Son, you must understand that there is art in the making of ciorbă cu perișoare. The way you cut the potatoes, the type of stock you use, not broth, how long you leave it to simmer. And, of course, the borș. You cannot find good borș here in the States. Good borș comes from one place, and one place only. The place where I am from. The place where my mother was from, and her mother, and hers. From Romania.
Home of communists, protestors and vampires. Just kidding, the only Romanian vampires are the tax collectors. And the dictators, though they’re mostly dead.
I have been making ciorbă for years and years now. It is interesting to think back… I first learned to make it when I was sixteen years old, only a few years older than you. On Christmas Eve, my mother, your Bunica deemed me ready to learn the sacred art that had been passed through the generations. Food was scarce then so learning to cook was no small matter. In learning to cook ciorbă, I found peace. We both did, your Bunica and I. Beyond all of our arguments, our disagreements on the virtues of communism, my mother and I found common ground in soup. We were happy. It was as perfect of a Christmas Eve as I could have asked for. If only it could’ve stayed that way. Pass the carrots.
Romania was claustrophobic, back then. Ha- probably still is, I suppose. We all lived in apartments in Bucharest. Because nearly all the houses were torn down. Not by the communists, no by an earthquake in 1977.
Rows and rows of grey apartments, rising over grey streets and covering the grey sky. No, there was color; it was hidden. And sometimes, during the hottest part of the day, you could get a glimpse of a blue sky.
Twelve years after the earthquake, the revolution took us by surprise. Tens, hundreds, thousands of Romanians went to the streets and shouted, marching for a life, for a Romania with more color. We watched them through the windows. Your Bunica was not cheering the revolutionaries on. Communist. She was! She was a communist. Communism had helped her get a job, an education, a life outside Bogați. Outside the farm. Your bunica believed that even if the regime wasn't perfect, it was the best chance we had.
But I wasn’t sure. One night, twenty of us students crowded into a cramped Bucharest living room and watched a grainy pirated VHS of an American Western. The views were wide open and the sky! The sky was so blue. And I wanted that.
Early that morning, I could hear the protests going on outside, and I was going to join them. I wanted to make something! Make something beautiful! Pass the leoștan.
But a small, strong hand gripped the back of my collar. The look that your Bunica gave me was worse than any scolding I could’ve imagined. She turned around and walked back. I followed her.
So many people died that day. The blood coated the grey streets red.
The next day, Nicolae Ceaușescu. Nicolae Ceaușescu. The dictator? Was given a rushed trial by revolutionaries and executed by firing squad. The communist regime fell. The country quickly westernized. The borders finally opened. And everything changed.
Son, you must understand how different life was after the revolution. Where there was scarcity, there was plenty. Where there were once informers and secret police, there were salesmen and diplomats. But there was also massive economic collapse. Your Bunica, she lost everything. All her savings, her car, all she kept was the apartment.
When I told her I wanted to leave, I expected her to be angry. I do not know why. I have never seen your Bunica angry. Disappointed, sure. Frustrated, of course. But never angry. She took me to the roof of our building and sat me down. She put her arm around my shoulders and told me to look out. Look out at Romania. Look out at the parks and the people and the hidden colors. Look out at the grey apartment blocks. And look up at the sky. It was one of those days where you could see a tiny slice of blue.
My mama told me she was proud of me. Of who I’d become. She told me she loved me. She told me to have fun on my little adventure. But she also told me never to forget Romania. It would always be my home.
After I left, I found the recipe for Ciorbă cu Perișoare that your Bunica had slipped into my suitcase.
I spent the 90s cooking all over Europe! In 1996, in France, I was at a New Year’s party, and I was cooking crepes. Not those awful French crepes. Romanian crepes. Out of nowhere, a pretty woman came up to me and said, in a horrible American accent “Hello. I love crepes. What’s your name?”
That was your mother. She was beautiful! But her postdoctoral degree was finished and she needed to go back home. To America, with it’s wide open skies and horrible borș, and bright colors in plain sight. And she wanted me to go with her.
Holding you in my arms for the first time was the most amazing experience of my life. There you were, this little bit of perfection. You were born in this place, this new place. A place where I had a life of my own. A place where we had a life of our own.
When you were born, I only spoke to you in Romanian. For the first three years of your life, I was Tata and your mother was Mama, and there wouldn’t be any “Come to the table,” there would only be “Hai la masa.”
I do not know why I stopped. Because it was easier. Your friends, your mother, your family taught you to call me “dad” and “tata” faded away. But I did stop. And I’m sorry.
Son, your Bunica, she died today. She was 89 years old, and she died in her homeland, in the apartment she bought after the world itself tore down everything she had built. The apartment she spent years alone in because her husband died, and her son fled.
I sometimes wish that I never left.
Right now, I wish you could have spoken to your Bunica before she died. I wish you could’ve heard the stories she told. She has so much wisdom. But you can’t, so soup.
Son, there is art in the of making ciorbă cu perișoare. It’s an art that’s been passed through the generations of our family. It’s the rope that ties us. My mother taught me how to make this soup. Her mother taught her, and her mother taught her. Your bunica lives on through the cooking of ciorbă cu perișoare. Our culture lives on. România lives on.
Do you want to try a taste?