Milenka stood back and surveyed the ingredients she’d piled across her kitchen counters. She had the cabbage chopped and salted, egg noodles ready to boil, prune butter and bread and spinach lined up in a row. She had the clean wooden cutting board, the knives, the gingham dishtowels and the spoons. Bowls. Plates. Pots and pans and butter.
Max sat at the table like a spectator who had bought a ticket. He told Alema, “My money’s on Grandma,” and laughed. Lida was there, too, this time with no dessert. She sat next to Max with her hands folded, as if waiting for the church organ to pound its song into the air.
Alema, who stood cross-armed in the corner, had put on a skirt and heels. She did that on purpose, Milenka thought. She was just the same as a child: wild and fierce-headed, strong. “I don’t cook,” Alema was saying. “I order out. I go to restaurants.” She paused, sly. “People cook for me.”
“Like your boyfriend, I bet,” Max said. “Maybe you’re on to something. Have the man cook.” He stayed at the table, waiting to be served. Her lovely, lovely son. Milenka watched as Lida reached over to pat his arm. She wanted to fly across the table to hold Lida back, to remind her that this was not hers, that she was barren and single. But she did not. She went to the counter instead, picked up a knife and began cutting carrots.
“Alema, come,” she said. “Start putting spinach in the pot. You can brown flour, no?”
Alema walked to the stove, picked up a wooden spoon. A pile of flour sat in a frying pan, waiting. She looked at it.
“Turn it on,” Milenka said, pressing her granddaughter to light a burner under the flour. “Now keep moving it with the spoon. Like this. See?”
Alema moved the pan to stare at the flame as if she did not trust fire in the house. Milenka dabbed prune butter onto dough and dropped cabbage into noodles. Condensed milk for the spinach, celery for the lentils.
Alema fumbled with the pepper and sneezed into her arm. She wiped her hands on the back of her skirt and held them up, empty. Milenka sighed and moved around her granddaughter as if she were no longer there. Lentil soup simmering, dumplings bubbling with prune filling. Spinach hugging the pot with green eagerness, the egg noodles quivering with butter and that homely cabbage scent. Hours of it, this cooking. Through it all Alema stumbled around the stove, dodging dumplings and crying out when steam struck her skin. Her own granddaughter could not follow a recipe, Milenka realized, and certainly could not cook from memory. These meals came to Milenka through her very body, just as they did to her mother, and her mother before that. Alema was more like a bird, hollow-boned and flighty, startled by butter and salt.
When it was over and Max and Lida had full plates before them at the table, Alema busied herself at the sink, fighting a stain on her blouse. Milenka rounded up a spoon. “You try,” she said, and dipped into the lentil soup. She held out the spoon for her granddaughter. At first Alema stood apart from Milenka with reluctance, but then she leaned forward and accepted a bite.
“It’s good,” Alema said, as if surprised. She looked at the spoon, clean now from her own hunger.
“It always was,” Milenka told her.
It all started with that one bite. The food was soft on Alema’s tongue, substantial and sticky with home – her grandmother’s home, not her mother’s untouched stainless steel kitchen with the dishwasher camouflaged as a cabinet. Alema took a second, tentative bite, and felt something inside her bloom.
“Go on,” Milenka urged. “Eat.”
So she did. Alema took the spoon from Milenka and moved from dish to dish, eating directly from the pots and pans. It was like the food was undressing her. The lentils peeled off her shirt, the sausages tugged her skirt down to her knees. Prune butter removed her shoes and stockings and spinach pulled her hair down from its bun. She couldn’t stop. She gathered speed and began eating so fast that spittle and bits of food collected at her mouth.
“Honey,” Max said, standing up. “Slow down. You’d think we’ve been starving you this whole time.”
Alema shook her head. This food was a comfort, a memory, a weapon. She finished her spoonful of spinach and turned to the prune dumplings. She grabbed a fork and pierced three in succession. They tasted buttery, warm.
“Alema,” Max said. He was standing at her shoulder and she wondered how he’d gotten there so quickly. Her father was weighty and unwieldy, not a sneak. She looked at his thinning hair, the shiny patches on his skin. And the mustache – no one had mustaches anymore. He put his hand on her shoulder and she felt the heat of him, the pulse beneath his palm.
“Let her eat,” Milenka said. She stood at the table, next to Lida’s chair, with her arms crossed. Alema wiped her eyes. She still felt naked, pulled apart by the food, but Milenka stood at attention, prepared to start cooking again if Alema ate every morsel. And if Alema ate the second batch, Milenka would just make more.
It was an unending stream of nourishment, and Alema had allowed herself to go hungry for too long.