I NEVER SET OUT making gnocchi for the sake of my Viennese childhood. But when I stir the Cream of Wheat into the boiling milk in my Washington kitchen, that's what I think of.
Gnocchi belong to my early childhood and to a short period when my parents employed a tall, big-boned woman with a mass of black hair. She had large gestures and a booming voice and she scooped me up and held me very tight. I wriggled away, not out of her grip, which was warm and comforting, but higher up so that my head rested against her cheek or her hair, which she kept drawn from her forehead and knotted in a heavy chilgnon. It had a lovely smell. My mother complained that she stank of perfume, though she never told her. But there was much discussion about her hair, and she was reprimnanded for the black coils that came undone at the end of the day and curled over her shoulder when she bent forward to serve our evening meal.
She had a brother with a mustache who came to see her evenings when my parents were out. He called her "Francesca." I thought it was the prettiest name I'd ever heard, prettier by far than "Franzi," which we called her, though I whispered "Francesca" into her ear each time she took me in her arms. It was a secret name and a promise: even if she was everybody else's Franzi, she'd always remain my Francesca.
Her brother usually sat on the coal box in the corner of the kitchen. She drew up her chair next to him and they held hands, he slightly higher, though he was barely as tall as she was. They drank beer and laughed a lot and he brought me Mozartkugeln, chocolate-covered marzipan balls wrapped in silver foil and stamped with the name of the candy store around the corner which my mother had stopped patronizing. She found them impudent. They'd always given me an extra piece of candy, and though I know that it made my mother uncomfortable, I continued to greet the shop owner each time we passed by.
Franzi stayed through a spring and summer. Why she was fired I don't know, but I remember her resonant woice imploring the heavens for justice. She left shortly after her suitcase was put outside the door. She didn't say goodbye, not even to me. I spent the next week wishing my mother her just punishment.
With Franzi disappeared some food I liked. There were the gnocchi; there was polenta, corn flour boiled into a thick mass, cooled and fried in golden brown pieces and served with butter and cheese; there was also a fish soup, or stew, a change from the tasteless fillets of unidentifiable fish covered with a thick batter and deep fried that we ate every Friday before she arrived, and which we went back to once she left and Resi reigned in the kitchen.
My father was a nonpracticing Jew, my mother a secret and fervent Catholic atoning for her many sins, first and foremost among them her heathen child.
My parents were married in a civil ceremony, and my grandmother, whom I remember as a thin, gentle woman in black, never accepted the marriage. She visited when my father was away and always left before he came home in the evening. My mother took me to mass and asked me not to tell, though I doubt that my father cared. They must have agreed on not giving their children any religious education, but he cannot have been duped: where did his wife and daughter spend their Sunday mornings if not in church? The secrecy made a long Latin service exciting. We met my grandmother outside the Paulaner church a few blocks from our house. The cool, dark church, the smell of incense and the holy water drying on my forehead created a strong bond between us; it was a bond between women. I swore loyalty unto death, to them, and to Catholicism, which seemed normal, decent and secure. Everybody was a Catholic, why wasn't I? Girls in white went to their first communion.For a long time I thought, when I'm seven things will have changed. I too will look like a princess from the court of the Lord. I too will belong.
In church we met my playmates and their parents. There was the grocer and the butcher, and sometimes my pretty, red-haired aunt Irene, who didn't have to hide her faith and consequently was so much happier than my poor, persecuted mother. Or at least that's how I saw it when I wasn't angry with her and when she hadn't predicted for a while that I'd live to regret my disobedience. "You'll cry on my grave," she said, which brought up visions of bad stepmothers and motherless girls, though they were all somehow vindicated in the end.
After church we always went to a patisserie. A few times in spring and early summer when we'd been to service at St. Stephen's, I was taken to Dehmel's, the best place in town, far better, they said, than Sacher, which had lately gone downhill. But I'd fidgeted through the service, or played with the toads carved into the stone banister running up the pulpit; my white socks had black smudges, and I'd hissed at the boy who kicked my shins. I wasn't worthy of the chocolate torte. Instead I ordered a Schumrolle, which I didn't like, and went away imagining the cool, brittle chocolate casing and the bittersweet taste of the cake.
We celebrated Christian holidays. There was a Christmas tree and an Easter bunny and my father accepted the meatless Fridays. He slurped Franzi's fish soup with relish and boned the pieces of fish on another plate, dexterously using two forks. The soup, or stew, contained potatoes, leek and tomatoes. It had a slightly sour taste and must have been seasoned with lemon juice or vinegar. I remember the thick, red-dish stock, its surface covered with shimmering pearls of fat, and the large pieces of fish, which had a far more interesting taste than any fish I'd had, maybe with the exception of carp, which could be called interesting, but which I disliked. I've looked in Austrian cookbooks but never found anything remotely like this dish. It isn't a bouillabaise, nor any other traditional fish soup, which contains neither tomatoes nor lemon juice, nor the peculiar spicing I recall and which must have been caraway seeds. Maybe I remember this soup so well because I vowed to remember Franzi; even if twenty years passed by I'd find her and undo whatever wrong my mother inflicted upon her.
