Life is short. Enjoy yourself.
Welcome to Pauline’s Cookbook, a memoir of sorts about my grandmother’s life, woven around the gift of a handmade pastry cookbook she cherished for nearly 80 years. Pauline Shuster found her joy in life by making memorable meals for her family, and she filled the bellies and hearts of her children and grandchildren with that joy. These are the memories, family stories and recipes of a simple peasant woman’s life, and the extraordinary cooking she shared with us, lovingly prepared following the recipes from her mother, and from the steps and ingredients recorded on the delicately written pages by her best friend for Pauline’s 16th birthday, written like little bits of poetry.
My Grandma Pauline’s philosophy on life was simple: Life is short. Enjoy yourself. She repeated this philosophy to each of her kids and grandkids throughout her life, in her heavily accented, broken English (to quote her exactly, she would actually say, “Life is short. Enjoy youself.”). I used to think it meant to have fun, to make time for play. But when I look back on her life, I see a life full of hardship, and physically grueling, labor-intensive hard work. Pauline did not live a life of leisure, and as a child I could not see the joy in a life of backbreaking work. I know now that she meant that life should be savored, that shared moments with friends and family should be enjoyed, and, that the joy is in the hard work itself.
Pauline’s cooking was, and remains, central to the Shuster family in everyday life, and especially at holidays and celebrations. This blog chronicle’s Pauline’s life from her beginnings working in her parent’s bakery back in the old country, through her marriage and voyage across the Atlantic to start a new life away from the looming war in Europe, to a hardscrabble life growing and preparing the food on the family farm with five rambunctious kids, and finally passing down her love of cooking to her grandchildren.
When my grandmother died recently, the pastry cookbook fell into the hands of my father. I’m translating the pastry recipes from the stained and yellowed pages of colloquial Slovak into English, a slow and manual process, as many of the words are mispelled, written phonetically, or in a long forgotten local dialect. Most of these recipes are well over 100 years old, carefully recorded by my grandmother’s friend, an uneducated girl who was a cook for a wealthy family in Novi Sad. The memories are mine, and the stories are the stuff of our family folklore, repeated over the years, and embellished I am sure with each retelling. I’m researching as many facts as I can, visiting relatives and querying them on the details of the stories, looking up Ellis Island and World War II records online, and this spring I intend to travel back to the old country to see Pauline’s beloved Balkan mountains and the Danube river.
So here it is, from Pauline’s kitchen to yours. Enjoy yourself.
Tonya, Pauline’s granddaughter