~By Carl Unger
I saw her in the supermarket, and of course that makes perfect sense, for it was food that connected us, transcended age, language, and culture, to make us family. But it had been years-seven?-since I last saw my grandmother, and though I recognized her immediately, she seemed somehow false: Wearing a bright, tropical pantsuit, as was her style, and her hair still short, dark, in tight curls-an unreal shot of color and detail so precise and memory-heavy that I could not be seeing her for real. She moved nervously like a foreigner, and if she saw me she didn’t let on, or averted her gaze quick enough to fool me.
And all I could think was: This poor woman. I thought of her in Hungary, her native home, which we visited when I was fourteen, and how she walked through her old home village still scarred by war and largely abandoned, her head cocked upward in a look of disapproval, hands folded at her waist, and what she saw then: The ghosts of advancing soldiers, gunfire, her family scattered and hiding in the hills, and then East Germany and unknowable poverty, strange faces, and her whole life unraveling across an ocean to a man that did not know love, children that knew only America, that grew up to marry women that would never understand what it feels like to have everything you knew taken from you. In that moment, I understood, on some level, the bitterness that settled in her chest, that drove her to cast us all away. This was never her country, this land of supermarkets bursting with food flown in from all corners of the world, and this was never her life. We were her family, but there was no understanding.
She did what she could, though. She carved a garden from her rocky, lifeless New Jersey soil, coaxed tomatoes, beans, peppers, cucumbers, strawberries, carrots, and (solely for the amusement of her grandchildren) even pumpkins from the earth. She traveled out of her way to the few German pockets surviving in the dying shell of Paterson and bought meat, spices, and other vegetables there, and relentlessly cooked the food of her homeland, disguising her disappointment with laughter when the young ones (me, mostly) wrinkled our nose at an unfamiliar dish. I’d like to think that when no one was looking, she closed her eyes and filled her lungs with kitchen air, laden as it was with paprika, onions-the smells I remember now-and imagined she was somewhere else.
I cannot pretend to know someone in fifteen seconds in a supermarket, and I cannot hope to contain this woman’s life with even countless words, let alone a few. But know this: In those fifteen seconds I saw a woman I’d never seen before. My father’s mother, alone and lost in some vast, nameless, fluorescent-white cavern, coupons likely clipped and folded in her pocket next to a hand-scrawled shopping list, bright red basket hanging askew from one arm, her searching face weather-etched by the years.
Maybe all it took was time and space for me to see her this way, a stranger in a strange place, lost family, leading a substitute life.
The food I associate most with my grandmother is spaetzle, likely because it was my favorite and a sure-fire way to win me over to any meal she made. It’s easy enough to make but the colander method can be a little tricky (she actually had a spaetzle press). I love it for breakfast-just heat it up in a pan until slightly brown, mix in two or three beaten eggs and salt/pepper to taste, and scramble it.
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 large eggs
1/4 cup milk
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
In a large bowl, combine the flour, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. In another mixing bowl, whisk the eggs and milk together. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the egg-milk mixture. Gradually draw in the flour from the sides and combine well; the dough should be smooth and thick. Let the dough rest for 10 to 15 minutes.
Bring 3 quarts of salted water to a boil in a large pot, then reduce to a simmer. To form the spaetzle, hold a large holed colander or slotted spoon over the simmering water and push the dough through the holes with a spatula or spoon. Do this in batches so you don’t overcrowd the pot. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes or until the spaetzle floats to the surface, stirring gently to prevent sticking. Dump the spaetzle into a colander and give it a quick rinse with cool water.
Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat and add the spaetzle; tossing to coat. Cook the spaetzle for 1 to 2 minutes to give the noodles some color.