The more I cook the recipes of my Austrian mother, Anna, the more connected I feel to her, to my Oma, and to all the women before them. My mother was an extraordinary cook who prepared dishes that reflected the diversity of the once glamorous and diverse Austrian empire.
From the time I was nine years old and my mother first invited me into the kitchen to make the fish patties for dinner, I have watched and learned her kitchen tricks–browning bones for broth to give the dish its rich golden color, or removing the pot from the heat before adding paprika to gulyas (goulash) to prevent the paprika from tasting bitter. Nothing was ever measured, of course. When I asked her how she knew the proportion of oil and vinegar for the vinaigrette, she told me, “add oil like a fool and vinegar like a wise man.”
Relatives begged her to prepare a big pot of spicy Hungarian gulyas. Her secret, she told me once was, to make sure there were equal parts onions and meat. That, and she kept a jar of hot peppers in the basement that she had grown and pickled herself. One of those peppers was enough to add the right amount of heat to her spicy gulyas.
She baked for Sunday on Saturday. She would begin by piling the flour in a mound on the counter. She’d create a hole in the center for eggs and butter, sprinkle it with sugar, and slowly work her dough. She never used mixing bowls. Her apple strudels, and nut and poppy seed rolls were a staple for the customary Sunday afternoon kaffeeklatsch, which my uncle George, who had a huge sweet tooth, never missed.
She tended to her big vegetable garden, which provided us with produce for healthy, hearty meals and summer salads. Peppers, cabbage, and beets were pickled in tall glass jars for consumption during the winter months. My grandmother, in turn, passed the tradition on to my mother, along with making delicious jams and juices from the berries in her garden and in the woodlands. My father, son of vineyard farmers, expertly pruned the fruit trees, which produced a harvest of apples, cherries, plums, and pears. Kirsch and Apfelkuchen, as well as dried apples and prunes, were among the many products of the orchard harvest.
When I first arrived in the United States in 1970, it was extremely difficult to find the right ingredients to cook my native dishes. We had a vegetable garden, so eating big salads in the summertime quickly became a tradition I carried on. And I could serve my family one traditional dish that became a huge favorite of my children. Even now, as adults, I prepare a meal for each child and their family on their birthday. The request usually ends up being pork roast, sauerkraut, and dumplings.
I inherited an abiding love for cooking and good food in my mother’s kitchen, and I am carrying this tradition through the next generation. My children and grandchildren join me in my kitchen to learn the recipes I’ve brought with me from the southeast region of Austria where I grew up, which is my way of upholding a significant connection between the generations of women in our family.