Cabbage Proclamations and the Slow-Burn of Tolstoy

The cabbage that made me patriotic.


My friend hadn’t used up her box of Co-op veggies this week, so upon leaving town for ten days she texted me.

“Do you want some veggies?”

Who am I to turn down organic farm veggies for free? Of course I want them. I drove to her house.  My iron and calcium levels got higher looking at all of the greens spilling from her fridge.

“You don’t have to take anything you don’t want.”

I filled three grocery bags. I even included the celery root that took a few minutes of sniffing to identify.

“How ‘bout a cabbage?” Jen asked, “Can you cook a cabbage?”

I looked at the bowling ball sized head and couldn’t say no to it. I couldn’t bring myself to close the fridge door on its tightly wrapped face. It would have been unpatriotic.

“I’m a Polish girl. I should know how to cook a cabbage. Give it to me.” I took the cabbage and plunked it into the grocery bag “I’ll figure something out.”

Two things crossed my mind. 1) I need to call Mom   2) Is this cabbage proclamation going to end up like my Anna Karenina promise?  I’m on page twenty-two of eight hundred and seventeen since August and managed to read two other books in place of moving on to page twenty-three. It’s a slow-burn with the Russian novel, what can I say? It’s a workout.

Anna Karenina. Yoga Block.

when you’re in a pinch.

So is cooking. I have never made Bigos or Golumbki’s by myself. Sure, I’ve been in the kitchen and given a stir or stuffed a cabbage leaf to bring a smile to my mom or Ciocia’s face. But in charge of the alchemy that makes cabbage taste divine? Never.

Let’s face it, making cabbage taste great is a little like trusting stone soup will have flavor.  Yet somehow all the great Polish ladies of my life have made it so. Plus there’s bacon fat to thank.

I’m convinced that the tastiness of Bigos is in direct ratio with the age of the person making it and the amount of kielbasa and bacon in it. It’s the Golden Mean of cabbage making.

I’ve been eager to learn how to cook Polish food over the years, but it takes a kind patience and desire to really make those moments happen. All too often, I’m in a rush when I visit home for the holidays and sleep in late only to be woken up by the smell of frying onions to know the cooking went on without me. Another opportunity missed. Mom and Ciocia have made so many mouthwatering batches over the years.

In my teenage years, I recall my brother’s friends walking into the house, “Mrs. Matusiak do you have any Polish food?”  They scanned the stove top for pots or the counter for aluminum wrapped pans, the way others looked for potato chips.

People started requesting Mom and Ciocia’s cabbage stew at cookouts. Nevermind Hot Doggy or Hot Dogzi, as my mom liked to call them. Cabbage Stew was a 4th of July favorite. Talk about smug Polish ladies.

The way to their hearts was through your own stomach. It is a magic to be learned.

So what could I possibly know about making cabbage flavorful, hearty and a family crowd pleaser like my mom and aunt?  Next to nothing. I’m not sure I can even shred the damn thing for the right consistency. But I have to get my hands on it and try.

I don’t want to circle around a pile of cabbages in the store and think I should know how to cook you.