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The Personal Essay: The cabbage roll conundrum

“Taking up the majority of the sub-cellar, against a cool, moist back wall that had been hewn out of the bedrock on which the house stood, was an area that stayed consistently cool in all weather, like a natural refrigerator. It held the biggest mound of cabbages and root vegetables I had ever seen.”

NOVEMBER 16, 2017 – The variation in cabbage rolls at my grandparents’ home seemed to be as fully diverse as the colors of the swirling autumn leaves. Always, as the closing of the summer porch began (once the mysterious week of autumn family gatherings had concluded, in the chilly evenings), two things would happen in tandem. The able-bodied men and boys of the family would arrive en masse and help my grandfather to winterize the veranda, swinging big wooden panels and thick canvas into place; and Dora would create a near-rainbow of cabbage rolls in the sunny yellow kitchen.

The dark cellars below the kitchen held the essential keys to both activities. The first cellar held cleaning supplies, cupboards, and cases of canned food, empty ice-boxes of varying vintage, and creaking racks of German wine; many bottles dusty with the decades, some nearly as old as the war. Several bottles of this wine would be consumed by the men during the winterization process. In the shadowy corner farthest from the stairs, the wood and canvas rested for the summer months, then returned to the veranda by cousinly teamwork as the fall winds blew bitter cold, and the sleeting rains arrived. But below this cellar, down a narrow and ill-lit flight of stairs (almost more like a rickety ladder), was Dora’s domain. In one corner, next to the glowing furnace by the front wall, a huge pile of coal loomed. My grandparents’ modern furnace was fueled by oil, and had never burned coal. My grandmother was ambivalent about keeping this coal stockpiled in her sub-cellar.

Yet her housemaid Dora was adamant. Apparently, to appease her, the coal had to stay. “Just in case,” my grandmother would shrug and explain, every time we crept down there to play with the chinking-clink of the decades-old sooty black nuggets, getting filthy in the process. In case of what, I could not imagine. But it was Dora’s kitchen, and Dora’s rules, below stairs.

Taking up the majority of the rest of the sub-cellar, against a cool, moist back wall that had been hewn out of the bedrock on which the house stood, was an area that stayed consistently cool in all weather, like a natural refrigerator. It held the biggest mound of cabbages and root vegetables I had ever seen. More abundant than a supermarket, huge wooden barrels held potatoes, beets, turnips, parsnips, onions, garlic, and (incongruously enough) apples. But most impressive of all was the cabbage mountain.

A cruciferous pyramid, with bowling-ball size cabbage heads, stood on well-worn wooden pallets, and reached all the way to the rough planks of the under-ceiling. “Di kroyt berg,” my grandmother called it. To us kids, it was massive, much bigger than we were, and much bigger than tiny Dora, who seemed unafraid. Our biggest fear was the gigantic drum-head cabbages, which we constantly worried could crush a child, if disturbed.

This was not an idle fear, as Dora was inclined to release a quite large and aggressive ginger cat into the sub-cellar periodically, more like a red-blonde jaguar (with white mittens) to us. This was solely to prevent rodent infestations (the cat was half-wild, and not much of a pet, but it always seemed sleek and well-fed.) This feline was not averse to climbing up the cabbage mountain, and cruciferous heads did frequently roll when it was on the prowl for mice.

We could not understand why my grandmother did not simply buy her cabbages, as needed, at the local supermarket, like every other family did. But she and Dora set great store by maintaining an entire winter’s stock of food (and coal) in the root-cellar’s dark coolness. As we grew older, we began to understand an inherited fear of lack, and also the economy of buying wholesale (“Retail is for goyim!” one great-uncle used to yell, after a few schnapps.)

The cabbage mountain, so carefully assembled beneath stairs in autumn, naturally enough led to the production of cabbage rolls. Dora would discard the dirty, tough, extreme outer leaves, but meticulously peel off the next layer, leaf by leaf. She only ever cut or sliced a cabbage when she approached its more tender inner core. With these stronger outer leaves, she would follow a precise process: they would be blanched in boiling water with a pinch of kosher salt, then left to cool and drain in a battered old colander.

But oh, the varieties! I have never since seen such a vast array of choice in cabbage rolls. Our great-uncle, for whom English was a second language, loved teaching us big words. He called it “the cabbage roll conundrum.” It was a culinary mystery, because for starters, once Dora started deconstructing a head of cabbage, we never knew if it would result in dairy rolls on the blue platter, or meat-filled delicacies on the red platter. The conundrum part of the equation, regardless of the color of the platter, was which cabbage roll to choose first; for Dora typically presented her cabbage rolls in a peacock-like display of carefully arrayed color, and it felt like selecting the first cabbage roll would be demolishing a delicate work of art.

It was hard to pick. For a dairy meal, they might be dark green leaves holding a blend of cottage cheese, egg, chopped nuts, and sweet spices binding the rice filling. Or paler green cabbage leaves containing caraway seed-flavored shredded beets with shredded apple, egg, and rice – the surprise filling. The red cabbage leaves often held a mixture of wild rice with wild mushrooms, finely chopped scallions, sour cream, and melting cheese. Dora would typically bake the covered rolls with tin-foil in the oven, with a bit of milk, water, and butter to keep the leaves tender.

The meat-filled cabbage rolls got even wilder, and more diverse. Beyond the standard spiced ground beef and rice, Dora would prepare crinkly Savoy cabbage leaves rolled with ground lamb, rice, chopped mint, and garlic. She even did a red cabbage variation with an almost gefilte fish-like filling. Chicken and onion fillings also often made a surprise appearance. Most of the meat-filled cabbage rolls were slow-baked in the wood-fired oven with a tangy tomato-based sauce.

I never could figure out where these particular recipes came from. Their culinary secrets died with Dora. Perhaps they were a particular regional delicacy in whatever tiny little Mitteleuropa mountain village Dora originally came from. Perhaps, given the abundance and array of foods in the New World that Dora could access (and stockpile) in my grandparents’ transplanted American home, the cabbage rolls were simply the spontaneous artistic expression of a woman who had precious few opportunities for creativity in other areas of her life.

Either way, as the cabbage rolls heralded the arrival of the autumnal cool weather, their beautifully presented colors and textures brought to mind the magic carpet of majesty of nature’s falling leaves, proudly borne to the table by a bird-like woman in a starched apron, beaming from ear to ear as the assembled company eagerly demolished her artwork.

Tspora Roth is actually a fabulous cook, and knows quite a few good jokes. Email her at cornmother@outlook.com.

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