Laxness in the Kitchen


Chapter 10

I’d spent the night at my parents’ house and, after breakfast, I’d driven to the Romanyuk’s. I’d just taken off my winter clothes and put them away. Dmytro was doing something in the barn. He’d waved from the door. Natalie had taken the cabbages out of the freezer earlier in the morning. The cabbages were thawed. I put them on a tray on the kitchen counter.

“That’s a lot of cabbages,” I said.

“We’re going to make extra so you can take some home with you.” Natalie was putting on a large pot of rice. There was a pound of bacon on a cutting board. “Here, you start slicing up this bacon fine. When you get that done, you mince these onions. Did you see Valdi this morning?”

“No, it’s his morning to have a bath and have his hair washed.”

“Does he need help bathing?”

“No, just getting into and out of the shower. They like him to sit in a chair. It’s like a factory. Washing all those people. You say no and you don’t get a bath for another week.”

“I can see he can’t get out of a tub anymore but out of a shower? If he was at home, he could get into and out of the shower. He’s got a handrail.”

I’d washed my hands and was slicing the bacon. “Fry it in there.” Natalie pointed at a large cast iron pan. She was cutting the cores out of the cabbages. “He has a good farm. You know his people were the first Icelanders to clear land in that area. They weren’t farmers. All they knew was planting potatoes.”

I felt, for a second, that I was being criticized or my great great great grandparents were being criticized. “In Iceland they didn’t plant crops. They just put fertilizer on their home fields. Grass for dairy cows and sheep.”

“This Laxness you care so much about, was he a farmer?”

“His father was a farmer. He tried to get Halldor interested but all he wanted to do was write. He started writing at seven.”

“I’ve read this Independent People about this stubborn farmer in Iceland. We have lots like that. Work and work and lose money. Lots of bankruptcy auctions in the Interlake. Lots of people have big mortgages, big loans and work for the bank. They should all wear those bank sports jackets.”

“Valdi thinks it is the best life in the world.”

I was putting the thin bacon shreds into the pan. “You need to keep stirring them,” she said. “You want to cook them enough but not too much.”

“Are the kids coming home for Christmas?” I asked. In the hallway, I’d looked at all the family pictures.

“Joseph and Sandra and their kids, yes. Barbara and Colin, no. They live in California and it is too far away and too expensive. Besides, they have no winter clothes anymore.”

“Joseph and Sandra live where?”

“Calgary. Doesn’t everyone live there now? The oil sands pay lots of money.”

I started mincing the onion and throwing it in with the bacon. They were large Spanish onions with golden skins. The knife was sharp and I was able to make thin, translucent slices, then dice them.

“You like to cook?” Natalie asked. I nodded. “Maybe you should become a chef?”

“Then it is work. Chefs have bad hours, bad working conditions, they get varicose veins from standing. I have a friend who is a chef,” I said.  “Not every chef has a TV program and a chain of restaurants.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “For one year when the crops were not good, I cooked for one of the restaurants. It was hard work.”

“Can you make a living from the farm?”

“Yes, but everything has to be big. Lots of land, always big equipment, loans from the bank. It is not enough to know how to farm. You have to be a businessman. You have to watch the price of crops, the weather, the price of fertilizer. I spend lots of time on the computer. It’s not three cows, two pigs and some chickens anymore.”

I stirred the bacon shreds, turned off the heat. The onion was golden I wondered how many thousands of hollopchi, how many perogis Natalie had made, how many cakes she had baked. Would she, if there was a place in heaven for people like her, say to St. Peter, I deserve to be in heaven because I made nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand hollopchis.

When I’d got to my parents the night before, I looked in the bedside table for the Bible that was never used. It had a fake red leather cover with a cross imprinted on it and the edge of the pages was painted gold. I realized that I had no idea where to find a reference to a camel and a rich man so I turned on my laptop and typed in rich man camel and up popped Mathew 19:24. Sunday school had left me with vague traces of Christianity. At least enough that I could do internet searches if I didn’t have to be too specific. I wondered where all that memorizing I’d done for Confirmation had disappeared. Mathew 19:24 said, “Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

