Babcia Ula, whom I met shortly after John and I moved to Warsaw, was a very different sort of grandmother than the two Italian nonne I had grown up with in Connecticut. Ula Fikus, just past 80 then, but still slim, her hair always swept up into a neat chignon, was the doyenne of a long line of determined women running through the maternal side of my translator Kasia’s large family.
Like most of her generation, adults when Communism was installed after World War II, Babcia Ula became one of the keepers of Poland’s 1,000-year-old flame, witnesses to what the country was like before the Soviets installed their puppets at the helm, a puppet show that lasted less than 50 years. During that time, as stubbornly as the Communist monolith played with historical truth on television or in the schools, grandparents like Babcia Ula even more stubbornly explained to their grandchildren that government “truths” were really Communist lies.
I got to know Babcia Ula through butchering as much as I got to know her through her special cups of tea. Meat was always more than a simple foodstuff during Poland’s Communist years, and repeated attempts at legitimate price hikes had repeatedly driven workers to take to the streets. Even the Solidarity trade union, which eventually toppled the Communists, owed its birth in 1980 to anger over meat price hikes.
As foreign correspondents living in Warsaw in the late 1980s, John and I had the right to purchase as much meat as we wanted from the capital’s well-stocked, members-only, butcher shop for foreign diplomats. It was one of the biggest perks of our Polish co-workers’ employment, for when I bought meat for John and me, I also had the right to buy meat and butter for Kasia, her husband and daughters; Kasia’s mother and grandmother; John’s assistant, Alex and his wife and daughter; as well as the families of the other staff members from our newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times.
The first few visits, the sight of so much meat — loins of pork, sides of beef, carcasses of lamb, skeins of kielbasa, mountains of hams, bacon and lard — would turn my stomach, for after moving to Warsaw I had quickly grown accustomed to the general emptiness of butcher shops designed for non-party members. Meat stores in fact were often referred to as nagie haki, or bare hooks, since the traditional metal meat hooks where carcasses and haunches were meant to be displayed were generally empty. For Kasia, however, walking into the diplomatic meat shop was like arriving in the Promised Land.
Once we made it past the bouncer at the door, we would stand in the raw meat line first, then wait again in the sausage line, then wait a third time to pay. Laden with parcels, we would drive directly to Babcia Ula’s tiny apartment near the Palace of Culture, a gift from the Soviets that was the largest and arguably ugliest building in the city. On an old table in Babcia Ula’s living room, Kasia and I would unwrap the enormous hunks of meat we had scored, then I would hack them further into as many parts necessary to keep our staff in meat products for the upcoming weeks.
When we finally finished cutting, weighing, bagging and pricing the meat, we would clear up the mess and sit down at the table on which we had been working to wait for our payoff: glass mugs of Babcia Ula’s best tea, standing beside an old Mason jar brimming with the thickest cherry conserve I had ever tasted. We would spoon three or four of the cherries, deep red, plump and highly sweetened, into our glass mugs, stirring until the syrup had melted into the tea.
I can still see the cherries in the bottom of those mugs, still taste that hot, sweet tea going down. The three of us would sip, then sigh with quiet pleasure. Our work was over, our cupboards full for a while. We had every right to sit back and sip our tea for the next half hour, chatting comfortably, laughing, three generations of women sipping a bitter Chinese tea sweetened by the cherries the family had picked from their own private garden north of Warsaw, which kept them in fresh fruit and vegetables for much of the year.
John and I made it out to the family’s riverside garden one glorious summer afternoon when they had been picking red currants to put by for the coming winter. Kasia’s toddler, Victoria, was too young to think of winter, but old enough to listen to her stomach. While we strolled through the garden, Victoria succumbed to a fierce craving; we returned from our stroll to find her cramming handfuls of currants into her mouth until she literally couldn’t fit any more in. She was celebrating her own private feast, sating herself on exactly what her body needed, just-picked currants, bursting with vitamins and minerals and spilling red juice down her lips and chin.