My mother, who had a facility with language, called Franzi's gnocchi "the glory of Italian cuisine." My father spent a year of World War I in Italian trenches and disliked things Italian. Till the end of his life he refused to eat pasta. But he did eat gnocchi, mainly, I think, because he believed them to be an inexpensive dish. "And so good for children," my mother said.
I still like gnocchi, Far from glorious, they are a good example of solid home-cooking, belong in the repertoire of a bonne menagere, in a kitchen where one has time: you start by boiling cream of wheat in milk, then add egg yolks, butter and nutmeg; you spread the mixture about half an inch thick and let it set. Then you cut gnocchi - pieces about an inch square - arrange them shinglewise in a buttered dish, cover with lots of grated parmesan and more butter, and broil.
Their looks, taste and texture, all rather bland and gentle, are part of a bygone era: Burgerlichkeit und Schweinebraten. One had leisurely sit-down dinner, father, mother, children. A maid did the cooking and served at table. The lady of the house jiggled a bell when it was time to clear away the plates and serve the next course. In our progressive house a cord with an electric bell hung from the chandelier over the dining table. My mother only had to push a button for the maid to appear. We didn't even hear the bell. It sounded only in the kitchen, where it flipped a small plate in a square black box on the wall. The box was lettered "dining room," Herrenzimmer" - the untranslatable German word denoting a study, but actually meaning "room for gentlemen."
Meals and life followed a routine - heavy, bourgeois and certain that nothing would upset. I still like bland, heavy food, the left-over Knodeln, dumplings, sliced and fried in butter; Palatschinken, the heavy Austrian crepes; vegetables coated with bread crumbs; clear stock with "Einlagen," the large variety of baked, boiled or fried pasty concoctions which swam in the Rindsuppe every day. The taste of Kaiserschmarrn or Salzburger Nockerln gives me a feeling of warmth and security. I can't tell whether all this food is good or bad, but I suspect that to love it, you have to be raised on it.
I've seen Vienna as a grown-up and I don't like it. Buildings are cracking, baroque ornaments wither, dirty streetcars whine along their tracks. The Viennese charm is a toothless grin. Vienna is dead, and no amount of theatrical makeup or whipped cream can give it a resemblance of life. The streets are filled with old women in black. Scarves around their heads they shuffle along in worn slippers, weary of their past. Small packages dangle in the grocery nets on their arms: pensions are meager, life is expensive, there is no hope.
I was a child in the Thirties. It was a frenzied, hopeless time, but the terror that began in 1938 must also have been a relief. The nightmares had become reality. My parents predicted disaster, but it may have been more in their nature than in the times. "Don't squint or your eyes'll get stuck," my mother said, or "don't frown, or you'll have wrinkles."
I cannot remember any political discussions, but pretense ruled my life. It was important to smile at the grocer just so, the right way, not too much lest he become too intimate, but not too little either. I was supposed to curtsey for one lady but not for another, and the few times we met one of the Hoheiten my mother went to school with, even she curtseyed in mock reverence, to be pulled up by a gloved hand and embraced.
I don't mourn my Viennese childhood. There is nothing in it I'd like to restore and little I remember with pleasure, except food.
During the week was sometimes ate in what was called the library, a windowless hallway next to the Herrenzimmer. Cold cigar smoke always lingered and mingled with the smell of food. The high double doors were left ajar and a rosy gloom filtered through burgundy-colored curtains covering the bay window of the Herrenzimmer, casting an eerie light over our meals. I remembered the tables as a large oval along a book-lined wall. Much later it turned out to be a modest circle seating four; only a small child would have to ask for the bowl of whipped cream which was mirrored far away in the mahogany surface.
My father read thoughout meals; pages of the daily paper fell to the floor as he finished them. He spooned up his soup noisily and quickly, and though he wanted it boiling hot, he blew on every spoonful, his head bent over his plate. He dried his mouth and chin, then put his large white napkin in a careless heap next to his plate and fumbled for his glasses. Sometimes he read a paragraph aloud, but mostly he restricted himself to a loud grunt or a snicker.
Dinner started with soup, followed by large quantities of boiled beef, which was so tender that it fell apart when touched with a fork, yet so tough that it stayed between my teeth long after the meal was finished. When I retrieved the pieces, they had the same color and consistency as the small bits of cardboard I used to chew.