It was rich people who paid for the large churches of Winnipeg, not the wretches working in the rich people’s factories. I wondered how the ministers handled that. Would they slice the truth thin like I had done with the onion? Some rich men can’t get into heaven but, you, our regular, generous donors will have no problem. Christ wasn’t talking about good people like you. Diplomacy was important in getting donations. The Lutheran ministers were not, in my experience, like the black maggots of Natalie’s grandparent’s time. Usually, they also were wretches, badly paid, overworked, regularly abused by the wives of the elders or by the elders themselves. In the early days a number of ministers came from Iceland but never stayed long. Even my father talked about ministers’ wives being bossed about by the elders’ wives, censured for wearing shorts on a hot Manitoba summer day. Every detail about their lives observed and criticized.

Right from when Iceland became Christian, there was never any question about who the local ministers worked for. They served at the pleasure of the local chieftan, the Godi. The Godi was the political master and it was the minister’s job to help him keep the peasants in line. Terrify the peasants with the Godi’s sword and the minister’s God. The ministers, even after Iceland became Catholic were allowed to have concubines, wives in all but name. They had lots of children. People who do genealogy are often shocked. They say, how can my family tree go back to the last Catholic bishop in Iceland? When that last Catholic bishop and two of his seven sons were beheaded and Iceland became Lutheran living conditions didn’t suddenly change.

Think about it. You are a young priest, you are assigned to some godforsaken isolated piece of turf and lava, given some sheep and a cow. There’s lava desert, there are ice cold rivers from the glaciers, there are glaciers, there are mountains, your parishioners are spread over the wasteland. If you want to see someone, you have to get on a horse—if you’ve got a horse—and ride for hours. If you don’t have a horse, you walk. There is no radio, no TV, no movies. You probably have a few religious books. You take care of the sheep and the cow, hire some pathetic older crone to cook, make butter and beat dried fish with a stone hammer so it can be eaten—the dried fish that is. Entertainment consists of church, when the weather allows, and when the hay isn’t being harvested, so you draw it out, make it last, swigging cheap brandy from a flask, snorting snuff while the choir sings. You hope for the possibility of a farmer dying, leaving an older woman in need of a younger man. If she’s really over the hill, you have sex with the young girls who work as indentured servants (serfs). If you get one pregnant, you use some of your wife’s money to buy them a husband and give them a ramshackle sod and lava hut on the edge of the desert. If no well-to-do farmer conveniently dies, you marry some younger woman and live together in poverty as your evening entertainment produces a kid every year.

Ministers, although useful for conducting marriages and funerals, unless they were well connected to the ruling Danes, were given pathetically small allowances plus a piece of land and some animals and expected to support themselves and their family on their sheep or dairy cows. Many lived in hovels of turf and lava like the peasants. It wasn’t because they were mortifying their flesh to serve God. It was because they were paid a pittance and given lousy land. Their only hope of improving themselves was to suck up to the Danes. To do that they needed to get to one of the two bishoprics. Not much chance of that. Most of them were stuck in some lava field that God had forgotten. As much as they might want to, they weren’t going to get to hobnob with the big shots. The Icelanders had got rid of the Catholic church but they hadn’t got rid of the system.

Black maggots. I liked that. I’d written it down. It was a great image. I’d seen priests in their black outfits. Maggot hadn’t jumped to mind when I saw them but then I hadn’t seen them eating. The words raised images of a Ukrainian farmer lying on a table and six priests sitting around him gnawing at his various parts. The image made me feel guilty because I’d known a priest. I’d met him at a summer school, knew him for weeks before he mentioned that he was a priest. He was really smart, well mannered, easy to talk to. I liked him. I couldn’t imagine him sitting down to dine on some Ukraine farmer’s kid. He came from a wealthy Montreal family and was used to caviar. He was more the kind of priest with whom Laxness liked to discuss religious theory.

