A Living Record

My grandmother made amazing apple pies. Being a grandmother in Pennsylvania, I think it’s a requirement. I’d come downstairs on a weekend afternoon and grandma would be in the kitchen, with or without mom. She’d be mixing the dough with two knives (she never used a mixer), or rolling out the dough with a floured rolling pin. She’d have her graying curls pulled back behind a paper towel, held in place with bobby pins. She’d have flour smeared over one of the knit shirts she always wore. And she’d have this determined look on her face.

She always knew exactly what she was doing. She’d glide through the recipe on muscle memory alone, whizzing around, tossing things into bowls without even measuring. There was no need for measurement. No need for recipes. No need to stop and think. She just knew. Watching her bake a pie was like watching a professional painter at work: it would just keep looking better and better, and every time you thought she was done, there’d be one more detail. It was always something you knew you’d have missed. But she never did.

My grandmother is gone. It’s hard to believe she’s been gone for almost twenty years. In her absence, my mother took over. She still bakes the Easter bread, gets the basket blessed. She still bakes those pies, and does it with her hair behind a paper towel, held with bobby pins.

“Slow food”, they say, is a dying art. While it may be making a comeback with my generation, there’s still a sense that so much of human culinary tradition is being permanently lost. Having grown up in an Eastern European family, that’s something I am keenly aware of. Eastern European cooking is exceedingly complex and labor intensive: it requires some truly incredible skills, patience in no small measure, and time. And all of that is in short supply these days.

Lately, I think a lot of us have been keenly aware of what stands to be lost. All of us, to some extent or another, have been forced to confront mortality; to realize our time on this planet will eventually end. That nothing lasts forever, at least not without work. With each generation, there’s the persistent fear that this is it; that this is where these traditions end. And with each tradition that ends our family, and our species, loses something. Something unique and wonderful. Something irreplaceable.

My mother’s recipes, many taken from my grandmother, have long been written on recipe cards, stuffed into a little box. When I was a kid, I hated that box. It was so cluttered and chaotic, and every time mom asked me to find a particular recipe I knew I’d first spend minutes (or hours) sifting through one recipe after another, all unfamiliar, likely never used. Back then, I didn’t want to spend that much time doing anything. Today, age has given me the benefit of perspective. As such, now that I finally have all this time at the house, with mom and dad, rather than rushing off after a few days to my career and life in Cincinnati, I decided to embark on a long-intended project. I was going to digitize mom’s cookbook.

It began almost two years ago with a simple idea. I use Google Drive for nearly everything, and I started wondering why I shouldn’t use it for mom’s recipes as well. No more cards, no more copying and re-copying, no more musing over what this says or what that means. Just the family dishes, preserved for posterity. I’d been telling mom I would do this for years, but there was never enough time. Every time I visit Sharon these days, it’s a brief trip. A few days. A week at most. Then I’m gone again, rushing home. Never enough time.

Well, that’s not the case at the moment.

So, a few weeks ago, I sat down in front of my computer with mom’s recipe box and a mission. Initially I just planned to copy everything down. Then I thought about letting my sister know, as well as my cousins Amy and Laura. No doubt they’d be interested, too. I figured this would be a good resource for anyone trying to recapture our childhoods, spent in Betty Kurpe’s kitchen. I wasn’t really prepared for what happened next.

Somehow, what began as a simple data entry project evolved into family bonding. We started sharing recipes, memories, reminiscing about my grandmother. Comfort is sorely needed right now, and through the common bond of food the four grandchildren of Betty Kurpe found a chance to come together, though we were miles apart. And in so doing, we added to our shared experience of this unprecedented moment in time.

Each of us, every human, is more than just another living thing. We are living witnesses; records of historical events from a unique perspective, wholly irreplaceable. Each life that ends takes a lifetimes of experiences along for the ride. And any of those experiences that hadn’t been shared, related, or recorded, are lost forever.

Grandma Kurpe wasn’t just a great cook. She wasn’t just a grandmother, known for her tight hugs and enthusiastic smile. She was a witness. She was a child of immigrants. She survived the Great Depression. She worked in a factory during the second World War. She visited her boyfriend, an infantryman, when he was shot, making her the only member of our family at the time to have seen Alaska (the infantryman became my grandfather).

Decades of incredible history transpired through her eyes. And that made her a living record of some of the most momentous events in history. Looking back, I consider myself privileged to have heard her stories about delivering newspapers during the depression, her parents learning English by reading the Sunday comics, life on the home front during the war. And though I sometimes worry about what else might have been lost, that’s not important. Time moves us all. Memories, like photos and newspapers, fade with time. But memory, like mom’s recipes, is about preserving what we can. It’s about holding on as tightly as possible to what’s truly important.

Rest assured, we will all be talking about this for the rest of our lives. One day our children, and our grandchildren, will ask us about this point in time. About the year we lost. About the time everybody stayed home. And we’ll tell them about how we were scared. How we all wore face masks. How hand sanitizer was more expensive than beer. How gas was dirt cheap and we all had nowhere to go. How all the businessmen lost their jobs, and grocery workers became heroes. And how we coped by baking sourdough, learning TikTok dances, and keeping up relationships through our phones.

But as a friend recently informed me, historians today aren’t interested in the basics, in broad strokes. It’s the twenty-first century. It’s all been said. They want something more intimate; they don’t want the story, they want yours. And just as my grandmother relayed her stories to me, I’ll have mine to tell. About how I left my home in Cincinnati to quarantine with my parents, because I was afraid to get sick alone. About how my mom (a nurse) sent my sister a video on facemask etiquette. And about how a handful of family recipes helped bring everyone together in a time of tragedy.

I say it all the time: we all have our story to tell. And never let anyone tell you your story is any more or less important than anyone else’s, because it’s not. It’s yours, and you are a piece of the puzzle: unique, irreplaceable, and thus invaluable. So as we continue to wait and hope, to stay safe and isolate, take a second here and there to really exist in this moment. Think about it. Breathe it in. And write it down, even if it’s just musings or notes. Because we can only hope we’ll never experience anything like this again. – MK

This piece is part of an ongoing series, called #WritingthePandemic. I encourage all other writers on WordPress, Twitter, and elsewhere across the world to join me in sharing our stories as we #StayAtHome together.

The picture above is of my grandmother, Betty Kurpe, with my sister and my cousin Jack, circa 1993

Mom’s Banana Bread

A classic American staple, this dense fruit bread is one of my favorites. Banana bread, as with many fruit and nut breads, first appeared on American tables with the introduction of baking powder in the late 19th century. For me, banana bread has long been synonymous with home. Almost every time I visit mom and dad I leave with a loaf. I usually get back to Cincinnati with a quarter loaf, or just the foil the loaf came in.

Ingredients:

4 bananas (overripe, mashed)

2 cups flour

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

½ cup margarine

½ tsp baking powder

½ tsp baking soda

½ tsp salt

½ cup chopped walnuts (optional – mom never added the nuts)

Directions:

Place bananas on a large plate and mash with a fork until smooth. Cream margarine with sugar, then add eggs one at a time. Continue to stir, then add salt, baking soda and powder while stirring. Add bananas, then flour. Stir until well-mixed (grandma always said “when you think you’re done stirring, stir some more”), then pour batter into greased, floured bread pans. Place in oven at 350 degrees for 45-60 minutes. Test with toothpick (when it comes out clean, it’s done). Remove from oven and allow to cool. Makes three loaves.

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