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Alzheimer’s Stole Everything From My Grandmother—but Not Her Most-Loved Dish

Food52 logo Food52 12/4/2018 Suzanne D'Amato

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that’s meaningful to them and their loved ones.

a plate of food on a table © Provided by Food52

I never knew my maternal grandmother well. We’d visit her at her clapboard house in Connecticut every couple of years, where the cooking smells beckoned but the carefully-vacuumed Vs in the carpet made me nervous. What I remember most clearly is playing in the yard with my cousins—jumping over the sprinklers, giddy with sunshine, while the grown-ups talked inside. Those trips aside, my relationship with her consisted of dutiful holiday phone calls (mine) and birthday cards with $25 checks written in careful cursive (hers). Other kids were closer with their grandmothers, but I never saw the distance between us as a particularly bad thing—we lived in California, after all.

Still, over the years, I heard a lot about her, mostly from my mom: that she was born in Poland, then emigrated to the States with my grandfather after World War II. That she was a marvelous cook, known for her babka, beet soup, and especially her pierogi, which she churned out 75 at a time, stuffed with everything from sauerkraut to blueberries. She was also a graceful dancer and an expert seamstress, with a wicked sense of humor and a taste for fancy dresses. These were stories I’d heard hundreds of times, the details worn down to smoothness by repetition.

But after her Alzheimer’s developed, I learned much more.

I was in high school, and my interior life centered around Friday afternoons at the mall, “Beverly Hills, 90210,” and thrilling-to-me violations of our school dress code. Family concerns were not exactly top of mind. Still, as I sat at the kitchen table doing homework, I couldn’t help but overhear snippets of my mom’s weekly calls with her mother. Typically, they were chatty and meandering: what the kids were up to in school, who was getting married, the anticipation surrounding an upcoming trip to Florida. But more and more often, they were oddly truncated. My mom would ask her usual questions, only to get what seemed like one-word answers. Five minutes later, she’d hang up the phone, her brow knitted with worry.

After awhile, I asked my mom what was going on. She set her mouth in a line and looked away for a moment, then told me: Her mother had Alzheimer’s. She’d been growing more distant over time, but now it was interspersed with periods of paranoia. Recently, she’d even become convinced certain people were trying to kill her. “Her doctor tells us that’s just what happens with Alzheimer’s,” she said, “but there’s more to it with Babcia.” And then she shared my grandmother’s full story.

She was born in a village in southeastern Poland in 1922, the youngest of seven children. Her father was a farmer, her mother a housewife who would die of tuberculosis when my grandmother was 10 years old. Still, they were considered fortunate: Their house was the only one in town that was made of brick, indicating that they were a prosperous family.

In 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Poland. An army entered my grandmother’s town and marched the whole family out of that brick house at gunpoint. They were herded onto a waiting train, stuffed into the cattle cars, and dispatched on a long, unforgiving journey. Their destination was a forced labor camp in Siberia. She was 17 years old.

My grandmother’s job in the camp was sawing down trees in the icy outdoors. Her rations were limited to one bowl of cabbage soup per day, plus a piece of bread (though her oldest sister, who worked in the kitchens, would sometimes sneak her a little more). She lived there for two years before being transferred to a refugee camp in what is now Tanzania—an eternity, but still, she was grateful: Many others didn’t make it that long.

After the war, she made her way to England and met my grandfather, a former Polish soldier who himself had narrowly escaped death in a mass execution that came to be known as the Katyn massacre. They were both survivors, and in 1948, they married, then had two children, emigrated to Connecticut, and quickly got jobs in the American factories that were thriving at that time. Her life took on contours she may have never imagined: Trips to the beach, going out to dance on New Year’s Eve. She made the pierogi she remembered from Poland while also adopting a new American tradition: takeout pizza with the kids on Fridays.

Still, what she’d experienced during the war always simmered near the surface. Simple, everyday moments could take a turn: She might see children at the playground, then remember her young nephew, who had died on the train as it tore its merciless path through the forest. (Other passengers suggested just flinging the small corpse out in the snow, but the family managed to bury him.) My uncle’s German Shepherd might make her think of the dog she’d loved as a girl, who was shot and killed by soldiers while she stood nearby, frozen in shock. These were the stories that were known to her family, anyway. “I think she had experiences she didn’t tell us about,” my mother said.

As Alzheimer's slowly enveloped her, and she began to lose her sense of the present—movie titles, directions, occasionally my mother’s name—such dark memories seemed to hold her in their grip.

My grandmother died in 2001, and her recipes went with her. She’d never kept a recipe box or wrote down the secrets to any of her dishes, including the pierogi that everyone loved so much. “She just refused to measure anything out,” my mom said. “I’d ask her, ‘How much? A teaspoon? A tablespoon?’ ‘Just eyeball it’ was always her response.” I suppose that in this sense, it’s not quite accurate to say that Alzheimer’s “stole” her pierogi recipe. It’s more that it robbed her of everything else: her warmth, her humor, her sense of belonging, her ability to trust.

A few years ago, my cousin Maribeth, who grew up in Connecticut and therefore ate Polish delicacies at my grandmother’s table many more times than me, sought to recreate the famed pierogi. After months of experimenting with ingredient ratios, she’d done it: come up with a recipe for potato-cheese dumplings that, according to my uncle, taste just like Babcia’s. (“It’s in the dough,” he said, “and the dough is the most important part.”) Maribeth shared it with me so we could have something approximating a family recipe.

One day this fall, I endeavored to make the pierogi. Three hours later, I was still endeavoring. I’d halved Maribeth’s recipe, which originally yielded 110 dumplings, to make it more manageable. Still, dumpling rounds polka-dotted every available surface in my tiny Brooklyn kitchen.

After rolling out, cutting, and filling the pierogi, my hands ached. The work was surprisingly calming, even meditative—but lonely, too. I tried to imagine making them with my grandmother, but struggled to picture the scene. Would we laugh and trade gossip, or roll out dough together in companionable silence? Would she be patient and generous with her knowledge (as I thought seemed appropriately grandmotherly), or would she shoo me out of her kitchen, fed up with my lackluster skills (as she was known to do to my own mother)? I was seeking a type of intimacy, but what greeted me instead was a hollowed-out feeling. So much seemed impossible to ever know.

Once I’d made the pierogi, I flopped on the couch to rest for a minute. But not for too long—I was curious to sample my creations. Gently browned in melted butter and slathered in sour cream, they were simple yet deeply satisfying. I devoured a plateful, then tucked the remaining 50 away in the freezer.

Over the coming weeks, I ate them again and again: when I was home sick from work; on a rainy night alone in front of the TV; when I was missing my mom and thinking about how much she must miss her own mother. “What I loved most is when we would go out and visit, back when you were younger,” my mom said. “She would get the biggest kick out of being around her grandkids and having the whole family together.”

Those days had passed, but still I made Babcia’s pierogi—on their own, but also with caramelized onions, sautéed Brussels sprouts, or cabbage and apples. Each time, as I sat down to eat, I thought about whatever minor ordeal I was caught up in at that moment: work stress, a disagreement with a friend. Then I took a pillowy, comforting bite, and remembered.

a plate of food on a table © Provided by Food52

Potato-Cheese Pierogi

By Suzanne D'Amato

  • 2 1/2 pounds potatoes
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/4 whole onion, chopped
  • 4 ounces farmer's cheese
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons sour cream
  • 1/2 stick melted butter
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon sugar

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