Cabbage House Rules

We have sacks upon sacks upon sacks of cabbage sitting on the pus-brown linoleum floor. My father drags the crude hemp sacks in through the double entrance doors. His mustache is frosty. Frothy drafts slither around his feet, snaking into the apartment from the cold stairwell.
The green cabbage heads bulging out of the drab sacks are large, firm, heavy and well-developed.
There will be cabbage cores aplenty.
I think cabbage cores are the single best thing to eat in the world. Among the shortlisted are green bananas from Vietnam, which come available every February or so, and frozen pineapple. I’ve only eaten it once or twice; it is as freaky, unreliable and little-understood a food as manna from the sky. Cabbage cores, however, come every fall without fail or change, and are always plentiful and crunchy.
The stinky fermenting barrel has been soaking in the bathtub for two days. We’ve had to crawl around the barrels to squat and crouch under the faucet to do out nightly ablutions. The barrel is made of wood planks banded with strips of rusty metal; dark, wet, tall as I am, it reeks to high heaven. We use it only for the sour cabbage, and it fits enough cabbage to last our family of five from October to the next October.
Sour cabbage is one of the reliable food sources, like potatoes that come in earth-leaking sacks from the fields we keep, like raspberry, blackcurrant and gooseberry jam that is made over the summer and stored in jars upon jars upon jars upon jars, this year’s batch gooey, last year’s batch crystallized into hoary-white sugary solids.
We have jars upon jars of pickled cucumbers and tomatoes, some red, some green, a cellar full of carrots, beets and black winter radishes stored in sand; those are the things we grow ourselves, and they are always there. We can always come back to the cellar and the sour cabbage barrel and get more. Unlike the fickle fruit, meat and dairy, our garden food stays by our side, a faithful spouse. We barricade ourselves in glass jars against whatever may happen.
Autumn means food. Autumn is made of food.
Sour cabbage making occupies an entire weekend, and the entire kitchen and hallway. There are vegetables lying around the floor, ready to be processed; more are being processed and done being processed. Our father is in charge of soaking the barrel, sharpening the huge sauerkraut shredder blade, bringing in the cabbages, carrots and bags of salt, getting the remaining equipment ready, and shredding the cabbage into the barrel. The shredding takes a whole day, with meal breaks. Our father stands over the barrel running cabbage heads methodically against the sharp blade, his arms sinewy, a look of concentration on his face.
Us girls’ job is to do the carrots.
Our house is made of food and rules.
The carrots come with rules. We may not use, or even own, a carrot peeler. Carrot peelers are fancy, says our father, and our father resents fancy. Therefore, we are not fancy, ever, if we know what is good for us.
We peel carrots with knives instead. Knives are not fancy. We peel endless carrots with knives and shred them into metal tubs and washbasins on small handheld graters. The shredded orange pulp colors our hands yellow, and they remain yellow for days afterward. The carrot pulp goes in the barrel, and we make more, more, more. Carrots go on for the whole day, too.
Some people add apples or berries to their cabbage. Now, that is despicably fancy. Our father wonders who those people think they are. We never add anything to ours: it’s just cabbage, carrots, salt. Stir it with a long slimy wooden pole; pierce the surface while it cooks; let the stink out while it burbles. Our sour cabbage is the most correct cabbage in the world.
Other people do stupid things; we are not to do them. We are never to make pickles with vinegar. We are never to simmer beets in butter before we put them in our borscht. Ha! Those fancy people who do it – who do they think they are?
We are not to cut potatoes on a cutting board. We are all taught how to do it holding potatoes in one hand, knife in the other. People cutting potatoes on cutting boards – laughable!
The right way to sweep the kitchen floor is toward the center. We may never shuffle our feet when walking. We may never stand in the doorway, especially resting our palms on the door frame. We may never make little pigs out of boiled eggs by giving them little carrot ears. We may never cut bread slices into two lengthwise, only across. The worst way to cut bread is to cut into hateful fancy triangles.
Who do those people think they are?
Your triangle bread may get thrown out, just you watch.
When we eat soup, we may not have anything – cabbage leaves, bits and pieces – hanging over the rim of the bowl. We may not bury butter in hot porridge: it has to stay on the top and melt on the top. At dinner, we may not be caught glancing at our father’s newspaper.
if we do, we may get thrown out of the family dinner.
Ours is the most correct household in the world.
So, we peel and shred the endless annoying small slippery orange carrots correctly. Shredding carrots is women’s work; shredding cabbage is men’s work; this is the correct way of things.
The cabbage takes a few days to cook. It sits in the kitchen corner and makes noises and smells. In another kitchen corner, we have a huge green glass bottle, which had been previously discarded from some chemical lab; in the bottle, last year’s preserves and water are being fermented into berry wine. The wine makes noise. Air bubbles go through a rubber tube into a small clear bottle filled with water.
