Friday, February 22, 2008

The Butter Battle Begins

After I finished teaching for the day I went to the English teachers' room. Our lair is a relatively small space, filled with a large conference table, 15 chairs, a computer and a xerox machine. I sat at the computer to check my email when a fellow teacher approached and started talking to me about Romanian cooking. This particular teacher knows that my new favorite hobby is to cook, so she gives me her tips and advice. She teaches French at the school, and is married to the head of the English department. She loves cooking, she loves talking and, even more, she loves talking about cooking.

Once you get her on the subject, she'll go on and on. Her enthusiasm is really something. The only problem is that she talks so quickly I sometimes have a hard time following her. The other teachers in the room find it ammusing to watch these exchanges--apparently my looks of confusion are evident to everyone but her. She just keeps on blabbering, apparently undiscouraged by my slightly vacant expression. Well actually, she does ocassionaly stop to say something like, 'I don't know how much of this you're getting...' I just smile and she continues on as usual. Not being able to get a word in edgewise, all I can usually do and nod my head and grunt, which is probably for the best (since I could never match her in speaking anyway).

Today the exchange was much the same. I actually do understand her fairly well, it's just hard to keep track of all the details when she's giving me a recipe that has multiple steps. Another teacher, one who doesn't usually spend much time in the English office, happened to be observing. She was surprised that the French teacher was talking to me in Romanian. 'He understands Romanian?!' she asked with a hint of surprised delight. At this point she entered the conversation. The French teacher and I happened to be discussing the intricacies of beef soup. Since we were on the topic of soup, the second teacher asked me if I happened to know how to make dumpling soup (supa cu galu┼čte, as dumplings are called in Romanian). Since I didn't, she took the opportunitiy to impart her wisdom on me. She described the process, but when she got to the part about the eggs, the French teacher piped in her objections, "No! that's not what you do with the eggs! You can't beat the whites and the yolks together. You need to beat them separately and recombine them, it's the only proper way to do it." The other teacher responded, "I'm just telling Mike to do it this way since it's easier." "Easier! Poppycock! It'll make the dumplings too hard," retorted the French teacher (she didn't actually say poppycock, I just added it for effect). A third teacher chimed in, "No, no, no. You've both got it wrong. You discard the yolk, beat the whites, add the farina a little at a time, along with a little oil." Everyone had their own opinion; the situation really demostrated that there can be such a thing as too many cooks in the kitchen.

I felt like I had somehow gotten myself caught in the crossfire of Dr. Seuss's great butter battle. Even more confused than before, I decided to go down to the cantina for lunch. When I came back up, I discovered a bag of farina, 6 carrots, and powdered chicken broth waiting on the table for me. Along with those items was a hand-written recipe from the second teacher (all in Romanian, with handwriting I could barely read). Apparently she went shopping to get me the particular type of farina that she always uses. I forgot to mention, there had also been a lengthy discussion about what sort of farina to use. Apparently, the second teacher was so concerned about me doing things "correctly" that she took it upon herself to make sure I had the proper supplies. Just another example of the typical Romanian woman's motherly instinct. You can imagine how worried they all are about this American boy, far from home, without a mother to cook for him (For example, whenever I visit my landlady, the conversation usually starts off something like this: "Are you hungry?" "No, thank-you" "How about a schnitzel?" "No, that's quite alright, thanks." "Ok, how about some eggplant salad?" "No thanks, I'm content" "How about some branza?" "Really, I'm not hungry." "Oh, not hungry, eh? Maybe you would just like some bread then?").

I was milling over the recipe instructions when the French teacher came back into the room. She knew that the other teacher had left them for me. Hinting at the fact that the recipe in my hand might lead me astray, she said, "you should really consider separating the white and yolk."

Well, when I got home I decided to make the soup-- I figured why not, I had all the neccessary items and some time to kill. So, I got out my pot and I deciphered the recipe. Now, I'm not sure if the French teacher's warning was prophetic, or if I had simply done something wrong, but the dumplings ended up being a little hard. However, all in all they weren't bad. Maybe next time I'll see if I get a different result by separating the eggs.

In any case I had an interesting cultural exchange today. And, I learned just how seriously Romanian women take their cooking, which is to say...quite seriously


Rachel said...

Starting fights at school, are you? Very nice.

John said...

Mike - remember my telling you about Mrs. Dupuis, my landlady when I first moved to CT? Each night she'd ask me if I wanted something to eat, something to drink, maybe a snack or a chocolate milk, or a piece of pie, or whatever. I kept saying no thank you, but she would ask every night nonetheless. Finally one night when she stated her litany, I simply said, "No thanks Mrs. Dupuis, I just had a grape." She then said "Oh, OK, then turned and went about her business. I guess all Mrs. Dupuis wanted to hear was that I had something to eat/drink, and it didn't matter that it didn't make any sense.
I did it every night after that, and she simply turned and said "Oh, OK."
Maybe "No thanks, I just had a grape" will work on your landlady too.

Lola said...

Hi Mike, I'm a Romanian living in NY and I've been reading your delightful blog for quite a while now. Well, talking about cooking and recipes pulled me from the shadows of lurking - I am myself quite passionate about cooking.
Hold on, I won't be giving you any advice :))(unless you request it :D). Just wanted to tell you a saying that I'll leave to you to translate: in Romania, especially when talking about cooking, they say "cate bordeie, atatea obiceie".
Take care and keep writing!

Mike Nork said...


My best guess would be, "as many homes, as many customs." Am I close?

I'd love to get your advice in making galuste, or anything else, if you'd care to share (email: mike at nork dot com).

Enjoy the snow in NY (I wish we had some here in Lugoj). Thanks for the comment!

Lola said...

You're dead on with the translation.
About the dumpligs, I'll have to disappoint you: I now use matzo meal and they come out perfect (recipe on the box). More in an e-mail, I don't want to bore your readers. :)
Have fun!