This series has shown us the power and the pitfalls of remembering. The work of art that has been featured on our site over these two months is by Florence Winterflood, and it’s called Alzheimer’s Disease. Held by the Wellcome Collection, Winterflood’s oil and ink painting was “created shortly after ‘Mama’, the artist’s grandmother, moved to a nursing home after her Alzheimer’s disease progressed to a stage where could no longer look after herself. ‘She lost a lot of weight, and a broad, strong, matriarch became a feeble, bird-like woman. Yet however small her frame became, her hands remained large and strong and capable.’ The hand, here a strong tangible image, represents the way the body can settle and remain hardy, even when the mind has become chaotic. The maps breaking up the lines of the hand further represent fragmentation of character, particularly in the way Alzheimer’s interrupts neurological pathways in the brain, disrupting and even tearing up, knowledge, thoughts and memories.”
Strength and chaos, breadth and fragmentation, capability and disruption are all represented in the way that recipes are recalled and remembered. As we share them, ingredients can be forgotten, instructions lost, temperatures reset. But it is a recipe’s very capacity for and easy adaptation to communication, generosity, swapping, and donation which gives it such longevity, allowing it to transcend people, time, and space.
In Czech, the word houska means roll, and as one might expect from such a pliant name, the bread has many variations. International cookbooks describe houska as a braided bread roll topped with seeds, salt, or cumin. All of these toppings suggest a savory rather than sweet bread. You can also find recipes for houska that are much sweeter and call for mace, coriander, or lemon zest. Some include citron peel or candied fruit in addition to the raisins. Marie, the proprietor of Little Prague Bakery, in Seattle, and an acquaintance of my mother’s, confirms that this sweet bread is normally called vánočka, but the internet abounds in Czech-Americans who inherited a recipe for a buttery sweet bread called houska. Marie makes vánočka at Christmastime in huge nine-strand braided loaves.
Our houska isn’t very sweet, but it is a Christmas bread (so Marie thinks it should be called vánočka). The recipe calls for braiding, but Mama always makes it in two large loaves. You can braid them, but it’s really too much trouble. It always burns. It is best eaten toasted, with butter and honey. It is flavored with fennel seeds. (Marie says that fennel would be too strong for her customers.) Our recipe comes from my great-grandmother, my mother’s father’s mother, Emma Helen Kolarik Sloan (1895-1992).
Emma Kolarik was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Her parents, Wencil and Helen Zamastil Kolarik, immigrated to the United States, separately, from Bohemia, in the late 1870s. They got married relatively late, a second marriage for him, a first for her. Emma’s mother was almost 40 when she was born. The Kolariks weren’t religious. Emma got “saved” at a rally led by Billy Sunday.
She met Fred Sloan when he came by her home in the Czech neighborhood of Cedar Rapids. He was there selling sweet corn door-to-door using a few words of Czech that he had learned for the purpose. They married in 1919. They had two sons, Fredric (my grandfather) and James.
Emma had high cholesterol and was told not to eat ice cream, but she ate it anyway, in the kitchen, with the serving spoon. Like a lot of evangelical Christians, she was an enthusiastic Zionist. She sometimes said that her family was Jewish, but that probably isn’t true. Her son Jim liked to tell her Czech jokes, just to get her goat. Grandma Sloan made houska during Advent, in braided loaves the size of a cookie sheet. She would cut the loaf into three pieces and send one home with each of her sons’ families when they came over for Sunday dinner. She was 96 when she died.
Grandma Sloan’s short-term memory didn’t work very well during her last years. This is when I remember visiting her. On one visit, I was about ten and I wore my hair in two braids. The ends curled a lot more in the Iowa humidity than they did in western Washington, where the summers were dry. I stood in my braids in Grandma Sloan’s room in the old folks’ home. She greeted each of us, going around. “Oh and how are you? And who is this handsome young man? Oh”—coming to me—“she looks like me when I was a girl!”
Mama made houska around Christmas, most years. I never liked it. I don’t like the taste of fennel.
I looked up houska recipes on the internet a few years back and thought that I had discovered the problem: in the recipe I found, the first step in making sweet houska is to make a sponge. My new recipe contained a full four times the sugar called for in Grandma Sloan’s recipe, twice the fat, and butter instead of shortening, mace and ginger instead of fennel seeds, and candied fruit peel and yellow raisins. I made the bread in the traditional braided shape. It was beautiful. It was delicious. It did not burn.
