It Isn’t Easter Without Horseradish

Happy Easter! Happy Spring! Some flowering trees on my walk.

 

 

Chrzan- horseradish (pronounced Kshan)

I bought a jar of horseradish at the grocery store. It pained me because I know Ciocia Felicia grated fresh horseradish for the Easter breakfast table at my parents’ house. I’m 2,006 miles away so I have to figure out how to burn my nose hairs on my own, so I can feel like I had a normal Easter without them.

I can picture her grating it- outside or on the porch, silver metal bowl in hand, eyes tearing, nose sniffling and face red with force. Woman against rooty beast. When it comes to hand to hand combat, believe me, I put my money on Ciocia Fela. She’s not easily put off by tears and some hard work. Someone walks out a winner from the shred, and it isn’t the root.

Ciocia keeps the grated horseradish white, or dyes it purple with beets. She stores it in a recycled jar. I like seeing those old jam jars. Makes my store bought shrink wrapped cap hygienic but disappointing. I bought Bubbies brand because it had natural ingredients and their dill pickles are super tasty. I had a different brand I picked up first but when I saw that Bubbies made horseradish, I brought the other one back with a skip in my step. Any company that has a photo of their ancestor on the bottle is okay in my book. This is the best I can get to homemade without doing it myself.

If Ciocia had her picture on a jar, she'd be wearing her Elton John glasses.

I’m not sure I have the mettle to hand-grate some myself. I’m likely to touch my eyes or scrape my knuckles. It just wouldn’t be fun to try unless I had my mom and my aunt, hovering behind me saying, “Not like this. Like this.”

It’s the Chrzan we talk about around the table, second to the fresh kielbasa.

“Where is the Chrzan?”
“Pass the Chrzan”
“Is the Chrzan hot this year?”

Adam usually plops a heaping spoonful onto his kielbasa and rye bread.

Czy ty zwariował – Have you gone crazy! My mother will say.

Everyone waits for the verdict, hot or not hot? It happens every year. It will happen again today even though I am not at home.

I’ll ask on the phone.

If ‘It’s not that hot’ is proclaimed. Ciocia will go on to complain about the root. She’ll shrug. She’ll wonder if Market Basket didn’t have good ones this year. She’ll act like it was a firecracker that didn’t go off. A dud. A fuse with no blast. She’ll feel had, robbed of something spectacular. There’s nothing she likes better than setting off a Roman candle at the kitchen table while silently taking praise while washing the dishes.

spring fireworks

It’s not like one cooks a horseradish to perfection, you either get a good root or not. You either balance it perfectly with vinegar or you don’t. It’s either going to create a new path in your sinuses or it won’t.

Every Easter, we gather around the table to find out.

Will my store bought horseradish be as tasty at Ciocia’s homemade horseradish? I dunno.

My nose is waiting.

Ciocia Talks Tom Brady

I called home recently. Ciocia Felicia answered. I asked her whether she was planning on watching the Pats vs. Ravens game, even though I already knew the answer would be yes. She interrupted my chain of questions to tell me in Polish, “Brady has a hand injury.”  She was certain he was going to play the game but the outcome of how well he could play was causing her to worry.

Sometimes I wonder if I call the right house.

Brady and Gaga.  Household names.

See, ever since my brothers introduced my Mom and Ciocia to the Super Bowl football squares some years ago and they started betting $20 on the game, they started tuning in. Not because they loved football, but because they wanted to maximize their twenty.  They learned to read the football square grid and somewhere along the way they got hooked.

Adam said to me the other night, “Ma called to ask me about Timeouts.” I told him Ciocia informed me of Brady’s injury and that if it weren’t for her I wouldn’t have known.

They’re obsessed. Apparently, my Mom will do her walking-on-hot-coals howl when the Pats are heading for a touchdown.

After the AFC Championship game last week (what a nail biter!), I called home to see what they thought of the game. My mom said, “Miałem highablood pressure.” I had high blood pressure.

Mom never says HIGH. She says high-ah blood pressure, as if what is already high just went higher.

I realized that I’ve been catching the games myself these days.  I have watched games in the past with groups of people but it was really just to have salsa and chips and engage in some conversation.  I have called a quarter an inning before, so there you go.

I make no smoke screen to disguise my otherwise poo-poo to sports attitude I used to have.  I would have rather watched a foreign film than go to a Sports Bar. Actually, maybe that’s still true…BUT I have always enjoyed the thrill of an underdog winning or the drama of a snowy game. Maybe like my Mom and my aunt, I’m slowly finding the joy of watching a game because I’m figuring it out.

Plus, I just bought a football square for the Super Bowl next week and I want to see what happens to my twenty bucks. Go Pats!!!

