian kale, thick ribs removed and sliced into 1/2-inch ribbons
- olive oil
- 3 tablespoons minced garlic (aglio)
- 1 large onion (cipolla), chopped
- a few sprigs of fresh thyme
- 1 large carrot (carota), chopped
- half a celery rib (costa di sedano), chopped
- 1 quart (4 cups) homemade light chicken stock or vegetable option
- 1 28-ounce can fire-roasted crushed tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon of tomato paste (concentrato di pomodoro)
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- salt and freshly milled black pepper
- homemade kefir (optional)
In a large soup pot, heat oil and sauté garlic for a couple of minutes, then add onion and thyme and sauté for a few minutes, then add carrot and celery and cook for 5-7 minutes, stirring often. Add stock, tomatoes, tomato paste, and bay leaf and simmer for 10 minutes or so, until carrots are tender.
Take out the bay leaf and discard. Purée with an immersion blender. Add lemon juice, cabbage and kale, and 3 cups of water. Simmer until cabbage is cooked (in my case it was about 45 minutes). Add more water, if needed, to obtain a soup of the desired consistency. Adjust salt and pepper and serve topped with some homemade kefir.
Kale grows plentiful in my little vegetable garden and it reseeds itself, mostly due to the fact that I always let one or two plants go to seeds and then the seeds end up in my compost, so spreading the compost means spreading kale. I am not complaining: above you can see a corner of the garden where kale is a cover crop.
I am adding my thoughts on Anna, Heart of a Peasant to those of other bloggers, as you can see in this post, where Rachel of The Crispy Cook has gathered all the reviews. Thank you, Ms. Davis, for a very interesting read, and thank you, Rachel, for sharing your mother's book with us.
This post contains the roundup of the event.
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the zuppa di verza e cavolo riccio per Anna audio file [mp3].
[Depending on your set-up, the audio file will be played within the browser or by your mp3 player application. Please, contact me if you encounter any problems.]
FTC disclosure: I have received a free review copy of the book mentioned in this post. I have not and will not receive any monetary compensation for discussing the book on my blog. The views expressed in the post are my own.