I called Mama. “I figured out why the houska always burns! You’re supposed to make a sponge! So there’s less sugar left in the dough and it doesn’t burn!” Mama was less than enthusiastic. She read me her recipe over the phone. I wrote it on a recipe card along with notes about the new recipe.
A few days before Christmas this past year, I reposted a Facebook “memory” from 2017, a photo of Mama baking Christmas cookies with my two children. My sister commented asking for the houska recipe. My sister-in-law also asked for the recipe. I posted a photo of my annotated recipe card. Mama replied, “I sent a text with the recipe. Best eaten with butter and honey!”
Many of the recipes we use are filled with memories. I use pastry recipes that go back to my grandmother, probably even further. As I make them I remember her and my mother, I remember them making pies and tarts, and I remember our family eating them together. Many of my family memories, I realize, are centred around food.
15 dkg butter (15 decagrams butter)
Mina Pächter scribbled this recipe down sometime in 1943 or 1944. It had been years since she had made this recipe, years since she had shared it with her family. And Mina knew that she would never again make chocolate hazelnut torte.
It is remarkable that this recipe survives. Mina wrote it down and included it with several dozen others that she and some other women wrote while incarcerated in Terezín. Also known as Theresienstadt, Terezín was in Bohemia and Moravia, a German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia. During its early years, the Nazis described it as a ‘model’ camp for European Jews they deemed worthy of special treatment. It was part ghetto, part concentration camp and, despite the Nazi propaganda, conditions were dire and few survived. 144,000 people were sent to Terezín: 33,000 died there, 88,000 were sent on to Auschwitz and only 19,000 survived.
For as long as they could, the residents of Terezín tried hard to maintain some kind of life for themselves, teaching children, composing and performing music, painting, and writing poetry. But every day, people died and everyone was malnourished. Hunger was constant. Why would anyone who was surviving on watery vegetable soup and little else remember recipes for rich and wonderful food, let alone write them down?
Oder 2 Eßl. Cakau (or 2 tablespoons cocoa)
Mina and women in this and other camps did remember, and when they could procure paper and pencils or pens, they secretly recorded recipes. Survivors of the camps remember women talking amongst themselves, recalling and comparing recipes, sometimes even arguing about the best ways to create certain dishes.
Zitronenschale (lemon rind)
One survivor of Terezín and Auschwitz remembered that camp residents referred to these kinds of discussions as “cooking with the mouth.”(1) Remembering recipes and foodways was comforting, a reminder of family and culture.
3 Eßl. Starken schwarzen Kaffee (3 tablespoons strong black coffee)
Before she died, Mina entrusted the cookbook to a friend and made him promise that if he survived, he would pass it on to Mina’s daughter Anny, who was in Palestine. The manuscript changed hands several times, but almost a quarter-century after Mina’s death, it came to Anny, by then living in the United States.
2 ganze Eier (2 whole eggs)
For Mina, talking about and writing down her recipe for Pächter Torte was not just an exercise in memory, but a longing for the food of yesterday and the life and family it embodied. It was also preserving that memory for family in the future, an act of faith and hope enshrined in handwritten recipes.
2 Dotter (2 egg yolks)
Written on cheap paper in a faded pencil script, the recipe represented family, culture, and heritage. It allowed Anny to connect to her mother and to remember the foodways that had bound them together during her youth.
Warden ¼ Stunde lang fest gerührt(are stirred vigorously for 15 minutes)
Mina Pächter’s recipes are preserved in the collections of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Dann den Schnee von den 2 Eiweiß (then [add] the snow from the two [stiffly beaten] egg whites)
These recipes are evidence of gentle yet powerful resistance to the horrors of genocide. If the Nazi’s Final Solution was intended to erase a people and their culture, then recording, preserving and handing down recipes defied that destructive intent.
20 dkg Mehl (20 decagrams flour)
I believe there is no better way to honor these women than to make their recipes. Weighing out the ingredients and guessing the techniques that were so familiar to Mina that she did not even bother to record them, it is impossible not to think about the suffering of those in the camps. How painful and yet how life-affirming it must have been to remember favorite recipes and the joyful memories of food shared with family and friends. And we can only marvel at these women’s desperation to ensure that at least some of their recipes would survive.
Mehl, geben 1/2 der Masse…
Mehl, geben 1/2 der Masse in eine ausgesch[?mierte] u[nd] ausgestreute Form geben darauf eine feste Marmelade, geben die andere Hälfte der Masse darauf, belegen es mit ein [?] der Hälfte geschnittene Mandeln und backen es 1 Stunde lang. Hält sich 4 Wochen.
