In preparation for our Food issue (submissions are open until November 1, after which they’ll simmer ’til winter), I’ve asked members of the LPR community to share stories of what they eat. Food occupies such a central place in our lives that we can’t help but grow with it. Whether we have been preparing the food that we grew up with all our lives or, as is the case with this entry from former LPR Online Editor and current BrickHouse Books Fiction Editor Ilse Munro, only got around to it recently, we can call on the sounds, smells and tastes of our most formative and transformative foods to walk back into our own narrative histories. And on Poetry Editor Laura Shovan’s suggestion, each piece in this series features one or more recipes so that you can cook yourself through an experience. If you have a transformative experience with food, leave a comment and I’ll be in touch.
And now that I’ve laid the table, Ilse Munro:
My Latvian mother and Latvian me at her 90th birthday party in Ellicott City, MD (Photo: David Cash)
Right before my mother turned 90, she confessed that she had actually wanted to name me “Nora.” After the protagonist of Henrick Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, arguably the most influential feminist character in literature. Only, what with World War II and all, she failed to tell my father, who filled out the registry form. This went a long way toward explaining why I never learned to cook at my mother’s knee. Or her mother’s, for that matter. Born in the seventh decade of the 19th century, Oma became a successful businesswoman after her first husband was killed by a Russian firing squad. But this did not mean that they did not transmit their love of Latvian food to me. Or their strong opinions on how to present it.
So for my mother’s 90th birthday bash, I decided it was high time to go whole hog. I invited the entire neighborhood over to my house on the appropriate Thursday. Along with champagne, I served finger food and raspberries-and-cream chocolate cake, none of my own making. Then I had another bunch over for Sunday brunch, where I served Latvian dishes that I had never in my life made. I started preparations after midnight to keep it a surprise, but nothing could ever get past that woman. I was simmering pork for an aspic and watching dough rise for klinģeris, the traditional birthday “cake,” when she appeared. Her eyes, dimmed by two decades of macular degeneration, conspired to keep my secret.
“Whazzat? Whazzat?” she asked, standing on the stairs in her nightgown.
“Nothing, Mom,” I said. “Go back to sleep.”
When she woke in the morning, I knew that the hours of nocturnal labor were well worth my while. Because of beginner’s luck and because, unbeknown to me, I was running out of time to show how much she meant to me, everything was perfect. I had even remembered her and Oma’s mantra: presentation is everything. The scalloped Bundt cake pan that I had pressed into service gave the turned-out aspic the required elegance, and the carved carrots and other garnishes that I had added to the bottom gave it a whimsical wreath. The butter for the bread had taken the shape of sea shells. And the radishes atop the salad had been formed into florets. Oma had taught me that anything worth doing was worth doing well. The better-late-than-never thing was what I learned entirely on my own that day.
Latvian Birthday Brunch Menu
- Galerts (Pork Aspic)
- Gurķu un Redīssu Salats (Cucumber and Radish Salad)
- Kliņģeris (Sweet Saffron Bread)
Source: A Taste of Latvia by Siri Lise Doub
Galerts (Pork Aspic)
- 2 fresh pork hocks
- 1/2 pound lean pork, either shoulder or tenderloin
- 1 carrot, cut into small pieces
- 1 onion, cut into small pieces
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 3 peppercorns
- 1/2 cup chopped tomato
- 1 or 2 tablespoons unflavored gelatin
- 2 egg whites
- salt and pepper
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- garnish items such as hard-boiled egg sections and carrot slices shaped as flowers
- Bring pork hocks and meat to a boil in plenty of water. Boil for about 20 minutes.
- Add carrot, onion, bay leaf, peppercorns and chopped tomato. Simmer about two hours or until meat is tender.
- Remove from heat. Remove pork from broth and set it aside.
Strain the broth with a sieve. Bring the strained broth to a boil again. Turn heat to low and let simmer.
- Mix gelatin and water according to package instructions. Add to broth.
- Beat egg whites. Add to broth. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Arrange the parsley and other garnish items artistically in the bottom of an aspic mold. A Bundt cake pan is a good substitute. Individual molds or pans can also be used.
- Chop the meat and add it to the mold or pan. Cover the meat with broth.
- Refrigerate 24 hours.
- Place a serving platter over the top of the pan or mold and turn the mold or pan over unto the platter. Remove the mold or pan and decorate the dish.
- Slice and serve with vinegar–I used balsamic vinegar, but white vinegar in more traditional–or horseradish sauce and crusty bread slathered with unsalted butter.
Gurķu un Redīssu Salats (Cucumber and Radish Salad)
- 1 cup sliced, scored cucumbers
- 1 cup sliced radishes
- 1/4 cup chopped dill
- 1/4 white onion, finely sliced
- 2-4 tablespoons sour cream
- salt and pepper to taste
- Combine all ingredients in a bowl and chill for 20 minutes.
- Garnish with dill sprigs and radish florets.
Kliņģeris (Sweet Saffron Bread)
- Very warm milk (120-130 degrees F) or 1/4 cup warm water and 2 cups warm cream
- 1 teaspoon saffron
- 5 1/4 cups wheat flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 ounce packages dry yeast
- 14 tablespoons (1 3/4 stick) butter
- egg yolks
- 1 cup sugar
- dried lemon or orange peel
- 1/2 cup golden raisins
- tablespoons cinnamon
- tablespoons candied peel
- sliced almonds
- confectioners’ sugar
- Mix warm milk, saffron, wheat flour and salt. In a separate bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water by letting it stand for 5 minutes. Add yeast to flour. Knead dough well. Cover with a damp, clean dish towel and set aside in a warm, draft-free place (about 80 degrees F) to rise for 1 to 2 hours. (If the room is cold, place pan of covered dough on rack over a large pan of steaming water.)
- Mix butter, 2 of the egg yolks, sugar, vanilla, cardamom, dried lemon peel and ginger to taste. Beat until foamy. Add to dough. Knead.
- Mix raisins, cinnamon and candied peel. Knead into dough. Add flour, if necessary. Set aside to rise again for 45 minutes.
- Roll out dough to about a 1/2 inch thickness. Roll into a long sausage. Twist into a pretzel shape or figure 8 and place on a baking sheet. Let rise again for 20 minutes. Brush with 1 beaten egg yolk. Sprinkle with almond slices.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bake for 30-40 minutes. Before serving, sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar.
Download Ilse’s Latvian Birthday Brunch Menu.
Ilse Munro was born in Latvia and came to the United States as a war refugee. She was a NASA and Defense Department consultant, the online editor at Little Patuxent Review and now serves as the fiction editor at BrickHouse Books. Her short fiction, collected in Cold and Hungry and Far From Home, appears in TriQuarterly, Atticus Review and Wake and made her a finalist in the Glimmer Train Family Matters Contest and the Short Story Award for New Writers. Her novel, Anna Noon, is in the works. She lives in a historic millworker’s house in Maryland. For more, see http://ilsemunro.com.
Ilse and her aspic were immortalized in 2013 by Clarinda Harriss, who gave both walk-on roles in her short story “The Vinegar Drinker,” which was included in her collection The White Rail. For more on Ilse’s enduring relationship with food, see “From Playing with Food to Playing with Words,” one of the posts on DISPLACED PERSON, her site.