Woke up to the most amazing story about our long time executive head chef & partner james gottwald’s story of his “grandma’s culinary legacy” on the cover of the sun-times food section today, by a great writer by the name of seanan forbes… I’m just dazed & amazed… and had to share it with you all… click here to read the article… or click continue reading below… and please, stories like this need to be shared, so feel free… and enjoy!
James Gottwald, the chef at Rockit, 22 W. Hubbard, has a grin warm enough to heat goulash and a finger — the little one on his left hand — with a slight twist. But his inheritance is more than warmth and a bent bone.
Here’s lineage in action: A short time into Gottwald’s studies at the Culinary Institute of America, one of the teachers hauls in a hindquarter of a cow and asks, “Does anybody want a go at breaking this down?”
Gottwald was a boy when his grandmother first took him hunting in the woods. Now, in a classroom, he does as she did, taking a knife and parting muscle from muscle. He’s effortlessly speeding along when the instructor asks him to leave some work for his classmates.
To tell the story right, time must be bent back further.
t is 1941. An 11-year-old girl, Maria, and her mother are in their home in Romania. Maria’s father crashes through the window, bleeding from a gunshot wound, shouting that Russian soldiers are coming, telling his wife and daughter to flee. They flee.
Maria never sees her father again. She and her mother scavenge to survive. They eat watermelons (which Maria, to this day, cannot abide). They dig up potatoes and eat them raw. When they can, they catch and cook rabbits. They creep into farmers’ fields — fields and farms being claimed by soldiers — grab what they can and run. They sleep rough.
Their aim is simple: Stay alive.
Maria develops typhoid. In a makeshift Red Cross hospital, doctors tend to the girl. As soon as she can stand, they release her . . . to nowhere.
Her mother is exhausted; Maria, ill. Seeing a stopped train, they request permission to board. They don’t know the destination — a concentration camp.
Maria’s hands and face develop blotches, and illness becomes a lifesaver. In the crowd and filth, passengers fear infection. When the doors open so that waste can be disposed of and people can be sprayed with water (the Nazis’ concession to thirst), someone throws mother and child from the train.
They encounter Hungarian soldiers, who take them to another military hospital. A doctor conceals the underage civilian in the basement and treats her for typhoid. Maria’s mother hides in the forest, visiting her daughter only at night.
The hospital is bombed. Above Maria, there rests the uneasy wreckage of a building. Her mother finds nobody alive.
The doctor returns, squirms into the basement and brings Maria to the surface, but there is no safety in the remnants of the town.
Unsheltered again, Maria forages, traps, hunts . . . and encounters soldiers: Germans.
She lies. She says she is of pure German descent.
The soldiers put her in a labor camp. In this dire place, she discovers the importance of small graces. She prepares food and serves it cordially.
Maria escapes and finds her way to an orphanage. Actress Leona Ziegan and her husband, George, adopt Maria, but not to be a cherished family member: as a servant.
In cooking, Maria flourishes. From seed to service, no element of food eludes her. In her kitchen, gathered fruit becomes pastries, preserves or wine, and nothing is wasted. The girl’s gifts earn something rare: security.
Sixteen years pass. The war ends. The Ziegans plan to leave for the Honduras. Maria hungers for freedom. In her free time, she cooks for another family and hoards her pay. She has hope, talent and determination. She wants her family — what remains of it.
A priest in a Salzburg church has dedicated himself to reuniting families. One day, after mass, he notes Maria’s crooked finger. He knows another woman — an older woman — whose hand bears the same shape. That afternoon, he brings Maria to her mother.
Maria falls in love and gets married. By the time her family leaves for America, she has a baby (James Gottwald’s mother) in her arms.
In time, Maria acquires land in Pennsylvania: earth to plant, game to hunt, cellarage for storing fruits and vegetables.
Maria Boicesco — now Babchi, or grandmother — teaches her grandchildren about every element of food. Amazed, the 5-year old James Gottwald watches Babchi feed egg shells to chickens and plant matches alongside pepper plants. Peppers, Maria explains, need earth that’s high in sulfur. In the rain, sulfur will move from the matches to the soil.
It takes a dead fish to bring the lesson home. The boy buries his golden carp on Maria’s land, and grass grows lush and thick over the grave.