 

 

 

Coughing into a Christmas in Pictures 2011


My brother John picked me up from the airport on Thursday. Bless his heart for waking at 5am to check my flight status.  This voluntary early morning pick up from a guy who once needed an air raid siren to wake up.  We had breakfast and then I got into my post-cold coughing jag.

 “You want me to stop at Rite-Aid, Typhoid Mary?” asked John.

“No,” I choked between coughing fits. “I’m fine.”

I coughed all the way into my parents’ house.  Greetings. Hugs. And within a few seconds, Ciocia Felicia thunked a small bottle of thick yellow liquid in front of me and handed me a tablespoon.

“You drink.”    

“What is it?”

“Spirytus, honey and lemon.”

Dr. Felicia says take a few tablespoons, if you start feeling woozy time to stop.

Home-made cough syrup.          

 It’s in a recycled glass bottle that once held something similar.  

Spriytus is 192 proof.  Who needs Nyquil with Red #5 when my 84 years old aunt mixes her own elixirs in the kitchen? I took 2 tablespoons and slept for 4 hours, a mix of red-eye exhaustion and the warm burn radiating in my throat. When I woke up, Felicia said in Polish, “I didn’t hear you cough once.”

“You want me to mail?”

“Um, Ciocia that’s like mailing gasoline.  I don’t think you can do that.”  

As I photographed the Spirytus bottle today at lunch my mom reminded me that you can dip a little on your finger and light it on fire. Hm.

Gasoline in a bottle. Clears sinuses and car pistons.

 Now the house is sizzling with oil and onions and fish. The overhead stove fan is causing extra deafness. The table set. We’re waiting for guests. Wesolych Swiat! Merry Christmas everyone! The rest in pictures. (cough. cough.)

192 Proof.

My brother waiting for Santa.

One of three fish on the table tonight.

 

 

Babki baking beautifully!

Bundt cake moving fast!

 

Ciocia putting curlers in her hair after the first wave of cooking

There was a lot of this in the fridge.

Mom and Dad

My brothers Adam and John.

My sister-in-law Kim and me

 

My niece and sister-in-law Martha

 

It's a Patriots family. My niece.

Before Family.

 

That's more like it.

Tactical Operations

Brigadier General Ciocia Felicia is an expert in tactical operations involving basement mice, squirrels eating bird food and woodchuck infiltration. No rodent too big. No rodent too smart. She will find its weakness. She will persist.

I bought my father a birdfeeder for Christmas a few years back for the new ranch house they bought. In the winter, it replaces the potted plant that hangs on a free-standing hooked stake in the backyard.

“Give the poor birds some food, will you?” Dad said when it was running low and I was over for a visit. I followed the narrow footpath in the snow and poured the seeds from the top until they gently started to spill over the lip. As soon as I left, a squirrel started pecking at the seeds that had fallen to the ground. Within minutes, it had shimmied up the pole and then hung upside down on the hook like a miniature acrobat. It swung towards the birdfeeder and knocked the seeds onto the ground.

Taking in the scene through the kitchen table window, Ciocia muttered, Skurczy Byk! Shriveled Bull! Not a swear word exactly, but not a phrase for polite company either. It can also be translated as Crouching Bull! Either way, I think you know what you could insert there in English.

The squirrel came back again and again. It was the same one. We knew that because it had an unusual white tipped tail. 

Also not their actual squirrel

 

The window banging started again.

“Can we try to act a little normal in this house?” I asked. Dad shrugged his shoulders and continued to read the paper.

When I came back home the next time, I heard about Felicia’s offensive.

She greased the base of the hook with Olive oil. I imagine that she stood by the window like a patient sniper waiting for her target to approach. And because the story was recounted so many times, I can tell you that the little fury acrobat started up with gusto and then promptly slid down the pole.

In my mind there were sound effects.

On the scoreboard of Ciocia vs. squirrel, she finally scored one for the team. Then I think the squirrel bought some Isotoner gloves because it managed to grip its way back up the pole again.

So our #1 Rodent General took the birdfeeder off the hook and ran a thin thread between the hook and the small flowering tree. The feeder bowed slightly in between. Ciocia was convinced this was better because she had picked an especially strong but thin thread. A thread that was too thin for the squirrel’s body to balance on. That turned out to be true, but the squirrel realized that instead of trying to walk on the line, it would flip upside down and grip the line from underneath like some scene from Mission Impossible.

It got to the seed again. Felicia got back to planning again.

This is the little dance that goes on between them.

Why bring up the woodchuck and squirrel stories? Because it occurred to me that this is what we must do.

You have to die trying.

Operation Scare the Woodchuck

A refresher for those of you just tuning in: Ciocia means Auntie in Polish. It’s pronounced Chuh-Chuh. My sister-in-law, in the family for 18 years, was so dreadfully afraid she was mispronouncing it like Spanish swear word that she refrained from using it. She just mastered it a few years ago. So don’t worry, you still have time to practice.

