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.  




12 comments on “Cabbage Proclamations and the Slow-Burn of Tolstoy

  1. Judith Sara Gelt says:

    so tasty. so well written i felt the heart of it in each line.

  2. Young B. Kim says:

    Reading this post makes me miss my mom’s cabbage and corn beef stew. I think it’s beef stock, cabbage, corned beef, carrots, and canned peeled tomatoes. Think it’s Russian???

    Funny thing is, I am not sure when or why it became a Christmas tradition.

    Actually, I’m just realizing my mom had other unofficial soup traditions. She’d make this seaweed soup for birthdays, and dumpling soup for New Years.

    Amazing how in the end, food ties family traditions together. Mom’s cookbook: the original family bible :-)

  3. Jannett Matusiak says:

    Haha. I love that “Mom’s cookbook: the original family bible”
    It’s so great that soup was the tradition. Something nourishing about that.

  4. Adam Matusiak says:

    Bigos my favorite! I think I could eat everyday :-)

  5. Andrea Doray says:

    Jannett — reminds me so much of my Baba’s (great aunt) Romanian cooking! Thanks for sharing this!

  6. od marka, wegetarianem says:

    I took my dad to a flea market, and he picked up a piece of rusted metal with slots cut into it, nailed onto a box, and said “this is for shredding kapusta, my father made one like this.”

    The advice the church ladies in the basement of St. Stan’s would give you is use a commercial meat slicer to chop your cabbage- the same way you would cut thin slices of coldcuts off a big slab of deli meat. They are in high production mode, and need to make thousands of servings for the parish festival, and to fill cabbage and mushroom pierogi. Otherwise it’s a lot of hard chopping.

    How I saw the bigos being made: in some water simmer a hearty piece of meat (usually something on a bone like a pig foot, stew meat, or left over spare ribs, pork chops or chicken- sometimes all of the above), carrots and celery. Once it falls off the bone, clean it and throw away the bones and skin. Bring the stock to a boil, add the chopped cabbage, sliced onions, add chopped carrots, peppercorns, a bay leaf, sliced kielbasa, any left over meat you might have, and lower to a simmer and cook forever. The cabbage will give off a lot of water, so don’t add too much to start. Some people will add paprika, garlic, and anything else you need in a cabbage stew to make you happy (like bacon). Sometimes, my mom takes a can of prepared sauerkraut, and rinses it well until it is not so sour. She would add it to the bigos to have some tang. Serve with boiled potatoes.

    Bigos, like alot of Polish food, is never something you would order at a restaurant, it’s home cooking everyone makes to their own taste. It cooks well in a crock pot, since it simmers all day, and the whole home smells like it. I’m waiting for Yankee Candle to make a bigos scented candle. With little pieces of shredded pork in it.

    Get cooking, coreczka. Smacznego.

  7. Hey there! A friend just forwarded me your blog addy, as a second generation Pole who is set to move to Lodz in just 74 days to teach as part of the Fulbright program. Just a short note to say keep up the good work.

    And don’t give up on Anna Karenina. It’s wonderful. I’m going to have a winter of Russian lit (Demons, AK, Zhivago).

    • Jannett Matusiak says:

      Hi Bryan
      Thanks so much for commenting and stopping by for a read. Glad you found the blog and so happy that you enjoyed it. How wonderful to hear that you’re leaving for Lodz on a Fulbright. I hope to see some posts from you. With winter approaching, I just may be able to hunker down with Anna Karenina. I appreciate your encouragement. I feel like I will love it, kinda of like the way I might love exercise. I just have to get through the first 2 weeks. Good luck in our homeland. High-five to you.

  8. ilona says:

    Great post, and I loved the comparison of Anna Karenina to a yoga block!

  9. JulieDole says:

    May I also suggest – a simple cabbage and potato dish from Ireland, called “champ.” It’s just boiled shredded cabbage mixed 50/50 with mashed potatoes. Or maybe use a higher portion of potatoes.

    I would also add some butter and garlic, and rosemary for the “black Irish” version (for those like me: the dark-haired Irish of Moorish blood, from long-ago invasions of the Celtic homeland!) ;)

    • Jannett Matusiak says:

      Thanks Julie. I’m all for potatoes in pretty much anything! I will give it a try. Thanks for stopping by to read.

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