The other day my mother showed me a picture of the grocery store her parents owned on the outskirts of downtown Detroit. The building she pulled up on google maps looked faded and run down; the street view revealed other abandoned store fronts, vintage-looking signs and empty lots. Panning out to virtually peer behind the store, I saw the house where my mother spent her childhood. She lived on Chene Street with her parents, six siblings and her grandparents, who occupied the upstairs apartment.
At first, seeing the house evoked melancholy thoughts of lives lived and eras long gone. But then I recalled the stories my mom tells of living on Chene Street, sneaking into the grocery store, walking to school, and most importantly, learning life lessons from her grandmother, whom she affectionately referred to as “Babcia Upstairs” (Babcia is “grandmother” in Polish).
According to my mother, Babcia (pronounced Bop-cha) defined what it meant to be a “lady” in 1950’s America. She dressed to kill, spoke softly, shined her shoes and always wore rouge, no matter if she was staying in or going out.
In my mother’s eyes Babcia was free from imperfections, always generous, never angry and more than loving. Loving enough to forgive my six-year-old, impish mother her faults, including defacing personal property.
The story goes that Babcia purchased a new dresser set made of beautiful hardwood. My mother took a tube of bright red lipstick, settled herself on the floor next to the wall and transformed one side of the dresser into a canvas for drawings and letters. My mother created a masterpiece – a lipstick masterpiece that lodged itself so profoundly into the wood grain no amount of soap would wash it away. Her parents scolded her and threatened a spanking, but Babcia stepped in. Gazing at her brand new dresser, now covered in a child’s scrawl, she said, “I will have Gloria’s drawings on my dresser forever. She made it beautiful.” That’s how Babcia taught my mother about forgiveness and true love.
One summer evening, my mother spent the night at the upstairs apartment. From her place in a spare bed, she watched Babcia walk down the moonlit hallway. As Babcia turned to enter her bedroom, the moon shone just bright enough to illuminate her form beneath a thin night dress, revealing a truth about Babcia my mom never knew: her legs were deformed, severely bowed, and she walked with a limp. Babcia suffered from Paget’s disease, a painful disorder causing misshapen bones, fractures, and arthritis. Even so, she never complained. That night Babcia taught my mother many lessons, mainly about perseverance, confidence, and the importance of seeing a person as she truly is, not as she appears to be.
As a child, I often heard my mom and her sisters, Francine and Vivian, refer to each other as “Lala.” I knew it was a nickname–a nickname my mother gave me at times–but I never understood its origin. Babcia started it. “Lala” is a term of endearment, meaning “doll” in Polish.
Babcia uttered the phrase, “Lala, mind” often as she instructed my mother in a task or wanted her to listen closely, like when she made golumpkis. Babcia meticulously removed the center vein of each cabbage leaf with a paring knife, a task my mother found too tedious, too slow. “Lala, mind,” Babcia said as she showed her how to roll the ground beef and rice into a neat little package, always encouraging, always instilling confidence.
My mother made golumpkis for me and my brothers on occasion. When she did, her eyes brightened with the impish light of her six-year-old self as she talked of Babcia Upstairs, happy times, eras gone by, and lives lived well.
Babcia’s Golumpkis (with a few twists from her great-granddaughter)
For the Tomato Sauce:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1 1/2 quarts crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the Cabbage Rolls:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 vidalia onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons sun-dried tomato paste
Two generous splashes of dry red wine
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1 pound ground turkey
1/2 pound turkey sausage, casings removed (I used local sweet Italian sausage)
6 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped finely
2 cups white rice, cooked
1 large head green cabbage
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
For the sauce:
Heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the garlic and saute for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add the vinegar and sugar; simmer, until the sauce thickens, about 7 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and remove from the heat.
For the filling:
In a skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium high heat. Sauté the onion and garlic for about 5 minutes, until soft. Stir in the tomato paste, the splashes of wine, thyme, and 1/2 cup of the tomato sauce, mix to incorporate and then take it off the heat. Combine the ground meat in a large mixing bowl. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add the egg, the cooked rice, and the sauteed onion mixture. Sprinkle with salt and pepper again. Use your hands to combine the mixture.
For the cabbage:
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Remove the outer leaves from the cabbage and set aside. Cut the core out with a sharp knife and pop the whole head of cabbage into the boiling water. Blanch and remove leaves with tongs as soon as they become pliable. Keep doing this until you have 12 to 14 decent-sized leaves. Run the leaves under cold water.
Cut out the hard, center vein from each leaf, so they will be easier to roll up. Take the outer leaves you set aside earlier and line them on the bottom of a glass, 9 x 13 pan (this helps the bottoms not to burn in the oven).
Make the rolls:
Put about 1/3 cup of the meat filling in the center of each cabbage leaf . Fold in the sides and roll up the cabbage to enclose the filling and create a seam. Place the cabbage rolls in rows, seam-side down, in the glass pan.
Pour the remaining tomato sauce over the cabbage rolls. Bake for 1 hour until the meat is cooked.