Fifty years ago in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, tall pine trees face a perennial bed of bluebells, geraniums, Black-Eyed Susans, goldenrod and more all bordered by clusters of basil, sage, rosemary, and sweet marjoram. St. Augustine grass covers an acre while a wide, asphalt drive slides down to a dirt road. In the kitchen off the front porch where my grandfather sits in a green cushioned chair reading the Wall Street Journal, my grandmother sweeps diced onions to the side of the cutting board, trimming top and bottom of another onion, peels away the outer layer, slicing root to stem, she places a flat end down then angles the knife tracing evenly placed rows making sure not to cut all the way through, her hands follow the natural curve of the onion, lightly pressing down and holding the rows together she chops parallel to the board, finishing with crosswise cuts. A sweet, stinging mist swirls round her and I pull back for a moment, my eyes watering.
In this memory I’m nine and do not know the word “onion” comes from Latin, cepa meaning “oneness.” I do not know the lament from the Book of Numbers: We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. I do not know the onion originated in central Asia and belongs to the Allium genus, which includes shallots, garlic, leeks, ramps and chives. To me at this age, onions, carrots and potatoes come from an underground world more mysterious than understood. The kitchen looks to me like some laboratory containing secret knowledge found in strange, forbidden books and jars full of exotic spices. Behind my grandmother, running the length of the counter, stand blue jars with name tags reading Thyme, Oregano, Clove, Cumin, Paprika. When she isn’t looking, because she tells me to expose these secrets to the air dilutes their power, I open the lids and breathe in aromas I have no name for, but believe have some unknown power in their invisible bursts of earth and heat. There’s a world of ten thousand things in her kitchen offering creation like the opening lines of Genesis where any fly or fish has its place within a larger eye always watching, always stirring. A magician’s alcove, a scientist’s test tubes, a church of clasped hands and singing voices.
Light-blue pot with black handles. Cast-iron pans. Sky-blue formica counter tops, wood cutting boards. Large, silver roasting pan. Rust-orange oven, stove and range. Small, crystal bowls for cat food and wheat germ. Bread box. Knife holder. Drawers full of spoons, forks, knives, ladles, rolling pins, spatulas, bottle openers and cork-screws, vegetable peeler, scissors, cloth napkins and rings, breakfast boards, potato masher; floor cupboards stacked with small pots, Bundt pan, springform pans, egg timer, scale. Old, brown medicine bottles, green bottles, shaving cups, egg holders, cobalt-blue plates. Rust-orange two door refrigerator. Wood stools with backs and cushions. Garnet -colored linoleum tile floor. A writing desk. Paper, pens, recipe books, address books, newspaper clippings. Photographs of family from Hepbrun, Indiana, Champagne-Urbana, Illinois. A German family settled deep in the Midwest. Knarr. Ebert.
Barbara Keightley, nee Knarr sweeps the second diced onion to the side and begins cutting a third, telling how her mother made goulash on the weekends as a special supper and the whole house would fill with the smell of sweating onions, butter, paprika and beef. She says the President of Germany loved to eat goulash, a midnight treat when he couldn’t sleep. There was always on cook on duty in the kitchen because the president might want his goulash at any time. Friedrich Ebert, she says, liked snail soup, plum cake, white asparagus, Spätzle, Black Forest Ham, but above all he loved goulash. She has told us that we’re related to Friedrich Ebert, first president of the Weimar Republic in Germany. I believe her without question for many years, then as I turn eighteen, nineteen and beyond believe there’s no way she could know such a detail, even doubting that we’re related to the President of Germany, my mouth drops open at my own credulity and family lies, and then with age, with several decades passing I realize the importance of a story regardless of lie or truth, a story grounding us in ourselves and the world around, and return to telling the story to my own children of the nightly haunts of Friedrich Ebert as he cajoles his chef into making goulash at the midnight hour. And, Eberts appear as leaves throughout the Harvey family tree.
I come into the world on August 18, 1963 and nine years later stand in my grandmother’s kitchen watching her open the jar of paprika: sweet smoke, an aroma evoking a roux slowly darkening for an hour, apples and cherries, a deep, arid, burning the nose like the chilies she has hanging on a hook near the stove; a warm, loamy soil, smoke from burning wood, smell of nuts, almonds and cashews, the tea my father’s mother drank in the middle of the day; tarragon, an herb my grandmother loved to cook with. My nine year old and fifty three year old selves discuss all the possible nuances of color hidden in grandmother’s paprika.
