At the top of the page Oma has written, “Start with an experienced butcher. Have the butcher show you his top round, not bottom round steak.”
If you were more like your Oma, you would know your butcher. You would visit him weekly at the Winn Dixie, your arms folded and pressed against the metal cart as you leisurely navigate the walls of food that tower above your shrinking frame. You could close your eyes, filling your basket without a second thought, without the need to read any labels or make any choices. Your mind would already be filled with a catalogue of ingredients and cooking times. When you arrived at the butcher counter, they would know your cut.
Instead, you are more than a thousand miles away, in a Whole Foods clutching a crisp but yellowing piece of paper. Tiny scribbles of almost unreadable German script interlace the pristine black print, which was pounded key by key on her old typewriter. When you read over the list of ingredients, it is your mother’s, not your Oma’s voice that speaks back. She is shouting to you through your headphones, hoping the connection lasts.
“You’ll need a pound and a quarter of top round beef.”
“Top round,” you repeat back as you push through a crowd of shoppers wearing various decade old college sweatshirts. They are too busy studying the lists on their iPhones to look up as they wander the aisles, eyes fixed on the next item to-do. Like you, they are calling out into ear buds, some making plans to be back with the people they left. Even on Saturday night, the place is humming with transience.
“The pieces need to be large enough to wrap up with the filling, at least six to eight inches long and three to four inches wide. Are you doing this by yourself? Cooking the meat?”
“Yeah, I wanted to cook something I haven’t made before and I know Andrew loved Oma’s rouladen.”
You wait for her response. Her pause lets you know that she understands, that she sees past your simple answer.
“Mom, you there? Will it stay good if we wait to eat it when he’s back in town on Tuesday?”
“It should if you’re careful not to dry it out. It freezes well. Do it in steps. Not all at once. Did you get the toothpicks? Do they have them at your store? They need to be–“
“I’m sure they do, they have everything here.” It’s DC. “I’m at the counter and I don’t want to be rude. I have to go.”
You slide your phone down the front of your shirt into your sports bra and try to make eye contact with one of the butchers. It’s even harder than signaling a bartender at the Gibson on U Street. When you finally catch the young Ethiopian butcher’s attention, you are pinned against the glass by the sea of strangers who have arrived behind you. A loud cell phone call about rhubarb and an organic farmer calling out “Free local samples! Kale! Kombucha! Roasted Chickpea crackers! All Local, made here!” compete with one another before reaching a crescendo and being swept away in the cacophony around you.
Unable to speak loud enough over the concert of voices, you point at the beef round and then narrow the space between your fingertips until they almost touch, impersonating the shape of your Oma’s hands, her thick fingers, as if you know something about meat. You wonder if the butcher realizes that you are pretending, if he knows that you will just roll the meat on your plate, before burying it beneath vegetables and napkins.
“Yes, that one.”
“We have a four in that cut.”
“Not four pounds, just one and a quarter.”
He points to a row of bright colored numbers. Four means the cow lived in a pasture. Five means it lived on the same farm its whole life.
“What about a five?”
“No five in top round today.”
“Um, four then. Can you make sure the meat is thinly sliced to a quarter inch thickness, like scaloppini? And tenderized in the, um, tenderizer.”
He stares at you as if you are speaking in an accent as thick as his, as thick as Oma’s.
“We have meat tenderizer on aisle seven or there.” He points down at a small shelf of gluten free and panko bread crumbs and other organic rubs.
You whisper, “excuse me,” and pull your phone from your bra.
“What’s a tenderizer machine? Can I just use tenderizer?”
“No, a tenderizing machine tenderizes the meat so that it is more malleable. Tenderizer is just a bunch of MSG.”
“Oma’s recipe says I need one and the butcher didn’t seem to know what that means.”
“Well, you’ll have to pound the meat with a meat mallet once you get back home.”
“I don’t have a meat mallet.”
“Then I’d ask if they can pound it in the back. My butcher at Rouse’s does it.”
