Growing up, my memories of the kitchen were of being ushered out of it by my mother. Frazzled from a long day at work but committed to putting something homemade on our dinner table – more to please my father than anything to do with us children – she wanted no obstacles, no potential spillages, and certainly none of our eager curiosity in the way as she rushed to peel potatoes or slice raw onions into a cucumber salad. The consequence of her blinkered efficiency was that I didn’t learn how to cook a thing from my mother. Not a thing.
Born in Canada by the skin of our teeth to my immigrant Croatian mother and Hungarian father, it didn’t take long for my sister and I to figure out that we were a little weirder than the Anglo-Saxon kids in our neighbourhood. Carcasses of lambs or pigs were roasted over a spit on our front lawn and thermoses of stewed giblets and cabbage put into our lunch boxes. My mom’s sour cherry strudel stood out at bake sales against the towering Jello molds and Rice Krispie squares, and boneless, skinless chicken breasts weren’t part of our food vocabulary. In spite of my banishment, I was as voracious and grateful a child as could be. My mother’s mysterious, forbidden kitchen with its meaty, paprika-dense scent captured my imagination and I devoured every drop of her sour-cream thickened, crimson stews, her fluffy semolina dumplings and the vinegary cabbage salads that she’d crushed between her fingers.
By the time I was 8 years old my parents had lost their taste for hands-on parenting, leaving my sister and I to fend for ourselves. They ran their tool and die business and we became feral wealthy children. Our bedrooms were full of the latest gadgets – VCRs and Sony Walkmans, but our birthdays went unnoticed and our clothes unwashed. We took advantage of our situation – we were woken up for school by my mother telephoning us from the morning shift and we let ourselves in with keys at night – by cutting school to stay home and play Monopoly. I’d inform the school secretary of our absence in my best 9 year old adult voice and on cue my sister would produce a breakfast of grape ice cream and microwave popcorn. Hemmed in by my parents’ hunger for money and bitter yearning to avenge childhoods of eating maize and cabbage and owning nothing, we began eating sirloin steaks three times a week, the other nights we ordered in pizzas or KFC. Our luscious, peasant evening meals began to disappear. My sister who had loathed our family traditions was delighted but I was devastated. Our dinner table became solemn and lifeless, my parents talking orders and numbers while my sister and I silent like ghosts, ate quickly and disappeared into our bedrooms.