Written by Susan Stone
I used to be able to smell grandma’s house walking up the back steps to her covered porch. The house always smelled the same, like cooked cabbage, even though she now only made golumpki for holidays. Christmas night was our annual celebration with the Zechlinski family. We would have already been to a Christmas celebration for my dad’s side of the family where I loaded up on mashed potatoes, turkey and gravy. But now it was time for the Polish dinner which included thick sliced ham, bright red beets with horseradish, cheesy potatoes and grandma’s beloved golumpki. She must have worked hours preparing so many of the delicately stuffed cabbage rolls. I know from my own attempts that getting the cabbage to just the right pliability takes a lot of practice. When the gently cooked leaves are ready to be stuffed with the ground beef, sauteed onion and white rice, it takes time to find just the right-sized leaf for the spoonful of stuffing. Once rolled, they lay in a pool of rich tomato sauce ready for the oven. Though my grandma always used Campbell’s tomato soup, I try to be fancy and make a homemade creation with canned crushed tomatoes and a dash of vinegar and sugar. I have made many mistakes with my trials of this traditional Eastern European dish. The cabbage has been undercooked, the meat has been undercooked and even the rice has been undercooked. I can still remember the time my effort came out as I had dreamed. The rolls were perfect and simmering in the sauce that had a beautifully thick consistency. Each roll a uniform size and the edges slightly browned. As I cut them open, a fragrant waft of steam floated in the air greeting my nose and warming up my tastebuds. The flavorful beef pulled apart gently and soaked up the right amount of sauce. If only I had remembered to put the dish in the refrigerator that night, perhaps I could have had several more meals. Live and learn. I often wonder how many times grandma had to run through the recipe to get it right.
My mother also made the classic Polish meal. Though, it was not necessarily saved for a special occasion and I would often smell the cabbage coming home from school on a regular Tuesday afternoon. She served golumpki with overcooked boiled potatoes. I used to mash them with a fork and put extra tomato sauce all over them with a dash of salt. She did a great job cooking the cabbage. Even though it was wrapped around the meat, I could tell the end of the leaf from the vein. The end was so well cooked that it melted in your mouth like pasta. The leaf vein was also cooked to perfection and did not need to be cut around to be consumed.
In the fall of 2019, I was fortunate to be able to visit the old country with my mom and three of my aunts. A full 10 days of golumpki! And to my surprise, it was not always made from supermarket beef and red sauce. It had been transformed from a daily working man’s meal to one served in the finest restaurants of trendy Krakow. I had golumpki with seasoned pork instead of beef, hearty buckwheat instead of rice, with creamy mushroom sauce, and even with decadent truffle sauce. It was often served with pillowy pierogies covered with caramelized onion or fluffy mashed potatoes loaded with butter. Every restaurant had their own recipe, and probably had their own grandma in the back cooking. Each establishment also had the familiar smell of grandma’s house. No matter where I ate the golumpkis were served with love and pride on a plate that usually looked like it had been hand-painted. And in traditional Polish restaurants, you often had doilies as your tablecloth. It was like Christmas at grandma’s all over again.
Over the years I had met others from Eastern Europe. We have a family friend who came from Serbia. They have a similar flavorful variation, except the cabbage is pickled and is essentially sauerkraut. My Russian friends have a version that uses Savoy cabbage and mixes sour cream into the sauce. The Germans also have a rendition with chopped cabbage that is engulfed in a strudel casing. My friends from these countries have similar stories of foods that elders made for special occasions. These homeland meals were the heart of the family gathering and have endured generations, new languages and new food sources.
Golumpki was part of our family for decades and it left a legacy in the cabbage odor of grandma’s house. So many gatherings, stories, laughs and celebrations happened while dishing the hearty, warm meal on our plates. Grandma’s house was purchased by the neighboring veterinarian clinic a few years ago after she passed. We wondered whether it would be used to house animals or as a parking lot. The parking lot prevailed. Somehow, I think over the asphalt you might still be able to smell the cabbage.
About the author
Susan is originally from Michigan but has been enjoying living in the Cow Hollow neighborhood of San Francisco since 1996. She began taking classes at CCSF to update her skills in writing, computers, and business. Susan loves hiking, biking, and traveling with her husband and teen daughter.