This memory has created a want to have something special like that, surrounding food. Food for me always meant celebration and togetherness. I like to cook for myself and others. My colander is my grandmother’s. It is so old, but it is hers, and I will never get rid of it.
My grandmother was like a second mother to me and I told her things I didn’t even tell my own mother. She died when I was eighteen, on Good Friday. Her name was Lottie and she lived in the same two-flat that I grew up in. She was first-generation Polish-American, spoke Polish, and cooked the best Polish food I’ve ever had. My great-grandparents came from Poland in the late 1920s and moved to Wicker Park. My great uncle was born in Poland, but my grandmother was born here, in Chicago. I have her portrait tattooed on my arm.
My grandmother is cooking for Christmas Eve. I lived in an old two-flat in Chicago and she was making traditional Polish food while my siblings, cousins, and I were in the living room having snacks, playing with gifts, and cracking walnuts with a Nutcracker.
It is the mid-90s in an old Chicago apartment on the northwest side. This was a brown, brick building from the early 1900s where several generations had lived, and continued to live together. The living room was at the front of the flat with a Christmas tree. I remember the old 1970s furniture covered in plastic, a fireplace, and old Christmas decorations that were mostly religious. The kitchen was located in the back of the flat where my grandmother was making food for that Eve and Christmas day.
I chose this memory because cooking, especially Polish food, was such a big part of my childhood. When my grandmother passed away, that all kind of fell apart. She was the rock that kept that culture together. Now, we will go out to eat on Christmas instead. I feel like this moment came up for me because it is such a vivid experience of my childhood, and throughout my teenage years. The smells were so potent–onions and garlic–you can’t really shake those smells. It made me feel so close with my family, where now people have passed away, my sister and brother have moved away…I revisit it because of that feeling.
I see my grandma, mom, siblings, cousins, and family friends. My dad was dressed up as Santa Claus and I remember being afraid of him. I didn’t recognize it was him! The smell of cabbage, tomatoes, and onions cooking in a large pot lingers. It smelled savory and amazing.
One of the dishes that I remember is this coleslaw. My dad still makes it because he has my Grandma’s recipe card. It had a lot of eggs, obviously mayonnaise, but shredded cabbage, big cucumbers, and chives. I am assuming it’s Polish because my grandma used to make it and I’ve never had coleslaw like that before. We would have Polish sausage and rye bread, and sometimes perogies and kolaczkis, which are cookies with jelly in the middle. I was told kolaczkis are only Christmas cookies. She made them by hand, and it took her forever.
The party was on Christmas Eve, so it was loud, with a lot of conversation. I remember my grandma being in the kitchen making dishes for that night, and the next day. Some of the things she cooked took awhile. The smell of boiling cabbage permeates. I remember that from the back of the kitchen, and the sounds of people celebrating and the bells jingling on the door when someone walked in.
I know this was a special occasion, it was Christmas Eve, but when I recall this memory around the holidays, it does make me feel like I want to spend time with people cooking. The times I cook with my boyfriend, which is most nights now, it is so nice, and therapeutic. This memory has created a want to have something special like that, surrounding food. Food for me always meant celebration and togetherness. I like to cook for myself and others. My colander is my grandmother’s. It is so old, but it is hers, and I will never get rid of it.
I taste the comfort of the tomato sauce mixed with the meat, rice, and cabbage. I can recall the taste of dipping the cabbage in ketchup and the juices of the meat spilling out of the cabbage roll. I also taste the bland and dry ‘host’ we would pass from person to person when wishing each other health, wealth, and happiness for the year. I also taste cold butter on rye bread.
Since my grandmother has been gone, it has been interesting to talk with family members, “Oh, do you have her recipe cards?” “No, he has them.” It has brought me a little closer to my cousin, and because she is much older than me I didn’t have much of a relationship with her growing up. But when she texts me asking, “Do you know how to do this?” or “Do you know where to find this?” I feel like it is nice to connect, since my grandmother has been gone for a while. It makes me crave that energy that comes with gathering together over food.
I hear family and friends talking and having fun. I hear the TV on ‘tracking Santa’ and playing Christmas music. I hear people wishing for health, wealth, and happiness before we eat. I feel comfort, excitement, and belonging.
Kate Stanley is a special education teacher and outreach coordinator with Girls Rock! Chicago. She is a Chicago native who enjoys giving back to her city. You can follow Kate on IG at @kat_powr or Twitter @katejstanley. Education blog: /https://katejstanley.blogspot.com/
[ Kate Stanely is photographed in Shabbona Park, Chicago, a park located next to her childhood elementary school, on 120mm film. ]