“Wow,” Gottwald remembers thinking, “it’s true.” Matches and carp make good soil.
Gottwald is one of four brothers. Even when they’re young, between the ages of 6 and 10, Maria makes them work. Despite that — or because of it — they look forward to spending summers with her.
Early in the morning, Babchi sits beside cows, squirting milk across the barn into the children’s wide mouths. Gottwald says no milk tastes as good as that did, arching warm from cow to tongue.
Later, she and the boys walk to the lake. They carry two empty five-gallon buckets. The children catch small-mouth bass, sunfish, bullhead, catfish and Babchi’s favorite, perch. When the brothers head home, it’s two boys to a bucket.
Their chores aren’t over. They have to pick clover for the rabbits — more five-gallon buckets. Chickens and pigs, too, must be fed.
Meanwhile, Babchi stands at an outdoor butcher-block table, cleaning the day’s catch. It’s pitch dark, Gottwald remembers, “and she’d be rocking through those fish.” The pigs get the scraps.
Babchi’s garage holds not cars, but two big freezers and countless jars of food. Behind the house, there’s a smoker.
To nourish her children’s families, Maria raises one pig per household. Every year, each family is given enough bacon and pork chops to last until the next litter of pigs grows up to be slaughtered and smoked or frozen.
Some family members go into the food business. (Their scraps, too, feed Babchi’s pigs.)
At 11, Gottwald works as a dishwasher, earning his pocket money. He learns the industry, from bussing to cooking, and when he isn’t in the restaurant’s kitchen, he’s in Babchi’s.
By 16, he is a sous chef. Like grandmother, like grandson.
On Sunday, Babchi turns 80. She lives in Mansfield, Pa. with one of Gottwald’s aunts and uncles, who own an organic dairy.
She’s starting to slow down, but she cooks for the field hands, who eat like hordes. She dishes out beef stew, huge portions served with the same hospitality she learned in a different era and another land.
Her warmth draws people from beyond the farm’s borders. Locals call her Mother Mare, short for Mother Mary — and yes, they know her name’s Maria.
“Come to visit,” Gottwald says, “and food will be thrust at you. If you’re good, then you’ll get blueberry wine, as well.
“I brought her wine that I made from her recipes, including a Michigan sour cherry wine. She liked it better than she did the blueberry.”
His blueberry wine isn’t bad, but Babchi says the berries aren’t as good as those picked on her land. There’s no need to worry about her palate fading, then? Laughter bursts from Gottwald, along with a delighted, “God, no!”
For her birthday, the whole family will come. Farmhands will come. The town will come. Gottwald estimates 150 to 200 celebrants will attend — and oh, there will be food. A roasted pig, that’s certain.
There’s a guy who owns a butcher shop. Now that Babchi is getting older, he brings her venison.
Then there’s Barbara. A couple of decades ago, Barbara decided to open a bakery. Maria was known for her pies.
“She used to bake for my aunt’s restaurant,” Gottwald recalls.
For Barbara, Maria served as a consultant and gave recipes. Barbara, Gottwald says, “will bring some of her pies, which are my grandma’s pies.”
And to top the pies? “My uncle’s parents have a farm next door,” Gottwald says. “They make ice cream — no flavoring, just sugar, eggs and milk. Unpasteurized milk has layers of flavor.
“All of my memories revolve around food: the gathering of food, the celebration of food. It’s pretty cool.” Gottwald pauses for a while. “I’m trying to instill this in my son.”
Gottwald is looking forward to “that moment in the evening when everybody gathers around her and we get that picture.” It will have to be a panoramic shot.
From his Babchi, he expects one question: “Why are you making such a big fuss?”
Being a chef and a loving grandson, Gottwald plans to make something special. He isn’t certain what, but it will come from the water. Babchi loves seafood.
“Every time I see her,” Gottwald says, “I bring some form of lobster, smoked salmon and crab.”
Gottwald is still young, and his little finger isn’t as bent as his grandmother’s, but that future curve is implicit in his bones.
Gottwald is always aware of what he owes her. He isn’t only a chef because his grandmother could cook. He’s alive because she could cook.
Seanan Forbes is a free-lance writer based in New York and London.