When he returns, he is holding up the pounded hunks of meat for you to inspect. It is still too thick, but you nod okay. As he wraps the meat, he explains that the number four cow was born and raised in a Texas pasture and was fed only grass. She was left to range and was never mistreated, never hungry. You nod as he angles the raw lump of cow toward you like an offering. As you walk away, you wonder how many farms the cow lived on and if she died in Texas too.
You stare at the list and repeat to yourself “You will only need twelve slices of bacon, halved.” In front of you, hanging bags of fat and flesh dangle from the wall. You imagine Oma looking at the variety of options—uncured, cured, tempeh, turkey and beef, and then cruelty-free, hormone free and no sulfite options. When you finally place the turkey bacon in your yellow grocery bag (the one that carries your yoga mat) you know you have failed. You turn back for the real stuff.
You unpack the groceries next to your growing stack of ethnic, seasonal and vegetarian cookbooks. Then you pour a glass of Malbec from your new “meat mallet,” before beginning to brush the counters with flour, watching as the fine white powder masks the tiny lines that have formed in the granite.
As the fluorescents beneath your cabinets flicker on you think of Oma’s kitchen. The cluttered countertops, the half open cabinet doors and rows of magical spices. Tracing your fingers through the flour you almost taste the hint of salt in her Christmas cookie dough and smell the secret rosewater and Arak in the royal icing. There is the smell of coffee and cloves and the sick feeling of one too many plates of food.
On the last Christmas Eve at Oma’s, standing on the bacon grease slicked floor surveying the heaps of crusted plates, you seethed at the excess. There was too much, eight main courses, plate after plate of sauerbraten, cabbage rolls and the rouladen. “This is the last time we will do this,” you spat as you stared at your mother. Your warning was as much a command as a plea. “This is too much for her and no one helps her clean.” You pointed to the dozen cabbage rolls that sat untouched, a slight smell of rot rising from their pot. “She doesn’t realize how much she has cooked and it is rotten. I’m barely in town at all to see her and I don’t want to spend the whole visit doing dishes.” You had your father throw the cabbage rolls over the back fence so she wouldn’t know there was waste. You cannot throw away food in front of someone who has lived without it.
You take the bottle of Alamos to the meat and begin to pound it. Like goose bumps, tiny ridges rise from the bright red meat before being hammered back down. The pounded meat looks too much like skin and it feels unsettling and cold against your fingertips as you rub the salt and pepper against the surface.
In the hospital, on the last day you were able to stay, before you left, your mother and aunt could only think of Oma starving. Of her life before they were in it. They tell your Oma’s story to the chaplain: bombs, occupations, Nazis and food shortages. “No,” is the echo, “no,” she does not want any intervention. But without a feeding tube she might feel hungry, she might starve. You said goodbye softly and hoped it wouldn’t come to that—and it didn’t.
The frying pan lets off a familiar warm heat and waves of smoke. When you lift up a piece of bacon it folds, the white fat draping and surrendering without resistance. As you lower the marbled red strips back into pan, you know you should distance yourself from the heat, but as you drop in piece after piece the grease splatters on the counter, leaving a new oily spot on the yellowing recipe. Beneath the grease stain, Oma’s penciled script reads, “Remove the bacon and set aside the thick drippings.”
You pour the grease into a small glass dish. Pieces of fat and clear flecks of meat float to the top before sinking and settling down below the surface. As you finely chop the onions, you expect your eyes to well up, but they don’t.
On the day she died, after your husband took the call in the bedroom and his red-rimmed eyes met yours, you were empty. As he drew you a bath, the smell of onions sautéing hung in the air.
You imagined the phone call happening again and again, hearing news of births and deaths this way, forever—years of packing garment bags with dark suits and black dresses and traveling through empty airports on quiet Thursday mornings.
When you sank into the tub, the tops of your hipbones rose out of the water and you pictured your belly growing enormous and round with life. Would a grandchild make your mother less sad? Would it make you feel something other than the lump in your throat that ached as you swallowed thin spoons of vegan carrot soup?
