It has been seventeen years since my family emigrated from Romania, leaving behind all that was familiar and simple, for a country where, we believed, milk and honey flowed unabashedly. Where material prosperity would mean generosity of spirit. Where celebration would be the course of every day reality. In some ways we have found it to be so, although the initial disenchantment that follows all desired things inevitably came, and had to be embraced. And in the embracing of that, we found a new home. But this is a story for another time….
Of the many things my adolescent self didn’t anticipate, longing was the most surprising of all, longing for what had been the only home I knew. A place where poverty and plenty intersected in bizarre and beautiful ways. A place where the queues for milk or bread were hours long, where butter and bananas were luxury, but where the summer markets spilled over with sour cherries, radishes the brightest fuchsia, watermelon so sweet it made the brain hum with happiness. I loved the markets as a child, the toothless women selling bunches of spinach and spring onions, lily-of-the-valley bouquets. I loved the voices of people haggling for tomatoes the size of cantaloupes, arguing over whose blackberries were the ripest, and I would sneak away with the boon of a wild strawberry to satisfy my never-ending child hunger.
After the markets came the best part: my mother magically turning what I saw as disparate ingredients into beloved dishes. Stews with bright vegetables and sparing meat, to which my father would add red or green chilies for a bit of burn. Soups finished off with luscious dollops of sour cream, dill or parsley.
On the weekends, my mom would ask what we were craving, and my predictable answer was potatoes or matzoh ball soup (yes, I was strange little kid).
Though childhood has now slipped, and the mother country has faded a bit into the stuff of stories, the longing for its familiarity still catches me unawares. I turn a corner sometimes and smell bread baking, and I am in Iasi again, walking home after waiting in line, clutching a plastic bag which is slightly melting from the heat of fresh bread.
Or I walk into my parents’ now house in a quiet suburb of Charlotte, and for a moment I am back home, where my mother’s golden head is bent over a pot of steaming soup, and her voice exclaims in delight that the spherical matzos are weightless as clouds. I sit at the table, and turn eleven again, asking for seconds and thirds, not worrying about calories or nutritional value, but intoxicated with this moment where my soul and body become satiated, before the hunger sets in again.
I make this soup for my husband, for my friends, some of which don’t know where Romania is on a map, but who eat this cross cultural dish, and for a few minutes share in a small thread of my childhood, and whatever I thought was lost, comes back to me fuller, sweeter, and more complicated than before.
Smitten Kitchen has a gorgeous matzoh ball soup recipe here which, from all the ones I’ve researched, comes the closest to my mother’s.
To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing — the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again.
–Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping