On cabbage rolls, Jewish melancholy, and becoming my mother . . .
By Gala Mukomolova
Do you know what golubki are? They’re rolls of (primarily) meat wrapped in cabbage, highly common in Russia and the countries that border it. I was born in Moscow, Russia, but my mother was born in Odessa, Ukraine. According to her, we are neither Ukrainian nor Russian but Jewish. Jewish or not, golubki are common to both countries, and my mother prepared them all through my childhood. Even now she makes them — vegetarian — for me. My mother used to call me her Golubchik, but she didn’t mean sweet little cabbage roll (which is what a soft ending like chik can do to a noun). She meant dear, little darling, dove. Either the rolls I am preparing are from a town called Golubki in Poland, or they are suggestions of doves, which is to say: hopeful (in the midst of starvation), dear (as a child who is loved, fed).
Let me tell you what these doves are made of, how. You start with the head of cabbage, green. Core the stem, or try to. I haven’t perfected coring, so I try my best by slicing the stump off and knifing around it. I choose to believe that the deep cuts I make will be enough; I practice trust. Bringing a large pot of water to rolling boil, I lower in the cabbage head carefully. I know about fate, or fate knows me. Ann Arbor, despondent with jobless-ness, I walked into my neighborhood deli to buy rye bread. Standing in line, I heard the proprietress sigh heavily: everything is a mess — I can’t seem to find any help. Who am I, hungry, to question what the world sets before me like a meal? The next morning I found myself pinching pierogi beside her. And, after two days, she was on her way to Poland, leaving me in charge of a deli named after an astronomer who aimed to prove that Earth circles the Sun.
How could it be otherwise? In the back kitchen of Copernicus, I am pulling blanched cabbage leaves from their large green globes. When a leaf is tender, one pair of tongs is enough to pull it free. When my mother’s arthritis acts up or her back pinches, she places the tendered cabbage leaf where the pain pulses, and wraps the whole area in cellophane, then in wool. As heat generates between the layers, the green leaf absorbs the pain and grows thick with it. My mother learned this spell from her mother, a woman who could pull mercury from a thermometer and burn the fungus off a man but could not read or write. I was raised to believe that the women in my family were alchemists; that cabbage leaves were nothing short of magic.
Yesterday I prepared jasmine rice, today I chop an onion into fine bits and cry from it until I can’t see to the chopping. No onion trick has ever worked for me, and for this reason I am swayed to believe that my tears are something of a necessity. I take breaks to rest my eyes before returning. The meat, rice, and onion must be mixed by hand, which I do dutifully, salting and peppering, although I don’t eat meat. My purpose is an even-handed tenderness, a thorough turning over. When we left Russia, it was1993 and the riots were just beginning. My brother kept coming home from the black market beaten bloody over selling VHS tapes or cassettes or something else petty on some other kid’s turf. My father was a disabled man with a heart condition, and his doctors all prescribed America — because they were fleeing there. As Jews, we had nothing to lose by leaving a country that hated us.
When we arrived in Brooklyn, I was five. I wore a blue dress my mother had converted into a snowflake costume for a children’s pageant in Moscow. So, when I arrived in Brooklyn, in August, I was a small blue snowflake. I brought no toys with me, no books, no pet, and for a month we all slept on my aunt Ester’s floor with roaches roaming over us. Throughout the night the Q train shook the tracks over Brighton Beach, but the streets were filled with old women who had my name, and every so often I’d see a girl with a braid woven long and tight like mine.
In a saucepan, I pour a little oil, crush a good amount of garlic and add chopped onions. You might wonder if this recipe is too heavy with onions, but I will tell you that onions must be heavy here because they are bitter when raw and sweet when tended to. A recipe for doves must require an immeasurable amount of tears — if they are to be delicate —and yet strong enough to sustain. I let the onions brown before pouring in a 28-ounce can of diced tomatoes, a few cups of water or bouillon, and setting it all to boil. Boil then simmer before adding dashes of marjoram, dill, oregano, thyme, and three bay leaves. Each time, the spices are different, only the bay leaves remain consistent.
My mother opened up a deli. It was in deep Bensonhurst, far from Brighton Beach and its familiar clientele, far from any clientele really. My mother wasn’t and never has been a businesswoman. Her eldest sister Ester had a son named Michael who was the same age as my mother. It was he who sold her on the idea. He wanted a partnership. What he must have recognized in her: an unshakeable work ethic. Each morning she left early to open the shop, unlocked the door scraped clean of rust and grime, crossed the floor she’d scoured of mouse droppings and whole herds of roaches — tiled and waxed to shine —and began the daily task of refreshing each deli case: house-made cakes, blintzes, Russian salads, pickled tomatoes soaked in honey, and — what else — cabbage rolls.
When I return to the cabbage leaves, they are cool and limp, ready. I palm the meat mixture and cradle it where the cabbage is thickest, where it once clung to a root. Pulling the sides up and over, I tuck the meat in; I swaddle it. Using raw cabbage leaves, I line a Dutch oven and row by row the golubki fill it up. They are potent and tender. Something about their thin skin evokes the word gentle even as I layer each roll firmly into place. Gentle the way a bird might be or my mother might have been but wasn’t.
Perhaps she called me Golubchik because I have always had thin skin, quick to wound or weep. Or, perhaps it is the task of a mother to teach you in what ways you are weak. Here is the meat of it, the tender part: the years of my childhood when my mother owned a deli were years I did not know her. My father (who could not work) tended me and tucked me into public school.
Between worlds, I had too much language and not enough, and because of this I was a child who rarely spoke from a place of want. To express want was a sign of weakness, and I trained myself around it. When my brother gave me a piggy bank for my birthday, I filled it ritually with quarters. When I found the bank empty and the family laundry done, I crawled into a closet, cried, and began the task of filling it again. When my mother found out she had cancer, I became her champion and her translator. It was my mission to explain the benefits of nipple reconstruction, the difference between benign and malignant, silicone and saline. It would be simple enough now to tell you I was terrified. I was a child. I didn’t want to be anyone’s champion and perhaps that is why I failed her, why the implant never took, and the right side of her chest is a site of trauma — shame.
Because of the chemo, because business was never good, and because her nephew was less of a business partner and more of a financial vampire, my mother shut her deli down. To do so meant to lose tens of thousands of dollars we never had to lose. To make ends meet she began to make food for local restaurants. What I mean is: she sat in a kitchen chair, drenched with sweat from oven heat and chemo chemicals, directing me through each recipe. After school and on weekends, under the glaring red eye of her surgical scar, I rolled out dough after dough into long thin sheets for cake layers, pierogi and varenyky. I did this methodically, often to the sound of her crying.
Finally, I pour the red sauce over the golubki, making sure that it covers the top-most layer. I add water if I need to. On a stove top, I set the whole Dutch oven to boil. After boiling, the golubki must sit for three hours and simmer. Simmer as in think too much, I joke too myself, and it’s the joking that keeps me company. Fate might have brought me to this deli, but for hours it has not brought any customers. Copernicus, heliocentric: the Earth circles the Sun. How could it be otherwise? Golubchik, I have flown back around, I circle my mother. It’s been five days (at least) since I’ve called her because we fought about how I don’t call her. I should do it now — I tell myself the way all Jewish daughters tell themselves — but I won’t. The onions have given me my fill of crying. Besides, I know she can feel me, even all the way on the east coast. Today I am a small planet in her orbit. I am summoning her in this empty deli, repeating her name with so many doves in my hands.
Gala Mukomolova received her MFA from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program. She is a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in a variety of places including Indiana Review, Drunken Boat, and PANK. She has resided at the Vermont Studio Center, the Pink Door Retreat, and Six Points Fellowship: ASYLUM International Jewish Artist Retreat. Monthly, she impersonates an astrologer for TheHairpin.com under the moniker Galactic Rabbit. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.