Some of my best childhood memories begin at my grandparents’ s house, my father’s parents, whom we called Bunu and Buna, which are the root words of bunica (f.) and bunicu (m.) (meaning grandparents in Romanian), a diminutive meaning good, or the good one. It’s so fitting that we called them that, because in my fortunate childhood both sets of grandparents were safe and beloved people, their homes, kingdoms of wonder that incited both fear and delight.
Bunu and Buna lived in a house about 5 km away from our home. We often walked there, my sister and I, hand in hand to be safe. Or if we had money, took the tram, though that was a less than pleasant experience, as my I was afraid of some of the beggars and pickpockets who rode the trams and particularly liked to give small children stern lectures and sometimes more, regarding our “egalitarian government” who made everyone such varying degrees of poor, there was no equality even in that. Most often we would give them our money, saved for that drippy cone of soft serve banana ice cream, or later (after the fall of the Communist regime) the ever elusive, ever expensive, ever worth fighting one another for every bite, the Twix bar, come to us straight from the exotic Hackettstown, New Jersey.
There would have never been Twix bars at my grandparents’ house, because they were poor, old-fashioned, no nonsense people, who woke and went to be bed, as the expression says, with the chickens. People who mostly grew their own food, whose only frivolity was a flower garden, and elaborate desserts that my grandmother spent days making at Christmas time. They made their own soap, and my grandmother knitted dresses, sweaters and scarves, from wool and occasionally mohair, which was harder to obtain. She loved to needlepoint and on plain white muslin would embroider landscapes and people with thread she dyed in an array of colors. My favorite one was of a young girl herding her geese on the shores of a lake.
Though neither of them had more than four years of primary education, they were learned people. They read the Bible and various poems and hymns in the evenings, sitting with their cups of rose hip or chamomile tea and quiet, buttery lamplight. From the other room in the midst of our child’s loud squealing, we could hear their voices drifting, sometimes reciting psalms, sometimes praying. They loved each other deeply, fiercely, in that quiet way people of a different generation loved each other, without great displays of passion, but with the affectionate twinkling glance, the occasional teasing, the holding of the hand or the arm, the conversation of any and every small thing.
When we were small children, our cousins and us would gather there for playtime in a large swing my father, grandfather, and uncles built for us, a swing that for us was a ship, a house, an airplane, a realm of monsters and fairies. I was captain, teller of adventures, scriptwriter for our plays, sometimes a fairy, a wood nymph, sometimes the various monsters (zmei) or knights from our collective imagination. This time was my precursor to writing. I was bossy, energetic, and tough, and to my mother’s chagrin, without an ounce of girliness in me.
When we tired of the swing, we would run through the garden, hide amongst the tomato stalks, incur my grandfather’s wrath, who dearly loved all living things, especially is grapevines and tomato plants. And with good reason, to this day I’ve never eaten tomatoes like his, grown in a dark, rich soil, ripened under summer’s unforgiving sun, the size of grapefruits and cantaloupes, although to my child’s imagination, the size of pumpkins, or watermelons. Sometimes, we would pick them off the vine, not waiting even for salt, and ate them like apples in the shade of the house. Other times, if our impatient bellies allowed, my grandmother would chunk them, along with fresh green onions, crumbles of salty feta, and a little bit of oil, and we would eat every bite, arguing for who got to dip the bread in the remaining juices. Such pleasure!
If we had been good a few days in a row (which wasn’t very often) we would be allowed to get the eggs from the chicken coop. This was a mostly scary affair, as the hens were territorial and not unwilling to peck our small hands. Some, after laying an egg, would do a tour of the coup crowing loudly and proudly to the others. This was the opportune time to get in there as thieves, and walk away unharmed with our russet, robin’s blue, or golden boon. But more often, the smart and adaptive hens would sit on their eggs, clucking angrily when they saw us, greedy-handed children, and we had to be as gentle and invisible, to get under them and sneak out those beautiful eggs, still warm, truly fresh.
They would get cracked in a pan of searing oil, so that the yolk stayed soft and runny, and the whites would form a crunchy crust, which I loved. We dipped bread in the yolk, bit, dipped into a steaming cup of chocolate, bit. Bliss for our small, sunburned bodies, our aching bellies, and sometimes aching arms and legs from all that running and playing and mischief.
To this day, I can’t eat an egg without thinking of my grandparents, of their stern affection, of their generous feeding of so many of us. They cared for us when our mothers went back to work, their care a benevolence that allowed discovery, adventure, and a little trouble even. My grandfather would sometimes join our games, chase us playfully with a big stick, threatening to punish us for eating fistfuls of unripened grapes. I’ll cut off your head like a snake’s! he would say, and we would scatter laughing, pretending he was our dragon, descended from the mountain to eat us.
I feel such happiness even now thinking of that time, though my grandparents have passed, and missing them has lost some of its ache, though none of its joy. I am in my kitchen cracking eggs into ramekins en cocotte, nestling them upon sliced onions, and fragrant basil leaves. I bake them long enough for the whites to set, but for the yolk to still be soft. We eat them with toast and tomatoes and Brebis sheep’s cheese. I tell my husband these stories, and for a moment we are both there, at that table set outside under the walnut trees, with my grandmother slicing tomatoes at dusk, and we lazily shoo the flies away from all that juice that stains our lips, and fingers, and clothes.
The recipe was inspired by this one from Food52, with adjustments, such as basil instead of arugula, and a splash of milk in each ramekin for added airiness. This dish must be eaten with toast, tomatoes, and salty feta.