Cooking without Jola

The last time Jola and I cooked together was Christmas Eve. We cooked a goose with all the Franconian trimmings. In November and December we had made some time to cook together too, while the girls were in preschool, and we were both so excited to be getting back to it after a long hiatus because of diapers and nursing, working and just no time.

Those of you who have been reading along since the beginning know that before I started a chronicle of pandemic family living, this blog was an adventure about moving to a foreign land and creating a family–embracing the culture and the people. You’ll recognize Jola as my Franconian Mother-in-law and truly a kind of Franconian ambassador. She took me under her wing nearly 7 years ago.

Once when I was visiting (before we were married) I asked if she would be willing to spend an afternoon cooking with me. After I moved she and I began meeting weekly so that she could teach me her whole repertoire. I knew back then it was something special. It was funny and delicious, thoughtful and simple—amazing really–that so much was communicated—because I didn’t speak German when I first arrived and she didn’t speak English.

I knew it was special but I didn’t know just how thankful I would feel toward my former self for spending those days cooking with Jola.

And looking back I’m able to admit that it was not just lack of time that prevented us from cooking together after that first year. We both weathered a good deal of change since then. A few years in we lost Heinz and in the meantime celebrated the pregnancies and births of our two little maniacs. And she and I spent whole seasons busy or distracted, frustrated or misunderstanding one another. I’m convinced that it was 2020 in all its terrible glory that rekindled our affection, awakened our respect for one another and reminded us how much we enjoyed each other’s company.

And thank goodness or God or the universe or whoever you thank because after a beautiful 1st of December snow when we cooked Schlamper Kraut together and then another morning when she taught me the true secrets of her Franconian Wirsing and reminded me how fast and delicious “Baggers” are– and then after a nearly picture perfect Christmas together, Jola died suddenly in her sleep. I’ve been looking for the best way to share this news with those of you who aren’t already aware. But there really is no best way to share this kind of thing.

Since she died, I’ve sorted through her jewelry and thrown away her beauty products. I’ve laughed and cried. I’ve donated her clothing and packed up her china, but in spite of that–true acceptance of her death has eluded me.

A few nights ago though, I found myself sitting on the floor crying in front of her Schnellkochtopf (pressure cooking pot) because it was in my kitchen and not in hers. It doesn’t belong here, I thought. It should be in her kitchen. She should be there too. But she’s not there and so I’ve inherited the pot.

After I caught my breath and wiped the tears away, I decided it was about time to cook one of the masterpieces she shared with me. The thing is, in the six years since we first cooked together my only foray into the Franconian cookbook is her recipe for Schnitzel. It never made any sense to me to try to cook the things that she made so deliciously. Plus– I never had a pressure cooker and almost every recipe uses it.

Well, now I have one, I thought. Time to brave up and give it a try.

Going through my notes from that time, I settled on Kren Fleisch as a good dish for my first attempt. I read through my old blogs to get the gist of what I needed to do and realized that while I was discovering a whole new world back then, I was not taking particularly detailed notes. While I mention the pressure cooker in most of the posts about Jola, I never paid attention to exactly how it worked. The recipe had an ingredient list and at least told me the length of time to pressure cook the meat but left the rest to the imagination.

Before I got started, I checked to see if her pressure cooker worked with my induction cooktop. Paralyzed I stood, eyes wide when I saw that my cook top couldn’t heat the pot. That meant that the first time I cooked one of her masterpieces without her, I was going to have to cook it in her old kitchen.

I headed over to her apartment. It’s strange to go there and not see her at the window before I even exit the car. It’s weird to unlock the door myself, Not to hear her voice. But somehow the apartment still smells like her. So there is a fleeting greeting. I found the cutting board where it always is and began prepping the vegetables for the broth. Carrots, leeks, onions, celery, pepper–I had to guess at the amounts because I didn’t include that information in the notes I took. I tried not to think about how weird it was that I was in charge in the kitchen now.

Then came the moment when I had to do something with the fast cooking pot. First I laughed and then I cried because I really had no idea what I was doing. Cooking without Jola and without a clue, I thought. I might have had a note that said I should bring the whole thing to a boil but I wondered, What then?! Do I turn it down for the pressure cooking portion? Is it going explode? How do I know if it’s done? How do I know if it’s over done?

Using my notes and what I could remember from six years ago, I kept going. Thorsten helped some because we both planned to be there for this event. I consulted the internet and compared what I was doing to the photos I had from the last time we cooked it. In the end, we made it. The meat was done, the pot had not exploded. It felt like a small victory.

And technically it was a success, but the taste was not like Jola’s. The meat wasn’t tender enough and the sauce was too spicy.

Now I see why it would’ve been helpful to try these recipes on my own when she was still alive. I could’ve called her and she could’ve given me all her pearls of wisdom again in real time. We both loved those phone calls. The ones that come while you’re prepping dinner and you just need a reminder or a tip. Sometimes it’s just an excuse to talk and food was always a good common ground between us.

Obviously I’m going to need to figure out how a pressure cooker works if I’m going to become the gatekeeper for our family’s legacy of Franconian recipes. And now that I know Jola’s pressure cooker doesn’t work in my kitchen, I guess I’ll have to invest in one that does. Still, I just can’t bear to part with hers. If spirits hang around inanimate objects, this pot has Jola written all over it–warm, open, experienced and a bit finicky–I would take all of her obsessive worrying and finger wagging just to cook and laugh together one more time–Talk about time standing still and flying at the same time–that’s how it always felt when we were cooking together.

Goodbye my dear lady, you are so very missed.