I hadn’t given much thought about religion in my hoped-to-be book. The conversation the night before had stirred that up, Natalie saying that Domka and Peter had told Laxness that he should be ashamed for becoming a Catholic, that it was nothing to be proud of. Both Domka and Peter’s families had been better off than many of the other settlers. Domka’s father had been to school in Lviv. Peter’s father had been one of the few serfs who had managed to get household work and had learned to read and to master Russian, Polish and German. He’d planned his escape well. With the first stories he heard about North America he began to learn English. Because of that when he got to Canada, he’d been a leader in the community with people coming to him to ask him to explain the law, translate documents, help them deal with disputes with the English. The immigrants needed all the help they could get. Not being able to read or speak English, they were cheated at every turn. Land they should have had for ten dollars for homesteading, they were charged one or two thousand dollars for. They were fleeced, Valdi told me, like sheep, and those doing the fleecing were the English but sometimes they were the Icelanders who had arrived twenty-five years earlier. The fist fights weren’t always about girls.

Natalie was showing me how to roll the cabbage leaves around the rice, onion and bacon mixture so that it made a tight package.

“You don’t put any ground meat into the mix,” I said.

She shrugged. “That’s Hungarian, Polish. Here we didn’t have meat. Just rice, a little bit of pork, onion. Poor people’s hollopchi. It’s what you get used to.”

“Were people really so poor?” I asked. The stories I’d heard seemed exaggerated, yet there were so many of them. I read them at the library and in the local histories that I collected. The problem was that it was now fourth or fifth hand. There were photographs of people and farms and at Winnipeg Beach there was a Ukrainian park with an outdoor oven. My grandmother remembered going to a farm that had kept its oven. She said when the bread was put into it, the women used tough outer cabbage leaves instead of pans and when the bread came out of the oven, the bottom had the pattern of the cabbage leaf. But even then baking bread this way was really just a curiosity. Why bake bread in an oven you have to heat with wood, then pull out the ashes and slide the dough inside when you can turn on the electric stove? I’d asked her about it more than once but she’d been a little girl and didn’t remember anything more except that the bread had been very good. They’d eaten it with freshly churned butter.

“It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?” Natalie said. “Electric light. Electric heat. Just push the switch. Drive to town in half an hour. When I was a girl they were still using a horse with a caboose to take us to school in winter. Not for long. Just the first few grades. Then there was a car.”

I’d seen pictures of these cabooses on a sleigh with the kids lined up in front for a picture. They were in the Archives and in family photo albums. I wished that I could smell these days, hear them, touch them, not just look at a black and white photograph.

“Teachers do an important job,” she said. “A good teacher is always remembered.”

I wondered what Valdi had told her. “Yes, but it is not like it used to be. It is difficult.”

“We made sure our children behaved. There are lots of hard jobs for people with no education. Life is much better for an engineer and a nurse.”

“Not everyone feels that way. Parents come and they scream and yell and swear because their child doesn’t have A plus. No one has to learn. They complain and they are asked to choose what grade they think they deserve?”

“Some people make sacrifices, go to jail, get beaten, get killed so others have opportunities but that is forgotten,” Natalie said. “People think their car, their house, their food, their clothes, everything just is there because it is supposed to be. No one had to fight for good wages, good working conditions, medical. Like it just dropped down from the sky.”

As we talked, her hands moved automatically, scooping filling onto the cabbage leaves, rolling them half way, turning in the edges, rolling them the rest of the way. I’d put the outer tough leaves into the roasting pan. We lined up hollopchi on them. She took a ladle of crushed tomatoes and poured it over the first layer. I put another layer of cabbage leaves over them so we could put in a second layer.

“Did your wife make hollopchi?” she asked.

“She didn’t believe in cooking or cleaning house. These were slavery.”

“I don’t feel like a slave,” she said. “She wanted to feel like a slave, she should drive a truck during harvest. From dawn to dark and if the weather is good, after dark. We have no choice. No one knows what the weather will do.”

I’d read about what the weather could do. In the early days women planting and tending a large garden, enough food to get them through the winter and a hard frost killed everything: beets, potatoes, cabbage, kolrabi, carrots. Everything. A good crop of barley, flax and wheat and then hail suddenly appeared, beating down and destroying a nearly ripe crop. A year’s work gone. All in a matter of minutes. Hail would appear like the white sword of the devil and race over the fields, sometimes bigger than golf balls, piling up and then it would be gone. It would sweep past and everything would be destroyed in its wake. The sun and rain promising everything. Wind and storms taking it away. There was just another hungry winter.

