Food and the Freezer: Revisited

I spy five rye breads and eight bags of freshly frozen blueberries. I can barely make out the bag of Pierogi on the left hand side. Has my mother gone vegetarian? This is the not the pork chop stocked freezer I used to know as a kid, where if the family pak yellow Styrofoam slid out over the round of a bread, my toes would get hammered. Things are looking tidy in my parents’ freezer these days. And healthy! Look at all those frozen anti-oxidants. It’s a good thing because it reminds of my mom’s trip to the hospital several years ago.

It started with a mid-day phone call to my sister-in-law Martha.

Mom: “I feel screwdriver in my chest.”
Martha: “Oh my God! Halina, call an ambulance!”
Mom: “No ambulance. Some kinda pain in my chest. “

Martha had the good sense to already have one foot out the door since Ciocia Felicia made a similar call to her several years before that and said, “Feel like elephant on my chest, but I okay.” Felicia’s story ended in quadruple by-pass surgery. Martha knew if my mom was complaining, the situation was already a code Red. My mom did not call an ambulance to head to the Emergency Room as instructed. Instead she waited for Martha who lived one town over to pick her up in the Jeep.

Blocked arteries. “Somebody call Jannett.”

I raced down in my car from Maine and was in the hospital room by the time the Nutritionist showed up. My mother was only able to lie on one side after the catheterization into a groin artery. She half way turned her upper torso to face the Nutritionist.

“HALINA, I’M GOING TO ASK YOU SOME QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR EATING HABITS.” announced the Nutritionist who evidently thought that by being foreign, my mother might also be deaf.

“DO YOU EAT ANY SALADS?”
My mom in a torso twist, answered, “Yes. Every day.”
“DO YOU EAT CANNED SOUPS?
“Oh No,” my mom said, “I make my own soup.”
“YOU PUT EXTRA SALT INTO YOUR SOUP, HALINA?”
“No.No.No,” assured my mom.
“YOU PUT A HAM BONE IN THE SOUP, HALINA?”
“Yessss, sometimes.”
“OKAY HALINA, NO MORE HAM BONES IN THE SOUP, OKaaaaay? YOU HAVE TO WATCH YOUR SODIUM.”

My mom turned away from the Nutritionist, back toward the curtain that split the room in half and said, “You ask too much of me.”

Don’t Try This at Home

Ciocia Felicia showing off freshly picked mushrooms

No Polish family is complete without an aunt who means business.  Ciocia (pronounced Chuh-Chuh) means Aunt in Polish. Meet Ciocia Felicia: seamstress, wild mushroom picker and lover of big eye-glasses. She also has an affinity for picking lucky scratch tickets too, but I’ll save that for another post.

Ciocia relaxing in her J-Lo glasses

 Ciocia likes to pick mushrooms and I don’t mean the kind in the bin at Market Basket. She likes to go to a public park or will duck into some wooded areas in the neighborhood when she senses a good spot. With plastic shopping bag scrunched up in her hand, she’ll disappear into the woods. This might not be strange to those living on a farm in the country in Poland but I grew up in a mill city in Massachusetts.

Not exactly a detail I readily shared in the hallways at school, at first, because it didn’t seem unusual. There were always other Polish families who sat in our kitchen and talked about mushrooms popping up in surprising abundance or shook their heads to confirm their lack of presence while coffee percolated and my mother served open-faced ham sandwiches and plates of tomatoes with minced onions on top.

By the time high school rolled around, picking wild mushrooms seemed like an ancient past time that I wanted to run far away from, lest someone should think I wasn’t cool. I likened it to the time in 2nd grade when I wore my gym uniform Polish eagle t-shirt to the roller rink and my brother said, “Get away from me!” as he ran-skated ahead. So I devoted my time to what other kids were doing in high school, acknowledging my superior intelligence over my parents, saving up for my first bottle of Calvin Klein Eternity perfume, and getting into cars with boys who already knew how to drive.

Recently when I was home for the summer, Ciocia came home with a plastic bag full of mushrooms.

bag of mushrooms

“How do you know? Could be poison.” I asked.
“Jannett,” she replied in Polish with a voice similar to the one she used when I skipped church,” I was born among mushrooms.”

As a kid, I remembered how she and my mother dried them. The mushrooms shriveled and turned into paper-light buttons and half-moons that rattled in a brown paper lunch bag. That bag hovered around in the cabinet on top of the Kool-Aid container that my brothers and I pulled off the shelf a hundred times a day. The mushroom bag was always in the way. It was pulled out and then stuffed back in so many times, the outside of the bag became soft and worn and the fibers of the paper stood up like soft hairs. Sometimes I would open the bag and take a sniff of the deep musky aroma. I’d close it back up and upon not finding any Ritz crackers or Cheese-Whiz would close the cabinet and proclaim that there was nothing to eat in the house.

would I have picked this one?

I wonder if I could learn how to identify the good mushrooms from the poisonous ones. But I came back to a familiar whirl pool- like when I asked for the recipe for Pierogis and my mother and Ciocia laughed and said, “No recipe. You watch.” I remember I asked, ‘How much water, mom?’ She repeated the question to herself and then with her finger showed me a nick in the bowl and said, “Up to here. “ Great. I can make pierogis if I have YOUR bowl. I figured learning how to identify wild mushrooms was going to require the same kind of apprenticeship. An apprenticeship I feel about twenty five years too late for.