We have a fridge inside the kitchen wall. It is not electrical. It is just a niche in the wall that stays cold in the winter. The house was built by Japanese POWs in the ’40s, and the stone walls are a meter thick. Once the cabbage is done getting sour, some of it will go in jars to be stored in the wall fridge. The rest of it will be stored frozen solid in the shed outside. When my father goes outside in the winter to get some cabbage, he does not scoop it out; he mines it out, with tools, by the sweat of his brow. He brings it home in a solid block of ice.
Some people store their sour cabbage on the balcony. We don’t have a balcony, but even if we did, we would have pried it off the wall and thrown it down, because balconies are ridiculous and so are the people who own them. Ha!
My mother peels cabbage cores for me to eat; I can put away quite a few in one sitting. I like things that go crunch: cabbage, carrots, turnips, radishes. We don’t get a lot of apples, but we do get all the crab-apples we want. We just have to wait till fall comes and night temperatures dip below the mark where we start to get colds from going outside without a hat on.
When the night temperatures are at that mark, your mother bundles you up in scarves, coats, mittens, hats, itchy scratchy undergarments, lest you get the Interminable Snot, which could stay with you and your poor mother till next May. Then, you mother would have to drag you to the pediatrician in search of a magical cure, despite her own resigned knowledge that the doctor would prescribe the same cough syrup she always prescribes, the same syrup you get from the same spoon three times a day every November, the month of the Interminable Snot.
Our Interminable Snot is our mothers’ interminable shame.
Our mothers have so many opportunities to feel shame and to be shamed. If your child is sick, the doctor might scold you for not following the treatment plan; the neighbors and the old ladies on the bench by the front door might scold you for letting your child run around hatless eating filthy crab-apples while you, the negligent mother, are off gallivanting; your boss at work might scold you for taking too many sick leaves; your own mother might scold you for not doing the mustard foot baths for your child correctly, and for wrong techniques of child rearing; your husband might scold you for letting the kids run around wild and shuffle their feet with abandon, which causes them to get holes in their shoes, which causes them to get their feet wet, which causes them to get the Interminable Snot, which is not even really an illness, so why are you making such a big deal of it, it’s ridiculous – ha!
If you are to feel like a decent mother, you cannot let your child get sick, wet her bed, have bad handwriting, be left-handed, gain less weight than the chart in the clinic says she should, or enjoy breast feedings on demand when the Polyclinic chart clearly says: nurse every three and a half hours on the dot! You cannot let your child go to school with hair not brushed properly, or tights wrinkling around the knees. You cannot let your child draw margins in her copybook in blue pen when the teacher clearly requires green, or make the margins three centimeters wide when the teacher clearly said two. You cannot have her go to school with red ribbons in her braids when the school clearly said brown or black. You cannot have your child go to school with an eighteen-sheet copybook in her bag when the teacher clearly said – twelve!
Our world is made of rules. It is the most correct world in the world.
Mother! Make sure your child is up to everyone’s standards. Spank her if her cursive letters start slanting left. Bathe her in hot mustard water when she gets colds. Don’t let her run screaming around your disapproving husband. Wash, train and insulate your child!
When the temperatures dip below the mother-insulate-your-child mark, the crab-apples become frostbitten and edible to humans. Soft, sour and squishy, they are covered in black soot; our city has a coal power plant, a machine-building plant, a textile factory, a brick factory, a sheepskin processing factory, and many other things that throw up black bile into the sky and cover freshly fallen snow overnight with a dusting of black pepper.
The soot never deters the kids from eating the blackened crab-apples. From September to November, kids hang in clusters from crab-apple trees. Their school bags litter the lawns underneath. Every day, around two p.m., when school is finally out, the crab-apple alleys and crab-apple groves around the Lenin Square suffer an infestation of filthy-faced kids calling out to each other like birds from atop the trees, laughing, gorging on the source of vitamin C as faithful as the sour cabbage that their parents are making at home en masse.
In their backpacks, the kids each have two twelve-sheet copybooks for math and two twelve-sheet copybooks for writing, two pencils, one pen with green ink, one pen with blue ink, one wooden ruler, one gray eraser, three tetanus shots, a bouquet of dahlias for each September 1st, five breast feedings a day, none for the night, two brown-ribboned braids, one pair of gym shoes, a white top, a dark bottom, one light spanking a week on the average, one daily radio program for Young Pioneers for breakfast, and one Interminable Snot.
At home, their parents have seven bushels of cabbage per October per household, one less room in the apartment than they minimally need, one light spanking a week on the average, a two-bit piece of land on which to grow dahlias for each September 1st, one school uniform per child per year, always perilously close to being too small, one stupid boss and three useless meetings per month per workplace, five days before the payday and the money is all gone, and a lot more Interminable Snot than they ever wanted.