The sizzle of the chopped onions in the frying pan stirs you back into the present. You can hear Oma’s voice, pitching from a harsh whisper to a sweet high as she reminds you to watch closely so the onions do not burn. “One burned onion ruins the flavor you are seeking for the rouladen and you need them all,” she says. “They should be a golden brown and if there aren’t enough bacon drippings add butter to finish the sauté.”
You pour the bacon and onions into the food processor that Oma bought you. It was one of only a few of your old possessions that made it from Louisiana. Everything else in the kitchen is new. As you stare down at the clumps of onion and white bacon fat which have become one, you wonder if you might have processed it all too much. Looking at the pinkish mix, you are not sure where the onion ends and the bacon begins.
In the dim evening light of the kitchen, you squint to read the last swirls of German that line the margins. They are conversions from metric. You picture Oma’s arrival in America, those first few months in the cramped New Orleans apartment near Canal Street. Did she sit in her own tiny kitchen, thousands of miles from every person and every meal she had known or prepared, carefully converting her old ways to new ones? Did she grow stronger, typing letters to her mother and sending them across an ocean? Maybe setting the words down in ink and on paper made the distance more permanent, or maybe the space between the old world and the new made roots more possible.
“Mama, how do I get the filling to stay in one place? It’s spilling out everywhere.”
“Well, take about two tablespoons of filling and pour it down the middle. Right on the line of yellow mustard and pickle relish–straight down.”
“I did that.”
“Is it right in the middle? Otherwise it’s going to leak out after folding.”
You drag the bacon mixture into the center of the beef and form it into a line. It is your mother’s voice that guides you as you fold the meat over the filling from the left, then on the right, and from the nearest long side, until at last you roll the meat away, pushing it from you.
“Now you just need to anchor them in place.”
“With string? Or toothpicks?”
“Mama quit using string years ago.”
“Her mother and her mother’s mother used it in Germany, but when she got to New Orleans they had round toothpicks that worked much better. Just don’t forget and bite into one. Make sure you use the same amount of toothpicks in each roll. It will help you remember. It helps me.”
“Thank you, Mama.”
When Oma left home a lifetime ago on a giant steam ship, her back was turned to crumbling buildings and a ravaged country. She left for the possibility of a full belly, a loving heart and a forever home. You always said you would leave Louisiana. And when you did, riding up 95 in the backseat swaddled by a few possessions, you did not look back. You were proud that your life could be packed in a tiny Camry, happy to ignore the trail of your belongings that dotted the attic and closets of your childhood home.
Pushing the rolls through the flour, you turn them over and over again. As you stick the toothpicks into each roll, you feel them being pulled tighter together, until all the pinkish filling at the center is hidden under thick layers of meat.
Everything that is left will be used. In a small bowl, you whisk the flour and broth to make the gravy before adding it to the pan. Now that the rouladen rolls have a crisp edge, you can no longer see the toothpicks that hold them together. The browned exterior has protected the tender inside from the bubbling heat. As you drop the rolls into the simmering gravy below, you are confident that they will not unravel, that even lost in a dense sea of thick brown sauce, they will remain intact.
You remove the rolls one by one, placing them into the clear glass storage container, leaving the smallest one alone in the pan. Ladling a spoonful of gravy over it, you look down at the meat, which has been transformed into something warm and familiar. You are careful to remove the toothpicks from deep within. When you cut a bite, the rich, full scent wafts upward and the first taste fills your heart. You are transported from your apartment to a seat at Oma’s large dining room table, where you are surrounded by the family Oma made. Then you are in Germany eating with Oma and her mother, and her mother’s mother.
Julie Gerdes Becnel received her undergraduate BA in creative writing from Louisiana State University and her MA in public communication at American University. She is a published poet, essayist, playwright, and short fiction writer, as well as a contributing writer and guest lecturer on topics ranging from social entrepreneurship to cultural diplomacy. Her blog, Engaged with a Cause, is a leading source for information on wedding philanthropy. Additionally, the children’s ballet she authored, "Journey to the Emerald City," is currently touring with Baton Rouge Ballet Theatre’s Ballet for Children program. She works in marketing at National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, DC.