"Darn," I sighed,wishing I could say something more colourful but knowing I couldn't use those words with my two little ones in the room, "I wish you had warned me, so I had time to prepare something really special."
My husband Mickel looked abashed.
" I only found out yesterday from Mama that grandma Irena wanted this. I didn't even know she was still in Michigan. I thought they'd already left. But don't worry; anything you fix will be terrific."
Now I am known in my family as a good, even awesome, cook. I love cooking, and my specialties include tender roast beef, lamb with tiny vegetables, and of course, desserts. Actually I am proudest of my desserts: melt-in-your-mouth cakes, scrumptuous puddings and fruit pies, frosted brownies redolent with nuts, and a baked Akaska that wins prizes at every county fair. In the O'Connell family, I am practically a legend. A modest legend of course. But I have not often cooked anything for my husband's family, mostly because A) they haven't asked me to cook and B) they are Russian so my Irish-based style is a bit foreign to them. When they come to dinner here, I usually fix a simple meal of meats,veggies and potatoes, because those seem to be what they prefer. At least, I think they prefer them. They never say. But this week, apparently Mickel's grandmother,who is visiting here from Seattle, wants to hold a reunion before she goes back home. Cousin Alexia's wedding was the occasion that brought her and Aunt Sofia here, and in a few days they will fly home, so the family wants one more get together first.
I have only met her twice, but I know Irena Maria Radoskofsky prides herself on her ancestry. She tells stories about growing up in Russia, says they were aristocrats who left during the revolution, and claims to have known the last tzar, which I greatly doubt since that would make her over a hundred. She dresses always in black, strums on a balaliaka and sings Russiam folk songs in an off- key mezzo soprano voice, occasionally dancing around the room with a tambourine of shells. According to Mickel, all her grandchildren and great grandchildren love her. Our little twins are only two, so they don't really hold any opinions yet about great grandma.
But back to the reunion. "All right," I said. "Let me think about what will impress her."
After deep cogitation (I love big words that sound impressive) I decide to make some old-style Russian meal;
you know, impress her with my knowlege and ease with ethnic dishes. I know: I will make borscht. Problem is, I don't even know what that is! Definitely not a meal common in County Tyrone. Wikipedia is very helpful. According to them, it's an ancient soup made originally from pickled hogweed stems which developed into a beet soup eventually. I'm glad it developed, because I don't believe our local stores carry hogweed. I don't even think anybody carries hogweed! But I did learn that beets, in addition to staining everything a deep red, are actually a good source of several vitamins and minerals, strengthen the heart and liver, may fight cancer and high blood pressure, and have plenty of antioxidents. Maybe I should cook with them more often. Okay. I need beef broth, beets of course, carrots, potatoes, tomato paste, red wine vinegar and can add celery, tart apple slices, zucchini or turnips if I so desire. That's quite a bit of prepping there, but then there will be a large group if they all come: Mama and Papa, Irena Maria with Aunt Sofia, Aunt Stafa and Uncle Feodor, Aunt Lisa, and cousins Theresa,Lydia and Christina, who will bring her boyfriend I know. Probably not Alexia and her new husband, but there will be the little kids too. So I need quite a large pot of soup, and maybe some crusty breads with it.
On the Saturday of the reunion, I got up really early to fix my borscht fresh. I didn't do the zuchini, but I did chop up some tart lady apples,turnips and carrots with the potatoes and beets. Of course I was caught red-handed (haha) by my husband, who wasn't too pleased that he had to bathe, feed and change the twins so they stayed their normal colour. It steamed for several hours, and to me it looked, well, like borscht. Mickel said it had a good taste,and he should know.
Finally we left for the reunion, with borscht in the pot and three loaves of potato bread for dipping. I hoped three would be enough, but Mickel said not to worry, because there would be tons of food there. All his aunts were terrific cooks.
Mama was already setting up when we got there. She had a huge crock pot going, and was setting out bowls and spoons with it, so I asked what she had brought. "Borscht," she proudly answered. 'Grandma Irena loves it, so I thought I would make her favorite dish."
Oh-oh. Well, two pots of borscht for that crowd would be okay. But I hope she brought bread too.
Aunt Stafa arrived next. She had a huge soup tureen, and some crusty bread. Nervously, I asked "What's in your pot?" and to my horror heard "Borscht. It's grandmama's favorite dish."
Aunt Liza and cousin Theresa were next to arrive, together but not happily together, if you know what I mean. Both had big steaming pots of...you guessed it: Grandmother Irena's favorite. This was getting serious. Cousin Lydia, cousin Christina, even the newlyweds, same response. Borscht. Borscht. Borscht. Last to arrive were the guests of honor, Aunt Sofia and Irena Maria Radoskofsky. You will never guess what they brought.......PIZZA! But only enough for the little.kids. "Because," explained Irena Maria, " We knew they wouldn't enjoy what we brought. Mickel, there's a big kettle of borscht in the back. Would you get Uncle Feodor and Christina's boyfriend to help you carry it please?"
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