Whenever someone tries to guess what my family background is, the first guess is “Italian!” 99.9999% of the time. And they would be 100% wrong. As far as I know, there is no Italian ancestry in me. I don’t fully know this for a fact because I’ve never actually seen a real family tree that traces back from me to the very, very beginning. In their defense, I’ve got dark features, took Italian language classes throughout high school and college and I’ve got a deep, deep love for Italian food. But that does not make me Italian. I don’t think. My origins are a bit more of a hodgepodge…as most third or fourth generations would be. On my mom’s side, there’s Irish and French-Canadian heritage. On my dad’s side is German and Polish. I’m also sure there’s some other stuff mixed in there…but that’s for me to find out one day down the road.
When you grow up as a mutt, you don’t always carry on every single tradition of your culture. I would assume this is because not everyone is Irish. Or not everyone is German. But there are certain things that bleed over and mix in with the rest. So instead of just growing up as a Polish-American, you get little bits of Polish tradition here and there mixed in with some German and then some Irish. So, in your little bubble of family life, it all ends up feeling pretty normal. That is until you grow up and go to school and start meeting people from all over and learn about the traditions they grew up with. It’s then you sort of realize just how special those special moments you grew up with actually were. That means not everybody would have a hardboiled egg war on Easter Sunday. Not every family would come home on St. Patricks day to a crock pot full of corned beef and cabbage. And not every family would have a heated debated over a Thanksgiving stuffing that nobody really liked except for three people. A stuffing that was referred to Irish Stuffing. A stuffing that had nothing to do with Ireland. A stuffing that was mashed potatoes, butter, liver and disgusting. A stuffing that I once brought up with a friend from Ireland who’s face grimaced at the very thought. A stuffing we will never talk about again.
On to the recipe at hand. Golumpki. Also known as Golabki. Also known as Stuffed Cabbage. (And about eight other names.) It’s a Polish dish. Meat and rice are rolled up in softened cabbage leaves and then baked in tomato sauce. (Think of it as a meatball, enriched with rice and enveloped with cabbage and then baked.) And it is simply one of the most delicious and comforting foods you can possibly eat. Our next door neighbor, Helen, was from Poland. I remember being outside playing among the autumn leaves in a giant sweater and you could smell something delicious coming from Helen’s kitchen (this is how I always picture fall…sweaters, leaves, cool weather and the smell of food…how accurate it actually is, I don’t know…just go with it…pretend). She would make Golumpki and pierogi from scratch quite often. And as neighbors, we’d always get a taste. If we had a party, Golumpki would show up. Is it the most glamorous food? Hardly. But comfort food doesn’t have to be.
Over the yard Helen would come, carrying a round glass casserole filled with Golumpki. She knew they were my favorite, so she always brought a lot over. Eating them fresh was fantastic. But I was that fat kid who would sneak into the fridge at night and eat them cold because I didn’t want anyone to know. They were still just as good. And then I’d have more the next day. And before you knew it, they were all gone. And sadness would set in.
So of course, once I really got into cooking and making things on my own, I set out to find the perfect recipe for making Golumpki. Have I ever thought to ask Helen for hers? Surprisingly, no. I’ve realized that you can’t always recreate a memory. But you can come close. Ingredients change, sometimes recipes aren’t actually followed. And sometimes, the journey of finding the perfect recipe to bring you back to your childhood is half the fun.
A number of years ago, I came across a recipe for Stuffed Cabbage. Remembering the mouth watering, flavorful Golumpki of my childhood, I decided to make it. It was pretty straightforward. Boil the cabbage and remove the leaves, cut out the stem. Then mix the filling, roll it up in the leaves, cover with sauce and bake. The ingredients seemed fairly simple too. At this point, I should mention it was an Ina Garten recipe. She’s basically my version of the Pope. She had never steered me wrong before. Although, there were raisins in the recipe. That was weird. So I left them out. I don’t think Helen’s Golumpki had raisins in it. But what do I know, I was 5…and 6…and 7…and 21…and 27…
Anyways, they smelled divine. I stared at the plump cabbage leaf rolled up and filled with meat and rice before me. The sauce glistened. As I prepared to cut into the veggie wrapped meatball, the taste of the Golumpki from so long ago was the only thing I could think of. And then I took that bite. And then…and then, I didn’t smile. And I suddenly felt as if Ina Garten had betrayed me. After all of our years together. She finally let me down. I didn’t start to cry. I wasn’t about to make a scene. At home. Alone. (I didn’t want the neighbors to hear.) After some time, I realized that Ina hadn’t eaten the Golumpki I had. She had raisins in her recipe! It wasn’t her fault. I couldn’t let it get between us.
Then I did something smart. I ordered a polish cookbook. Not one from Poland because I wouldn’t be able to read that and that would completely defeat the purpose, obvi. I ordered “The Art of Polish Cooking” by Alina Zeranska. It’s one of those cookbooks that has absolutely no pictures. There are no illustrations of the food. Just decorative drawings. There isn’t a lot of fluff. Just recipe after recipe after recipe. It’s the kind of cookbook that includes recipes for things that nobody eats like Ham Pudding or Liver Dumplings. But that’s how you know it’s (fairly) authentic. Basic recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation. They’re all basic. A list of measured ingredients and a paragraph or two about how to prepare. Nothing too descriptive. So you better know what you’re doing.
As I scoured through the pages, there it was: Golumpki! Actually, in the book it was referred to as Golabki. But, it’s the same thing. The minute I read that it called for beef bouillon cubes and cream of tomato soup and DIDN’T call for raisins, I felt that this would be the closest to what I remembered. Something a bit more traditional. But then, I didn’t make it. A few years went by and I never even attempted another cabbage roll. And I don’t know exactly why. Maybe it was because I was scared of the gas. Or I was scared of letting myself down.
So this year, as Fall quickly approached and I was dreaming up recipes to make throughout the season, thinking about what I’ve made before, eaten before and what would be comforting, Golumpki came back into mind.Then it was research time. I have found the best thing to do is to look at a wide variety of recipes. Get a sense of what everyone else does. This will show you what the very basics are that everybody uses. What is the essence of the dish. You will get a truer sense of exactly what to do. And after that, you can sit down and craft a recipe that gets the essence of the dish and then enhances it.
And that’s what happened. In the end, these did not taste like Helen’s Golumpki. But I will say, they were close. But it wasn’t disappointing. I know I will never be able to recreate Helen’s, even with her own recipe. My mom could never quite master my grandmother’s macaroni & cheese…which was included on the box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese…the one my grandmother said was all she made. I guess kids (and adults) just have picky palates.