My father was sensitive to unexpected sounds. When the maid let a spoon clatter against a plate he made a violent gesture, mumbled a curse or heaved his shoulders in a sigh. The muffled sound of a door slammed at the other end of the house made him jump. He ran from room to room, suddenly came to an abrupt halt and sniffed the air as if to locate the source of the sound. He stared at one closed door after another and fingered the handle. Finally he shrugged and returned to his chair, shuffling his feet in despair.
He claimed to be an insomniac. Every morning he told how little and how poorly he had slept. He heard the carriage deliver groceries to the corner store. The clattering hooves of the horses woke him up just when he'd fallen asleep. He described the sounds that kept him awake, he whistled and clucked like a bird, drummed the hooves on the breakfast table and imitated the screeching brakes of an occasional car.
His afternoon naps were sacred. It was, he said, the only time when he could sleep soundly like a baby, or like he used to before he got married. When he had finished his lunch, he drank his coffee in large, slurping gulps and retired to his room, a handkerchief over his eyes, his vest unbuttoned and his golden watch hanging from a nail behind the bed. That's how I found him every afternoon when I was sent to wake him up with a glass of lemonade and honey.
While he slept we tiptoed through the house, carefully closing doors, attentive to every noise, however low or hushed. We heard the distant bell of streetcars, which trembled on a high note and deepened just before it died away. We listened to every faint rattle, to the creaking of the stairs, and to voices from the streets, anxious not to raise our own.
The kitchen was the only room where one could talk. It was different, alien, with a life all its own, self-sufficient, active and resounding, and only incidentally connected with the rest of the house.
The house smelled of floor polish and cigar smoke. Early in the morning there was also a stuffiness, when the beds had not been made and windows were yet to be opened. In the dining room another set of burgundy-colored curtains turned the daylight into melancholy twilight. Here the Christmas tree was decorated behind closed doors and the birthday table set. In a corner closet boxes of chocolate were stored together with bottles of liqueur; they filled the room with a particular sweetness, a smell of chocolate and wilting flowers.
Kitchen smells were frank and delightful: onions browning in lard, broth boiling, the steam lifting the lid of the pot and sending out whiffs of carrot, parsnip and leek; cake with a smell of vanilla, apples frying in butter, the smell of lemon, of strawberries, or apricots, and of Resi, the cook my parents employed during their last and most affluent years in Vienna.
Resi smelled cool and musty like her room, where I was not allowed, but where I was invited evenings when my parents were out to sit on the narrow, rickety bed and look at pictures. I liked Resi's dead fiance. He looked very said, particularly in the enlargement which stood on her dresser and was decorated with a rosary. Evenings when we were alone Resi told her stories without being interrupted. In daytime, in the kitchen, she told them too, but stopped as soon as she heard steps.
I sat opposite her on a low footstool, close enough to touch the copper basin she held between her knees. She creamed butter and I watched the big yellow chunk cling to the wooden spoon, then disperse into smaller pieces, smearing the shiny copper walls and dissolving into a soft mass. Her spoon went round and round, constantly changing the mountains, roads and hollows she had made on her previous tour. She cracked eggs against the rim of the basin and let them drop one by one. I followed the dark yellow of the yolk streak the butter and wondered whether she could make it disappear. One egg, two, three, four were engulfed in the yellow mass with no more trace than a slight deepening of color and coarser, more grainy remains which the spoon splashed against the wall of the bowl.
Every time Resi smoothed her apron or rearranged the bowl between her knees, there was a gamey odor from under her long skirt. At times she unlaced her shoes where the big and little toes had left permanent bulges in the worn leather to put her feet on the stool I sat on. The same odor, high and rancid, emanated from her feet. It was revolting; also delightful, because it was forbidden. It contained the secrets of her narrow room, of the dark closet where she kept her fur-trimmed winter coat, of the hastily-made bed with its rumpled sheets, of the large trunk with all the unthinkable details of her life.
I longed for the squalor of her room, which was chilly in the summer, raw and nippy in winter. It was exciting to sit next to her and listen to her stories: a girl, "not much older than you," was lured into the woods by strangers, "all covered with leaves and the snails crawling over her when they found her." Resi's sister was married to a drunkard and her grandmother knew ahead of time when someone would die: "the light travels backwards and in her mind there is no doubt who'll be next."
My parents taught me the multiplication table and hired an English nanny who took me to the park where I learned nursery rhymes, but my questions about what happened to dead people were not answered. I buried a sparrow, made sure that three days had passed, then went to dig it up. I never found it. I couldn't even find the shoe box where it had lain in state on a bed of cotton covered with blue silk. But then, mu grandmother also went away.
In bed at night I watched the light of an occasional car travel over the wall. It crept over the ceiling, ran down the opposte wall, slid around the corner and disappeared. The bedspread on its chair took on a dreaded shape, half animal, half man. Now it resembled the caryatides supporting the balcony of our house: a drooping eyelid flickered, they were ready to cast off their burden and devour me.
