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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 I and 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

13 Comments leave one →
  1. January 15, 2010 12:06 pm

    Tonya, what a wonderful blog and I’m eager to read more about your grandmother and family stories. You’re such a talented writer it makes me want to travel to the Balkans with you! I’ve recently read City of Thieves and highly recommend it as a WWII story that may relate well to your history.
    In the deep recesses of my mind I believe I can remember us together as youngsters and talking about your grandmother, your family history and thinking how different your story was from my family’s migration from England and Scotland to Canada. You certainly have the food soul that is lacking in me!
    I look forward to learning more about your history.

  2. January 15, 2010 12:23 pm

    Hi Joanne, thank you for the compliments. When I started out writing this blog, I really didn’t know how rich and interesting the stories would be. The more I dig, the better they get.

    Currently I am fascinated by this whole WWI story about the Czechsovak Legion that appears to be little known outside of the Slovak and Czech world. I think it would make a great movie!

    I remember my grandmother visiting us in Montreal with you there, and talking about our family histories. At the time I wanted to be a writer (are you really a writer if no one pays you? Or reads you?!). It only took me 32 more years to get around to it.

    I hope you will spread the word about my little project.

    Love Tonya

  3. Anonymous permalink
    February 10, 2010 3:03 am


    Thank you so much for starting this blog about your grandmother’s Slovak cookbook… I was so excited to find it!

    I stumbled upon your blog by chance while surfing the internet for old Slovak cookbook as my mother has a printed Slovak cookbook that has seen better days – it is almost tattered, but it is one of her cherished possessions.

    My mother sometimes makes us dishes out of her Slovak cookbook and I can tell you that the food of my mother’s homeland beats eating normal, everyday westernised food!

    Sarma (stuffed capscium with beef mince) for one instance comforts my soul like no other food can. And yes, we do eat it with buttered bread dipped into the soup!

    I just saw the recipe for Medovnik — Can you believe that my mother made it this past weekend? While it didn’t turn out as she hoped it would (she used another Slovak cookbook while her tattered one was temporarily missing), still it was delicious…

    Unfortunately, I cannot read, speak or write Slovak, yet your recipes is going to come in handy for me, should I decide to make a Slovak dish one day!

    So… I wanted to give you some encouragement to keep this blog of yours going!

    I am proud to be the daughter of a Slovak who only spent the first one and a half years of her life in Serbia (before migrating to a westernised country with her parents) and continues to keep us nourished with the soul satisfying dishes of her homeland.

    From the bottom of my heart — Thank You!

  4. Henock permalink
    February 20, 2010 1:14 pm

    It would be great if you include techniques to use to replicate these delicious sounding recipes. For example, I’m sure I’m alone here, how do you separate eggs?

  5. Henock permalink
    March 8, 2010 7:11 pm

    I like Caribou Coffee life slogan better:
    Life is short, stay awake for it.

    Who is that old man with a basket? I like him

    • March 8, 2010 8:51 pm

      He’s a man we know in Southwest France, in Monpazier. He was stepping out that day to do some shopping. I really like him too!

  6. Katy O'Mara permalink
    December 13, 2010 7:53 pm

    Hi Tonya,

    Long time no see! Though I knew you liked to cook and had gone to Paris to cooking school I had no idea that you were blogging and really diving into the Slovak gastronomy. I will definitely be trying your recipes!

  7. Melanie Goggans permalink
    March 8, 2011 10:11 am

    I’m so glad you’re doing this, Tonya. It’s a beautiful tribute to any grandmother, and yours seems special. I’m from Slovakia (married an American but we are moving back to SK next year, Lord willing) and it is so nice to come across a site like that. It is good to remember where we come from–the people and the places both.

    • March 14, 2011 9:17 am

      Hi Melanie, thank you for the compliments. Lucky you to be moving to SK. I wonder how your American husband will find it living there – does he speak Slovak yet?! I visited for the first time last spring – what a beautiful, pristine country. Please keep in touch!. Tonya

  8. October 1, 2012 7:15 pm

    Hello, I just looked at some recipes like the honey cake and tomato sauce and they look delisious! Thank for giving all of you cherished recipes of your wonderful grandma! I
    Would love to buy a copy of a cookbook if you have made one yet!! Please let me know asap! Dobré noz! Michael Hudéček

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