My Polish grandma had strong hands, and they were red and rough from a life of hard work.
When I was a young girl, I was awestruck as I watched her prepare food.
She pounded round steak with a black rubber mallet, over and over with heavy strokes. When we brought her a bucket of bullheads after day of fishing, it took her only minutes to chop off their dark whiskered heads, slit their bellies and fry them in a pan.
Grandma was a butcher, and after her husband died, she ran the family meat business. She could cut and slice all manner of animal edibles, from pork chops and bologna to chicken and kielbasa.
But at Easter time, she took on a gentler task, the making of placek (PLAH-sek), a crumb-topped coffee cake baked in a loaf pan.
On the day before Easter, thick slices of placek were tucked in a basket with other traditional Polish foods, carried to church and blessed by a priest. On Easter Sunday, butter was spread on the slices and devoured with ham, kielbasa, rye bread, horseradish and hardboiled eggs.
One spring, when I was 11 or 12, my cousin Kathy, who was four years older, suggested that we watch Grandma make the Easter placek.
Because Grandma didn’t use a written recipe, we listened as she announced each measurement and scribbled in our notebooks.
Milk, raisins, butter, salt and two heaping cups of Crisco. Yeast, flour, cinnamon, egg whites and almond extract. She mixed the ingredients in a big ceramic bowl and then plopped a giant ball of onto a wooden board.
I will never forget the sight of Grandma’s hands in the dough. Her sleeves rolled up, her apron kissed with flour, she pressed and rolled and pushed. Just like with the pounding of the meat and the cleaning of the fish, I was astounded at what my Grandma could do.
That night, Kathy and I transcribed our scribbles, writing everything down in our best handwriting.
More than 50 years later, I still have that recipe, in a cursive script that today looks strange to me. Before she died, Grandma also gave me the ceramic bowl, and it sits in a place of honor in my kitchen.