I called and my mother came and told me to sleep. When my parents weren't home, I pressed the button next to my bed till my finger turned white. With Resi I could talk about the light. She told me it wasn't true, it was nothing to worry about, no one was going to die. Yet she smiled and looked up the walls and the ceiling. I realized that there were other secrets I wasn't part of; there was an awesome truth that Resi kept to herself.
Her food was appetizing as long as it stayed in the kitchen. Once it came on the table it lost its flavor: vegetables went limp; huge ripe strawberries, which were glistening and juicy when she cut them in half, had begun to wilt; meat was dry; the soft, lukewarm cake flat and cold.
In the kitchen the light was bright and unabashed. Colors came alive, juices ran. One could have dirty hands. One was allowed to plunge a fist into the dough, mash the transparent pulp of apricots, put one's fingers through frothy beaten egg whites, lick the gravy from the plate. Resi didn't mind. Helli, the pale, flat-chested maid, didn't dare contradict.
Twice a week my mother went to the Naschmarkt. We walked through the parallel rows of low huts, starting with the fish vendors, which were called Sezession. I knew of no fish with such a name, but thought it had something to do with setzen, sich setzen, to sit down, and the fact that the fish vendors sometimes sat in front of their shops, whereas the people who sold cold cuts, or fowl, or fruit mostly stood behind their counter. Years later I found a picture of that section of the market in a book on architecture, and discovered that the word refers not to fish, but to a famous Art Nouveau building on the other side of the square.
My mother had come to the Naschmarkt for years and knew many of the vendors. For a time she bought all her vegetables from one stand, only to switch suddenly and for no apparent reason to another. She greeted someone in the crowd, waved apologetically to a fat lady selling fruit, "her plums aren't very good, we'll buy somewhere else, but don't turn around," smiled at a woman selling geese, "not today, but they do look fine," then bought a goose from another stand. She bought a quarter pound of salami from one delicatessen stand to turn the corner and buy another kind from someone else. Very tall, her head moving above the crowd, she bowed gracefully and smiled a tired smile, at once the queen greeting her subjects, "those poor people, but one can't buy from everyone," and afraid lest they should dethrone her for not buying their wares.
I liked the fruit which was crowned by small boards of black slate with prices and fanciful names written in chalk. There were Regina grapes from Bulgaria, dark Isabella grapes from Hungary, their thick skin covered by a purple hue; Moskatell from Carinthia, beautiful ablong grapes from Greece. I memorized the names while my mother urged me on. The tall figure moved in front of me while I stopped at the spices and took in the sharp smells. Dust rose from open canvas bags; dried peppers, twisted strings of garlic and grey leaves knotted with raffia hung from the ceiling. A girl in white leaned over her bronze scales and gave me a small wooden spoon with a few seeds to chew. I bit into them and tried to remember. Sometime, somewhere I'd be asked while the crowd was watching: I advance, slowly walk up the steps, pick up the small seeds from the spoon and roll them between my thumb and forefinger. I'd bring my fingers up to my nose, and though I'd already recognized the characteristic odor, I'd put a seed in my mouth and chew. Then I'd pause till the crowd stirred beneath me and the pale, stately man in front of me made a restless movement, the spoon trembling in his hand. "Sir," I'd say, "there can be no doubt: it is anise seed." I heard his sigh, relished his relief. The crowd cheered and drowned the words of gratitude while I ran after my mother who waited several huts away, restless and annoyed.
Resi received the groceries like a tribute. They were her due, something only she could handle. "I thought we'd have the goose on Sunday," my mother said.
"Why surely, ma'am, if that's what you prefer. I thought you wanted it for the dinner party on Saturday."
My mother backed out of the kitchen. "I guess you're right," she said, already in the hall where she took off her hat, carefully folding up its veil. "I forget all about it."
I watched my mother walk away. For a moment I was torn by a desire to run after her, to comfort her, and the desire to pursue my own pleasure. I stayed. It was irresistible. Again my mother had lost. With a sudden and acute sense of tragedy, I threw myself into Resi's arms and started to cry.
She consoled, asked if I was tired, promised tea and cookies and told me she was my friend. I sat on her lap and knew that it was true. She was the only one I could turn to, the only one to trust. My mother, the house, I had disavowed them. I renounced my family and my past; I didn't belong, except here, in a world different from my parents', where one spoke a different language, lived a different kind of life. Even my voice seemed different: loud and clear.
In the kitchen I was happy and free. The feeling of having cut all ties gave a poignancy to my exuberance, something sharp and anguished that made me want to cry out loud: look me, look at me, I'm bad and I'm happy.