Note from curator Rozanne Gold: I’ve been reading a lot about cucumbers recently and so was delighted to get this wonderful recipe and memory jolt from food writer and cohort, Allison Radecki. The recipe is from her beloved Polish grandmother, her Babcia (pronounced BOB-cha), and it comes with a detailed history of a vanquished, but riveting, way of life. The handwriting belongs to Allison and the recipe has been handed down from at least three generations. Allison’s daughter, Tabitha, will no doubt be the fourth. She’s only five but will be making cucumber salad soon enough. After all, it’s fun to run the tines of the fork down the length of a cucumber to make a design before slicing. Cucumbers, by the way, belong to the cucurbitaceae family as do melons, squash, zucchini and pumpkin and contain potent anti-cancer compounds. Thank you to Allison, and to Babcia Genevieve.
My Babcia's Mizeria (Polish Cucumber Salad) by Allison Radecki
My Polish grandmother’s 1970s American kitchen was a place of transformation. The Formica countertops (whose pastel boomerang pattern always made me think of scattered rubber bands) were surfaces where wooden spoons, mason jars, and stoneware crocks reigned. This was a zone where things freshly picked from the backyard were crafted into dishes of incredible simplicity and deliciousness. There was always a soup bubbling on the stove or something caramelizing in a pan, just waiting for a hungry grandchild to say, “Babcia, I’m hungry.” To this day the scent of frying onions brings me back there, in a heartbeat.
Standing at her kitchen sink in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, my Babcia, Genevieve Baranowski, could survey her domain. Her backyard was a rolling expanse of grass and trees, complete with a stream (great for crayfish hunting), a goldfish pond, and a substantial vegetable garden, which was where the magic began.
Babcia’s first miraculous act was to transform red clay into black gold. Nothing in her kitchen was ever wasted. She knew how to incorporate peeled vegetable skins, coffee grounds, and eggshells into the soil, a spell which resulted in zucchini as large as baseball bats, and heirloom tomatoes you could barely palm with your hand. Every skunk, opossum, and raccoon within a ten-mile radius was drawn to her vegetal treasures, against which she continuously waged war.
Spending time in her kitchen came with a specific vocabulary: szczaw (sorrel), buraki (beets) and, of course, the mighty kapusta (cabbage), which she fermented in her basement with the help of river stones, used to weigh down the shredded leaves in the brine.
Trips to a Polish family friend’s dairy farm were quite common. The return journeys (with her wood-paneled station wagon’s windows rolled all the way down) not only brought raw milk back to her home, but also the finest dried cow manure, which she credited with the spectacular blooms on her roses and peonies.
Since my Babcia and her family were keepers of secrets, her detailed history is still murky. We know that she was born in Niagara Falls, New York, in November of 1913. Her family made the bad decision to sell the profitable family glove factory and tavern and return to Poland in the early 1920s. After an forced unwanted marriage in rural Poland, she ran away, boarding the M.S. Batory, an ocean liner of the Polish Merchant fleet, to return to the country of her birth during the Great Depression. Before the beginning of World War II, she managed to bring her two sisters, also natural-born citizens, back to America, where they all worked as wartime riveters on the East Coast.
Where and how my Grandmother learned to cook is still a mystery. She knew how to braise, how to roast, and could craft an encyclopedia of sauces from memory. Since my Great-Grandmother’s homemade donuts were rumored to break your toes if they fell on your foot, my Babcia’s skills were definitely not passed down the maternal line. My mother’s theory is that while working in Rockaway Beach, Queens as a domestic servant, her mother must have picked up on lessons taught in her employer’s kitchen.
Mizeria, a cold Polish salad of wilted cucumbers, sour cream, salt, and fresh dill, was a popular dish in my Babcia’s summertime kitchen. In recent days, with East Coast temperatures rising to high levels, I have turned to it for its refreshing properties as a side dish, as well as for the family memories that accompany it. It is perfect to bring along to a barbecue, guaranteed to cool off the heat of a summer afternoon.
Though its gloomy name, Mizeria, is said to echo the fact that a Polish peasant’s life was full of misery, the dish leaves me with the opposite impression.
When I taste it, I think of lazy days in the backyard. I can see my grandmother, scented from tomato plant leaves, coming towards me from her garden with a basket of cucumbers. We have a lot of peeling to do.
- 2 large seedless English cucumbers (about 3 cups sliced)
- 1½ teaspoons salt
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
- ½ cup sour cream
- 2 tablespoons white vinegar
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Peel the cucumbers. Run the tines of a fork, lengthwise, down the entire outside of the peeled cucumber, so that it is scored with the points of the fork (this action will give the slices a pretty scalloped edge -- see below).
Slice the cucumber as thinly as possible (so you can see a knife through the slices) and place in a bowl. Sprinkle slices with 1½ teaspoons salt and let sit for 30 minutes.
Drain water from the salted cucumbers and gently squeeze to expel remaining water. Pat cucumber slices dry with paper towels.
Toss cucumber slices in a medium bowl with sour cream, vinegar and dill. Allow the salad to marinate in the refrigerator for about one hour. Taste, adjust with salt and freshly ground pepper and serve.