The Secret Ingredient

My grandmother and I were very fortunate to be so close.

Not close in terms of physical or geographical distance since there was always about 500 km between us.  But rather, the rare type of close where not only could we finish each other’s sentences but start them as well.  As years went on, our very special bond transcended onto my husband and children who loved Big Bubs  with as much heart and soul as I did.

Big Bubs was an amazing baker.  She had three freezers in her apartment – each one overflowing with homemade soups, cookies, cakes, muffins, ice cream, and even more peculiar items like potato chips (according to Big Bubs stay fresher), batteries (last longer) and pantyhose (won’t tear or catch as easily).  Everything was clearly labeled with its production date so she knew the order in which to eat them.  She would often mail packages of baked goods to us or send a care package with anyone traveling down the 401 to Montreal. It was always such a treat to receive them.  When she was no longer able to bake, my mom tried to replicate her recipes but somehow they just never tasted the same.

Even though I have not sampled Big Bubs’ baking in years, the smell of her kitchen and taste of her food is very vivid in my mind.

unnamed-1I remember many occasions when she tried teaching me to bake.  I can still hear her voice saying,  “Jana, it is the easiest thing in the world, you cannot possibly get this wrong.  Four ingredients. That’s it.”.

“But Bubbie”, I replied, “I did exactly what you said and it still does not taste like yours”.  She laughed at me then took it one step further by giving me the actual dish she baked the cake in so it would be as close to the real thing as possible.   I tried and tried again.    Maybe it was her oven? Or her utensils?  No matter what, my version was never the same.  Obviously I was missing something, a secret ingredient perhaps.  And I am not even referring to the time a bandage from her finger mysteriously disappeared while baking a Passover kugel.  Somehow that ended up being the BEST kugel she ever made.  Maybe it was just a coincidence but to this day, the whereabouts of that bandage remain a mystery. 

One of my favorite things in Big Bubs’ repertoire was an applesauce cake.  Its ingredients and preparation were amazingly simple yet it tasted so delicious.  As a newlywed, I first attempted to bake this cake using a jar of Motts applesauce.  That, my grandmother said, was my biggest mistake.  The applesauce needed to be made from scratch otherwise the cake would never taste good. 

“But Big Bubs, applesauce is applesauce. I’m using it in a cake and not even eating it directly from the jar!” 

“Oh Jana, stop being lazy, how hard is it to make applesauce?  It’s just apples.”

True.  Seeing as I was obviously a rookie in the kitchen, I looked up recipes, researched, whatever it took to impress Big Bubs.  But she had another plan.  There would be no blenders, food processors, or microwaves.  None of those modern day conveniences.  On my next trip to Toronto, she was going to teach me how to make applesauce the old fashioned way using a pot, a metal colander, a spoon and of course, apples.  Twenty minutes later when I was done passing the apples through the strainer with the back of a spoon, my arms and shoulders were sore for hours and into the next days.  After spending a few intense hours making the applesauce and cake I had a whole new appreciation for her baking.  I have no clue how my grandmother, 54 years my senior, was able to do this so easily and frequently.  As if the preparation and baking were not enough, she then cleaned all the dishes and utensils by hand.  She never owned a dishwasher. She never felt the need for one.

The day that she taught me how to make applesauce was one of the most special ones in my life.

She spent so much time lovingly and patiently teaching me how to do something so simple.  Of all the gifts she ever gave me, this was probably one of the most meaningful. I am happy to say that without fail, my applesauce turns out as well as hers (although the cake never seems to match her original version).  With a colander, spoon, and pot full of apples by my side I feel that I am channeling my inner Big Bubs.  Whenever I make  a batch of applesauce, I can feel my grandmother’s presence surrounding and comforting me.   I take great pride in preparing it exactly as she showed me and know that she would be proud of me too. My children love it, as do my husband, parents, and a few select friends who have tasted it.  That applesauce has nourished my babies as one of their first foods, soothed sore throats, accelerated recoveries from surgeries, and made it on to our holiday table to eat with potato latkes.  I am not sure who derives more pleasure from “our” applesauce; the people who eat it or me – because in those moments while I am preparing it, gets to feel a connection to my grandmother like no other.

Truth be told, there is a secret ingredient but nobody other than me knows what it is.

Not even my mother, her own daughter.  One day I will pass on that cherished secret to my daughters and future grandchildren. But for now it will remain with me, in my heart, right alongside my beloved Big Bubs. unnamed

-Jana Popliger-Sinclair

I graduated with a MSc in nutrition from McGill University. I began teaching at McGill and working as a professional dietitian in private practice.  Life, as I knew it, got put on hold when I was faced with my own health problems and those of my two daughters.  I now devote all of my time to managing their medical needs and appointments.  I believe that the experiences and rewards involved in my current career as a mom are far more fulfilling than any book, course, or job could ever provide.  I am grateful for my children and credit them with inspiring me to find the beauty in life and discovering the therapeutic benefit in writing.

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