“Life is too short,” Natalie said. “Dmytro tried working in the city. In a warehouse. The pay was good. The boss was fair. Dmytro hated it. Driving the front end loader. Loading trucks. Checking bills of lading. Unload the boxcars, load the trucks. He came home one day and said I can’t do this anymore. I want to go home.”

“Was this home?”

“His parents owned this farm, it wasn’t so big then. They wanted to retire. They moved into a house in town. They could come here any time they wanted.”

“It’s hard work.”

“It’s harder work when you don’t like what you are doing? You don’t like teaching. How hard is it to go every day?”

“Sometimes I take pills for my nerves.”

“Valdi says you could be a good farmer. You have to work hard on your crops but then you have the winter to write. What would be so bad about that?”

“Me? A farmer?” I stopped rolling a hollopchi and it fell apart. I scooped the filling back into place. “I haven’t got any money. I’m nearly divorced. My ex-wife has been a student most of the time. She’s working now and paying off her debts.” The thought was terrifying. Admittedly, all my research for my book was in the past when conditions were terrible, but all I read and heard about farming was people going hungry, suffering, losing everything, having to start over again. A job at the college meant fewer hours, more mature students, tenure in a few years, working in a nice warm building. A pay cheque like a miracle every month. There were clanking noises coming from the barn. In the cold air sound traveled. Dmytro was doing something with a grain auger that wasn’t working properly. “I don’t even know wheat from barley,” I said. “I’m twenty-seven. I’m twenty-eight in May. I spent five years at university to get a bachelor’s and master’s degree and a teaching certificate. I can’t just start over. Like I’m a teacher and now I’m a farmer.”

The roaster was full. Natalie poured more tomato sauce over it, put a cover on it and put it in the oven. She glanced at the clock. “We’ll do the second roaster, then we’ll stop for tea. You are starting over. You got married, now you are ending it. You will not stay single forever. You will start again.”

“Once is enough,” I replied. I was feeling panic. I didn’t like talking about these things. I was twenty-seven and I already was a failure.

“Valdi has told me your wife was very pretty. Is that why you married her?”

I squirmed. I’d shown Valdi some pictures of Jasmine in her belly dancing outfit. Cymbals on her fingers, her hands raised above her head, looking seductively into the camera.

Natalie laughed at my embarrassment but not in a mean way. She shook her head as if to say “Men.” “Before you made this investment in your life, did you ask if she was kind? Or honest? Or fair? Or generous? Or loving? Did you make a check list that said this is what I want in a wife? Did you know she didn’t want to cook or clean house?”

“Yes,” I said. “I knew she didn’t want to cook or clean house.”

“Did you think she would change? Did you ask her about money? Couples fight about money. Lots of people we know have got divorced over money.”

“We liked dancing, hiking, going to movies and other stuff.”

“She was pretty. Did you think that was enough?”

I didn’t think, that was the problem. I was infatuated, in love, in lust, at first I thought about nothing but sex. It was a hot, noisy bed, showers together, having sex in every room, on the beach, just off the hiking trails. At first nothing else mattered and then she was pregnant and we were married and it was a greased slide and then she lost the baby and then the rest of our lives reasserted ourselves. Small things but things that mattered. I picked spiders up on a piece of paper and put them outdoors. When she asked why, I said they were working hard for us. They, too, had the right to live. She squashed them. Bad karma, I thought. She said when you are young you need to spend money and have a good time. Saving was for middle age. I wanted to save money in a TFSA so I could take a year off teaching. Not a lot of bottles of wine now, not so many restaurant meals now because I wanted to take a year off. I worried about how we’d save enough to buy a house. You worry too much, she said. She wanted to change the world. I just wanted to change my life. We fought silently, resentfully, sometimes noisily, not agreeing on much of anything and she spent more and more time at the university with people like herself and then she said she was in love with one of the women in her tom tom group and was splitting. There wasn’t much to divide. She packed up her stuff and I was sitting by myself in the living room on an IKEA couch with my feet on a cube. We had rented the house on a month to month basis. I needed to start looking for an apartment.

When I told my folks, my mother was sympathetic but my father said, “Boy, am I glad we didn’t spring for a big wedding. Money down the drain.”

While I was thinking this, I must have looked pretty sad because Natalie put her hand on mine and said, “This Laxness. His story might help you get this job?” I nodded. “I’ll try to remember any details.”