I was looking at a recipe today for lentil soup and noticed a suggestion for adding kielbasa, which immediately led me through a long chain of memories about kielbasa (I am reading Proust’s Swann’s Way now, and I’m trying hard not to make the madeleine comparison here), which is what I’m going to write about now.
The best kielbasa I have ever had in my life was from a butcher shop in my ex-husband’s hometown, a little farm town in western Massachusetts that has or had a large Polish population, including a number of my ex-husband’s relatives on his mother’s side. Not only was this butcher shop in my ex-husband’s hometown, it was actually across the road from the house he grew up in, where his parents still live, which made getting the kielbasa a challenge when he (and therefore we) stopped talking to his parents. But I’ll admit it was also kind of a thrill. We continued to visit the area with our kids after my ex-husband cut off contact with his parents because it was an area we all knew and loved, and there was plenty to do there. Plus the kielbasa, which involved driving somewhat furtively into the butcher shop’s parking lot (with a glance at the house across the road) and then me rushing into the store as quickly as possible. Obviously the owners (and generations of the butcher’s family) all knew my ex-husband.
I’m not even sure what made this kielbasa so great, but it is the kielbasa that I defined against all else and found all else lacking. Back when we still lived in the city, my ex-husband would get kielbasa from the Polish butchers on First Avenue, but it wasn’t until I tried the western Massachusetts kielbasa that I truly fell in love. I’d never even had it until I met my ex-husband. I found this weird because my own grandmother was Polish. But I don’t think Polish Jews ate kielbasa, I explained once to a friend. Nazis ate kielbasa, she responded. Apparently so did large Polish families, including in something called “white borscht,” which I thought my ex-husband was making up when he first explained it to me (I also thought he was making up “canned bread,” but no, that is real too). White borscht is a thick potato soup with kielbasa and hard-boiled eggs and sour cream. Some might call this excessive.
So until I met my ex-husband, I had never had kielbasa, but once we started dating I was eating it every few weeks or so, always roasted with potatoes and other vegetables, and served with horseradish mustard. It was quite good. Except that when I was pregnant with my first child, I developed a terrible aversion to the smell of garlic, which is basically the smell of kielbasa. Not long before I had developed this aversion, when were still living in the city, my ex-husband had bought some kielbasa, probably from First Avenue, and every time I opened the fridge I wanted to die. I think we may have put it into the freezer, but even then the faint smell continued to haunt me for months. (Funny enough, the smell of garlic would torment me some years later, when my ex-husband took home, from the bakery he worked at, a huge empty container that had contained crushed garlic, tossed it in the trunk of our car, and promptly forgot about it. For days, I was haunted by the same smell, and thought I was losing my mind, until we finally located the source.)
And now, I am no longer married to the man who introduced me to kielbasa, and I have not had kielbasa in years. I don’t miss kielbasa exactly, but I do miss something. Maybe it’s simply my younger self, which I am always missing, even though I tend to like my older self more. It’s the way I miss my children. There were once these babies that I knew and loved and lived with, and then they just disappeared. I am living with these teenagers now, who are just terrific people, but I sometimes think, Where are those babies that used to live with me? They’re just gone. And my 20- and 30-something selves are gone too. And I never even tried white borscht. I probably never will. The one thing I will do, probably forever, is miss people and moments from my life and food I will never eat again. It just comes with the territory of being a writer. And being a parent. And being a human.