Coca-Cola red, shiny red-orange of certain cuts of meat she’d have out on the counter, a rib eye or shoulder, a metallic red like blood we tasted when we tripped on a rug and filed into the corner of a wall, tracing our head open as our mother was on the phone talking to a neighbor, then screaming and calling an ambulance, and my dad held us down in our tiger pajamas as the doctor sewed the stitches, the color of fire which always mesmerized us when my father for the weekend grill sprayed a half-a bottle of lighter fluid onto a mood of coals in his Weber girl, waiting a minute or two, told us to step back, then lit a match tossed it into the dark pit, a pause, then a round of flame shooting through the pit, the arcing upwards, orange, red and yellow flames licking the air and looking for more. And always my grandmother’s world in the kitchen or out in the garden.
Tonight I’ll find Longmeadow Road, the abandoned wood shed in the woods behind my grandmother’s house where I once found the skull of a cat; I’ll remember Freidrich Ebert, the President of Germany who in my grandmother’s stories calls for his favorite meal in the evening; and I’ll call forth my 12th Great Grandmother, Elisabeth Kiefer who gave birth to her son Hans Matthessen in the city of Königsberg in 1550–the time of the Holy Roman Empire, Martin Luther, and the Protest Reformation. Königsberg is now Kaliningrad a city in Russia since the Second World War. A city attesting to the Third Reich, Stalinism and the Cold War. A world I might have lived directly in if Heinrich Ebert had not set sail for America in 1861, and those Kiefers, Meyers, Poths, Quirins, Daubs, Kleins, Schmals, and Eberts who stayed in Germany lived through religious persecutions, pogroms, wars and partitions dividing into Catholic, Protestant and Jewish; West German and East German, German and Russian. From where I am looking back as a great-great grandson of the German Migration to America when seven and a half million arrived in New York City and Baltimore, moving onto Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Indiana Illinois and Michigan, I’m going to cook a goulash for my grandmothers Barbara and Elisabeth, 1972 and 1550, a meal German and Russian, something Angela Merkel, the current Chancellor of Germany would enjoy–a Mock Gulyás meets a Solyanka. Meaning a goulash with beef bones, specifically roast marrow bones, instead of meat and a Russian stew featuring cabbage, bine, pickles, olives, capers, tomato paste.
Though born in Hamburg, Ms. Merkel moved when her father received a pastorate in Perleberg, East Germany. She grew up under Soviet influence and Russian cuisine and soylanka remains a favorite meal of hers, though definitely not KGB behavior, so I’m also cooking with a nod to our leader of the Free World, as it’s called, a standard-bearer for the West at a time when authoritarians, fascists and con-men threaten to undermine its very principles of liberal democracy.
First, let’s roast some beef bone marrow from Farm to Kitchen. I set the oven for 350 degrees, slide split bone into oven, using a pot which will hold this wonderful concoction, and let time take care of the rest. Once brown heading toward dark brown, and the first floor and second floor tremble with a deep umami feeling, I pull the pot out, set aside the marrow, turn on a burner and melt a stick of butter.
Time for some music. I’m a big fan of Gypsy Jazz, with the likes of Django Reinhardt, Stéphane Grappelli, The Quintette du Hot Club de France, and of course, the Hot Club of Detroit performing “J’Attendrai.”
Perfect. I imagine I’m back in the kitchen of a small swing club cooking my Russo-German Goulash as Angela Merkel, Friedrich Ebert, and my two grandmothers drink schnapps and dance. Next, the holy of holies–paprika.
Quite wondrous to absorb the aromas of darkened butter and paprika. Fun note about paprika, featured ingredient in Gulyás from Hungary through Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, Italy, Poland, Serbia, Solvenia, United States and Canada, well this ground spice of Capsicum annuum originates in central Mexico, that’s right the absolutely necessary ingredient of Hungary’s national dish immigrates from Mexico. Another reminder, that all dishes, especially national dishes, do not observe borders. Goulash, an immigrant meal. Let’s slice some onions.
Oh yes. The sweetness of the warming onions along with the earthy butter and spice begins to singe the air around me. Time to turn the goulash to the east, and add the classic ingredients of solyanka: cabbage, olives, capers, pickles, with a nod back to a variation on goulash with sauerkraut.
Immediately, there’s an aroma of sour and salt, savory and sweet. This mix harkens to Northern and Southern Europe, from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean. A peasant dish that now has an elegant, fusion nature. Tomato paste and red wine for a criss-crossing of the Atlantic.
Where did I put those marrow bones? Yes time to submerge these suckers.
While this simmers, I’m going to take Russet potatoes already parboiled and mash them with butter and cream.
The merge occurs. East meets West. Time to serve.
Mashed potato on the bottom, then the stew.
Look at the broth, mashed potatoes, cabbage, pickles, and olives. And after we all wolf this down and then pass out, the next morning we start it up again.
Add a fried egg and a dollop of sour cream with dill. More yum. More naps. So, what have we learned. I can trace my family back to the sixteenth century in Germany, my grandmother formed me as a cook and imaginative provocateur of history, Angela Merkel and my family share a German and Cold War history, and a stew brings it all together along with the Hot Club of Detroit and “Swing One.” Bon Appétit!