LETTERS FROM BERLIN
★ ★ ★ ★
YOU’RE HUNGRY, YOU EAT
By Annie Mark-Westfall
Today my Facebook memory is a photo of my Grandma Bea’s matzo ball soup. As I sit on the U-Bahn in Berlin, staring at the bowl of soup on that suburban New York table five years ago, myriad thoughts fly at me. The speed and variety of these thoughts recall to mind being a child in the passenger seat of my father’s truck, driving through a snow storm, trying to watch each individual snowflake as it swirls into the headlights. The calm, hypnotic pattern. I think some of my best childhood memories are watching weather events from our car.
I google “snow in headlights” and the top hit brags, “Smart headlights let drivers see through snow and rain.” Damn. One more element of childhood, relegated to “the good old days.”
Grandma’s matzo ball soup is my ultimate comfort food. As a child, I would eat it for breakfast while my family commented on it around me. A couple years ago when I quite generously offered to share some with my husband, he gently noted it was perhaps best served to those who grew up with it. This shocked me for many reasons. Not least because this was the man who had pretended to like gefilte fish for so many years – a sacrifice that no other being was willing to make, even for Grandma Bea’s sake. (Gefilte fish is like white fish meatloaf balls, often served from a jar, where it is preserved in aspic.) How someone could pretend to like gefilte fish but not want matzo ball soup, I will never understand. (Husband’s editorial note: Matzo ball soup is fine, just not for breakfast.)
The doors open on the opposite side of the train, and I realize that we are at Mehringdamm, in present-day Berlin. I need to exit the train and transfer subway lines. I tuck my phone into my back pocket and climb over fellow passengers to exit. Grumpy Berliners sigh and shoot passive-aggressive looks of annoyance at the ground. The proper way to ride a German subway is to stand up, walk to the door, and prepare to exit as the train leaves the station one stop prior to your intended departure point. (On long-distance trains, one is expected to line up in the hallway 10 minutes before the train arrives at its destination.)
Once I am reseated on my next train, I pull out my phone again. The matzo balls photo is still on my screen. The snowflake thoughts swirl in the headlights of my memories. Grandma always overfills the bowl with broth. The hot liquid always breaks the meniscus and swirls perilously close to the fingers carrying the rimmed bowl to the table. You can see this in the photo.
Grandma would find it absurd that I took a photo of her soup—let alone that I would put such a photo on social media. Or reminisce about it years later. Or write a column about it. Although food is a central tenet of our family’s Jewish culture, it is for consumption rather than pontificating. You’re hungry, you eat. You want a dozen cookies, you eat them. There’s nothing to talk about. Next.
Often, there’s nothing to talk about full stop. Grandma is from the generation that, for example, never mentions dead babies. I am from the generation that writes a thousand words about a breakfast from five years ago.
Case in point: this conversation from two years ago.
“Grandma, can you tell me about Grandpa’s childhood? Why did he dislike his mother so much?”
“Oh, she was awful. She always favored his older brother. That’s why Grandpa felt it so important never to show favoritism.”
“Right. I remember getting a check in the mail one day, because Grandpa had apparently bought [my cousin] something during a visit.”
“Yes. You know, she had a baby before, who died. Here, do you want more meatloaf?”
“What? What baby?”
“Annie! Are you going to talk, or are you going to eat?”
And that was the end of it.
I notice that my stop is next, and break from the reverie of nostalgia to go wait at the door. I glance at the clock of my phone. It is noon, and I have not eaten. This mundane fact is extraordinary to me. For the past four years, my body has been pregnant or nursing, and my appetite has been insatiable. My brother and nieces had begun forming an assembly line to pass me their unfinished plates, whenever we shared meals together.
Back in February, when the dark Berlin winter almost consumed me, the only thing that kept me from jumping off the edge of the planet was my parents’ visit. And specifically, their gift of two nights of babysitting the kids, so M and I could escape to Budapest for 48 hours.
My body was still in hunger mode, so we passed our time in equal parts eating and walking through the beautiful city. For dinner one night, we happened upon Rosenstein Restaurant, the family-owned, Jewish institution. They served pork, shellfish, and every treat from my childhood. It was like being under Grandma’s roof again, with the blend of absolutely-not-kosher ingredients that fill your belly and your soul with warmth. When they came to take our drinks order, I asked for the matzo ball soup. And did not offer my husband a bite. They made it with beef broth instead of chicken, and I keep meaning to ask Grandma about that.
My train stops, and I push the button to exit the U-Bahn, race up the stairs, and buy a quick pretzel (ein Bretzel). Turning my face and closed eyes to the sun, I resume my annual springtime ritual of remembering that I am not an awful human being, and the world is not complete and total shit. I consider taking a photo of the pretzel and Checkpoint Charlie for Instagram, but I put my phone away and just eat the damn thing.
Annie Mark-Westfall graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio. As a former Fulbright grantee and Robert Bosch Foundation fellow, she views herself as a cultural ambassador. Her day job is with an international conservation organization.
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