 

This is the view outside the kitchen table window where my parents and Ciocia Felicia (she lives with them by the way) enjoy the backyard view. The window also serves as an observation tower from which they strategically plot against two enemies: the squirrels and the woodchucks.

My family members are live and let live people but when the squirrels started eating the bird seed in the winter and the woodchucks decimated Ciocia’s tomato plants in the summer, lines were drawn. Mom and Ciocia began their daily surveillance. This involved mid-sweep pauses as they cleaned the kitchen to watch for movement outside the window. If they had access to infrared goggles, there would have been a night shift.

not their actual woodchuck

During the day, Mom kept one eye out over the sink window while she washed dishes. If she noticed a woodchuck she’d plunk the dish down and start muttering things that shouldn’t be repeated. Felicia would already be slipping on her flip flops to run outside. I think she was hoping for some hand to hand combat to settle this once and for all. After all, they ate all her tomatoes that year.

When Mom and Ciocia realized that the woodchucks had an acute sense of hearing, they started banging on the windows. It saved them from running outside each time they appeared. That got old pretty fast. When the banging stopped scaring the woodchucks off, Mom and Ciocia started making their own sounds to make things louder.

To an outsider, it may have looked like my mom and Ciocia were trying to be let out of their own house.

The woodchucks started multiplying. Started getting bolder. One blatantly sunned itself on the stone wall. It was all my mom could take.
They started going back outside to scare them.

And then…

My mom started barking.

Let me just say, that pretending to bark in Polish sounds different than in English. If you don’t believe me make your bark sound right now and then tap the next foreign person you meet and ask them to bark for you. I’m just saying. It is its own translation. My mother’s sounds something like a cross between a lonely wolf and someone walking on hot coals.

Her barking had no effect on our pudgy brown woodchucks at first. So she persisted barking in the back yard louder and louder. Until the next door neighbor who had been sitting on his back deck, stood up and looked over the tall hedge separating the yard and said,
“Everything okay Halina?”

My mother laughed so hard when she told us, she moved herself into a coughing fit.

“Oh my god Mom, did you tell him why you were out there?” I asked, wondering if I should start wearing a hat and dark sunglasses when I drove onto their street.

“I tell him. We havin’ good laugh.”

The barking stopped because the have-a-heart-traps came in…and eventually foxes.

When winter came and the squirrels moved in on the bird feeder, that’s when Brigadier General Ciocia Felicia really started proving her mettle.
To be Continued…

Home Is Where the Objects Are

Yes, home is where the heart is but more so, home is where the objects are. Take any one of these items out of my parents’ house and put them and me in the jungle in Borneo and I would cry ‘Home!’

Exhibit A

The Glass Percolator: It replaced the other glass percolator that cracked when Ciocia Felicia left it on the burner and got distracted in the cellar. The broken one had been a replacement for the two other burned out metal tea kettles before it.
      *I have burned through one tea pot so far. Is this genetic?    

 

Exhibit B

Dad’s Mug – Perhaps the most sacred dishware in the house. No one can say exactly when Dad starting using it, only that it has surpassed 30 years for certain, if not more. Many have let out a gasp letting it slip from their hands into the sink and sometimes the floor, yet it remains whole. I fear that my Dad will give up drinking coffee and tea altogether if it breaks.
He claims this one holds the heat.

 

Exhibit C

The Stray Paper Towel – A gently used paper towel left on the counter for second use. This used to drive me crazy, until I found myself doing it recently too. Just like freezing bread and burning through tea pots, I am genetically programmed to saving a stray paper towel. Said paper towel is usuallysharing counter space near an apple, tomato or onion.

 

Exhibit D     

THE TV

 
Either on loud or not at all

• Home Shopping Network- My mother and Ciocia Fela cannot get enough of the jewelry. Hours of it. If Home Shopping Network is crack then Mom and Ciocia like to free-base.

• The Spanish Channel- watched most by Ciocia who speaks the least English in the house. When I pointed out that she doesn’t speak Spanish she shrugged and said, “They sing nice.”
     *I watched a little bit of Bourne Identity on the Telemundo channel the other day and thought her.

 

 

Exhibit E


The Thermometer- So vital to the house’s bio dome operations, we have two of them, one outside and one inside. I don’t know why, but like wanting to have our clocks set to Greenwich Mean Time, my father needs to know the temperature.

 When I visit my parents, I expect to see these things. Though I wonder if the percolator’s days are numbered. While it’s my family I come home to visit, these objects let me know I’m home.

Special Thanks to my brother Adam who went on a mission to my parents house yesterday morning to take some photos for me. It was good for me that it was a too windy fishing day for him.

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.