Flour, put half of the mixture in a greased and strewn tin [i.e. dusted with sugar] add some firm jam on top, add the other half of the mixture[.] on top, cover it with one [?] of the half cut [i.e. split] almonds and bake it for 1 hour. Keeps for 4 weeks.
Susan E. Cernyak-Spatz, quoted in Cara de Silva, ed., In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy From the Women on Terezín (1996), (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006), xxix.
Simon P. Newmanis Sir Denis Brogan Professor of History (Emeritus) at the University of Glasgow, and Honorary Fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is completing a book on enslaved people in early modern London but hopes to spend more time cooking, thinking and perhaps writing about historical recipes.
He is grateful to Meg Munck for help translating the recipe instructions. The original recipe can be seen as Image 4 of Cookbooks, Stern and Pächter family papers, Collections of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Note: If you would rather, we can even set up a Zoom or Skype meeting and you can teach me how you prepare beans and rice!
Do you have a favorite memory or recipe related to beans and rice?
Throughout the world, people have combined beans and rice to form popular dishes. Together, they form a complete protein, but perhaps even more interestingly beans and rice are foods in a relationship that form a grammar expressing both common histories and local specificities.(1) In particular, beans and rice dishes trace the history of the African Diaspora into the Caribbean, the United States South, and beyond.
I am working on a cookbook of beans and rice dishes, but one that will go a step beyond recipes and offer personal stories related to these dishes. These memories may be more broad in nature (relating to culture or place), or very specific and unique to individual households or experiences. What connections do you have to beans and rice?
If you would like to take part, please submit any or all of the following:
Memories of any length, even a few sentences
Recipes or just an interesting twist you’ve added to a classic
We can even set up a Zoom or Skype meeting and you can teach me how you prepare beans and rice!
Feel free to be creative, but don’t feel pressure to be creative! It’s just an excuse to share a bit with one another. This cookbook is an art project, and part of my thesis work at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. It is not part of a commercial endeavor. The final format may exist in print or online. You will be credited unless you prefer not to be. Please submit contributions or questions to: Heather Ariyeh at email@example.com .
Please ensure all submissions relate to beans and rice together in some way (whether mixed together or separate on a plate). Sides or main dishes are both fine. Any type of rice or bean is fine (including peas, black-eyed peas or cowpeas).
Below is an example submission. I hope you will be inspired, but not limited by it.
Chocolate Beans and Rice: A Recipe from Old and New Dreams
I came to the U.S. illegally, with only my brother at the age of 16. My brother was 15. We left our mother, father, and six more brothers and sisters behind in Guatemala. That was twenty years ago, and we haven’t been able to risk going back home since.
In the U.S., I work in the restaurant business. I always wanted to cook when I was in Guatemala, but never really had the need or the opportunity. In my family it was sort of an unwritten rule that the men don’t cook, but every day after working with my dad on our farm, I would sit in the kitchen with my mom while she was cooking. When I came to the U.S. there was no one to cook for me so I had to learn. I didn’t speak English yet, so I got a job as a server’s assistant in a Mexican restaurant. I couldn’t afford to eat there, but I noticed that the customers were paying $3.99 just for a plate of beans and rice, so that was one of my first experiments. The first few tries did not come out right. I stirred the rice too much and it was almost like a dough, but I realized that I could use this technique to make a certain style of Guatemalan tamale, so all was not lost. Eventually though I figured out my own version of Guatemalan beans and rice – a recipe made partly from what now seems like a dream of my mom cooking back home and partly from the reality of learning on my own. Since I came to the U.S., I’ve reached three out of four of my goals. I have worked my way up from server’s assistant, to server, and for the last five years I’ve been a manager. I’m learning a lot about the restaurant business, but someday I want to have my own place and sell my own food made from my own recipes.
I found family in the U.S… Not the kind you are born into; the kind you make out of the circumstances life gives you. In this family there is a daughter who is ten years old, but I’ve known her since she was two. When she was little, I made her my black beans and rice. In Guatemala, we blend our black beans into more of a paste, but where we live in Oklahoma, whole pinto beans are more common. She had never had Guatemalan food before, so when she saw the beans she yelled, “chocolate beans!” because they looked like chocolate to her. We didn’t know if she would like them since they weren’t going to taste like chocolate, but to this day she asks me to make “chocolate beans” for her.
Wilk, Richard and Barbosa, Livia, Rice and Beans: A Unique Dish in a Hundred Places(London/New York: Berg Publishers, 2013), 304 pages.