Cafe Society

Culinary treasures are revealed through a family's history

Page 3 of 3

In Bratislava, the country's capital, Lucka served apricot jam at breakfast and plum dumplings after dinner. In the morning, I listened as she spoke across the fence to a neighbor in a language and accent as familiar to me as my own breath. In the middle of the week-long visit, she took me to meet her friend Margaret, who served us Nescafe and ice cream. I watched them talk in Margaret's formal living room, with silver-framed photographs and vases of intricately hand-carved Czech crystal. It was such an ordinary scene: two old women, both widows, both Auschwitz survivors, bonded in a way I could never understand, chatting in that still, hot place. The old people of my childhood drifted into my mind, the displaced Czechs and Hungarians in their London rooms. Mr. Nachod, who walked the neighborhood with his black spaniel, Blescu, and sometimes let me filch the brown sugar cubes he had specially sent from Europe from his sugar bowl. And gentle, tiny Auntie Marta — Martaneni — lying in her bed in a darkened room. The first time I visited her alone, when I was nine, she directed me to a bottle of cognac hidden in a top drawer and suggested I take a sip. I did. It felt wicked and wonderful; I can still feel the slow burn behind my breastbone.

I have dumplings in the freezer now, little rocks in misted plastic made with last summer's apricots. My daughter, Anna, will visit soon with her two boys, and we'll put together meals from the array of cuisines available to us, frying hamburgers, making quiche or pizza, ordering takeout from the Nepalese place down the street. One night, if someone remembers, I'll rescue the dumplings from the freezer and warm them up for dessert. We'll make sure baby Aubrey has bits of banana to occupy him on his high-chair tray and appease five-year-old Clarkie — who won't want to touch that nasty-looking gray thing — with chocolate. But Anna has been to Bratislava and has seen the apricot trees. She knows about the three kinds of currants in Lucka's garden. She'll pick up her fork, pierce the gray carapace of the dumpling, smile at me briefly, and drive toward the piercing sweetness of the center.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman