My dad calls us “mutts.” We’re Europeans, no doubt, but after five generations in
Chicago, the past is so far behind us that the heritage of towns, countries, and family names in Europe are now blended into short lists of great-great grandparents, stacks of unlabeled photographs, and stories about life in London, in Bohemia, in Germany, and in Dublin (though no one can speak to their truth or accuracy). These histories are sometimes recollected during the times we are all gathered for the holidays: the times we cook, eat, sleep, and cook again. Papa and Sweetie’s house is in the southern suburbs, and it’s in that cramped, Christmas-laden kitchen where we putz around, talking loudly, consuming the pickle plate, never forgetting to tell the same stories we told the holiday before. This is where and how I learned we were a mish-mash.
I can hear my grandmother’s thick, nasal laugh and my grandfather’s quiet, soft-spoken conversations about what life used to be like–with a Pepsi in one hand, reading glasses in another. Gramma Sweetie has every cabinet open, per usual, making a simple walk-through a treacherous escapade. The ham sizzles in the oven, luscious with brown sugar, spicy with pepper, tangy with pineapple. Papa and I debate whether his grandfather came through Ellis Island. The potatoes are laden with thick yellow butter, but the cream cheese and sour cream is what makes them so wonderfully wrought with calories. Papa tells a story of when his father played piano in a nightclub in Orlando in the 40s. Aunt Karen finishes putting together the sweet potato casserole: crunchy on top, smooth in the middle, chock-full of pecans, just the way we all prefer.
Distracted by my grandfather’s tales, I pound the crust for the apple pie. “You can’t handle it too much, sweetie, or it won’t be tender. It doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect,” Sweetie says as I roll up the dough again.
My mother tells me often with a laugh that having dinner with my father’s family for the first time opened her eyes to how meat could be savory and soup could be seasoned. Mom was English, through and through. Sure there was a bit of Irish thrown in there, and thanks to great-great-grandpa Anton a smidge of East Europe, but the steak was always well-done, the vegetables forever boiled, and the potatoes mashed so hard they stuck to the roof of one’s mouth. Salad was her consolation, full of dressing in which she could dip her over-cooked beef and limply cold carrots. Dad quite literally gave her a whole new menu to explore through the cooking of his family: tacos with salsa and avocado, garlic-laden chicken cooked on the grill in the backyard, al-dente spaghetti that survived the stick-test performed on the kitchen cabinets, gorgeous Polish kolaczki filled with jams and Nutella under a mountain of powdered sugar for dessert. The heritage of food in Chicago permeated my dad’s family’s holidays: corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day, paczki on Fat Tuesday, red chili with beans on game day, hot-dogs with relish and onion and absolutely no ketchup on Labor Day, and large veggie and sausage pizzas from Aurelio’s for any given Friday night. They didn’t know where they came from. So they ate everything.
There was always something about Gramma’s pies–cliche, I know, but she takes such pride in them. She crafts them ahead of time, she plans days solely for mixing fillings and bagging them for later. She makes crusts and freezes them so she can whip one out any time we are in need for a pumpkin or apple fix. She taught me how to make them, and make them well, and know the reason why I am making them. She tells me how she adapts her mother’s techniques, and sometimes changes them completely because she found a way to give it more flavor: more time in the oven, a little less water, generous with the cinnamon. I cannot say the same for the stories her husband tells me as we go through the monotony of rolling dough, spreading it on the filling, and pinching the crust. He cannot tell me how we got here, and the reason we came. He cannot tell me about his father. I only know that my Papa is nothing like my father’s Papa. It’s a hard history. Mostly because we simply don’t know it. I think Papa and I feel a loss. We feel a bit too stretched, yet at the same time we feel mashed together.
I realize that I am re-rolling the crust for the apple pie, and Gramma intervenes. She has finished mixing the fresh Granny-smiths with sugar, water, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a tiny bit of flour. The bottom crust is already browned and ready to go, awaiting the top of the pie to be covered, pinched, and sliced. “You can’t keep reworking the dough, sweetie, because the more you handle it the less flaky it will be. Trust me, it’s all right if it’s not perfect.” She takes the rolling pin from me and with a broad, experienced motion rolls the crust, flips it over the pin, and lays it atop the golden apples. She efficiently and effortlessly pinches the edges and splits three holes in the middle. I run to the cabinet to grab three mostaccioli pastas, and sticking them into the splices, create the beloved “chimneys” that the cousins will fight over as soon as the pie comes out of the oven bubbling with sugar and sweet apple juices.
I look over at Papa, who is helping Dad carve the ham, and I realize that like every family, we are not perfect: we have a history that leaves much to be desired and we lay claim to stories that have probably been overworked. “But think of the richness, Papa,” I want to tell him,
“think of how we can soak up the culture of diversity around us, think about how we have adopted this city as our own… we are more Chicagoan than anything, and that is something to be proud about.” I’m sure he understands this. I’m sure he’s thought about it often. But I think we both love to think of what could have been or might be, just as Gramma and I both love to try a little more butter or a little less nutmeg. I know for sure that one day I will tell him–I will tell all of them–what a joy it is, not only to be a mutt, but to be a Meyrick.