Kolyva, In Memoriam

3 May

May is the month my mother was born, in Jersey City, New Jersey, 1941, to a Russian mother who tended to her house and children in fits and starts, and a mostly-German father who worked in a nearby factory and adored his first -born daughter.

It is also the month my mother died, 65 years later, not far from her childhood home, with her daughters, son-in-law, four grandchildren, a close family friend, and our father visiting for long hours in her hospital room and staying always close at hand.  Her youngest sister had come for a brief visit, but my mother waited in vain for her older sister and younger brother to arrive. Finally, she gave up. Her death, like her life, was bittersweet, filled with love and longing.

As we sorted out funeral arrangements and dug out old photos for the memorial, I thought how lucky I had been growing up to witness how dying and death should be done.  My great-grandmother Eliso was very old when she died peacefully in her own bed.  She had waited for her daughter, my grandmother, to wake up that day, come in to squeeze her hand and wish her a good morning , open up the curtains to let the sunlight in , and then go off to make her breakfast . When my grandmother returned, Eliso had already closed her eyes and died.  “Like a little bird,” my grandmother told me, “quietly flying away.” 

Eliso had moved in with her daughter and son-in-law when she still had life and energy, helping around the house, looking after the grandchildren who came to visit, making jars and jars of apricot marmalade each spring and loaves of Tsoureki for New Year’s and Easter.  Inevitably, working together in the close quarters of their small kitchen, mother and daughter came to disagreements.  “You’ll remember what I told you when I die,” Eliso scolded.  “You’ll think of me every day.”  My grandmother just shook her head.  But Eliso’s prediction came true.  My grandmother does think of her mother every day, and she takes from this not grief but comfort.

Great-grandmother Eliso with my baby sister.

And now it’s my turn to think of my mother, perhaps not every day, but often, and certainly in this month of May. I think of us standing in the elevator of her Jersey City apartment building saying to the stranger who had entered, “This is my daughter. The doctor.  The Ph.D.  My other daughter is a physical therapist. She’s going to have her own clinic one day.”  My mother was usually shy and never talked to strangers.  I remember her joy one summer when I surprised her with a vacation to a beach house on Amelia Island in Florida where I was living.   I remember her admonition that people who go to bed and wake up early are more productive and healthy than those who stay up all night and sleep in late– and I still argue with her about that one, only now I do so in my head.

My mom, sometime in the 60s.

In Greece, and other Eastern Orthodox countries, death is celebrated with Kolyva, a ritual dish made with wheat-berries, walnuts or almonds, cinnamon, and sometimes raisins, sesame seeds, or pomegranate seeds. It’s decorated with confectioner’s sugar and Jordan almonds. 

 The ingredients used in Kolyva were symbolically important to the ancient Greek pantheon, and later, to the Christian church. The dish is a metaphor for life, death and resurrection.  Each family makes its own Kolyva when a loved one has died, and shares it with family, friends, and their congregation.  The dish is blessed during the divine liturgy of the funeral service, and during memorial services (mnemosyna).  

When Los Angeles Times food editor Russ Parsons wrote a story a few years ago describing Kolyva as a “dessert” and added whipped cream to the recipe, readers were so upset they took time to write to him.  Elaine Panousis, who taught him to make the dish, protested that the idea of eating Kolyva as a dessert, for pleasure, is unthinkable, as was the fact that Parsons included a recipe for it in a cooking story.  Marcella Cuonzo-Hadjipapas wrote that Kolyva is prepared in memory of the departed, “and not as the end of a stuffing feast topped with whipped cream! What’s next? Dinnera t a cemetery? Rolling dough at the alter?”

Parsons wrote back —  a beautiful blog post titled “The Importance of Koliva,”  in which he reflects on whether or not he has become too modern.  “It’s hard for some of us to remember that food can be appreciated for more than simple deliciousness,” he wrote.  “So many of our foods once had religious or ritual significance, but by and large those ties have been forgotten . . . we serve lamb at Easter and hunt for eggs without  giving a thought to what they once symbolized.  We greedily tuck into sweet tamales completely oblivious to their role in the Day of the Dead ceremonies –so similar to Koliva itself.   We’re obviously richer for being able to enjoy all these wonderful foods from so many different parts of the world, but in a way, maybe we’re a little poorer for having lost the meaning the can accompany them.  Particularly at this time of year, it’s good to be reminded of that.”

I’ve never made Kolyva before, but I will try this May, for my mother.  I share with you my Yiayia’s recipe.  My mother loved the sea so, in addition to the Jordan almonds, I will decorate it with a lovely little starfish that I will place in the center.

Yes, you may make the following Kolyva recipe as a dessert, but perhaps you’ll save it for those days when you wish to remember a departed loved one in the company of family and friends.

Kolyva

  • Half a pound of wheat-berries
  • 3 Tablespoons flour
  • 2-3 Tablespoons light brown sugar (depending on your taste)
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 cup ground walnuts
  • ½ cup confectioners sugar

Place the wheat-berries in a saucepan. Add water so the wheat-berries are covered by at least two inches.  Over medium heat, bring to boil.  Continue boiling until kernels are very tender but not mushy, anywhere from 1-1/2 to 2 hours.   Drain the kernels, then spread over a lint-free kitchen towel for at least one hour to dry.

Boiled wheatberries drying and cooling on a kitchen towel.

Heat a small skillet over medium/low heat and add the flour.  Stir until flour turns a light golden brown.  Be vigilant – once the flour starts to turn color, it can burn very quickly.  Remove from heat.

Flour toasted a golden brown.

Heat a large skillet over medium/low heat.  Add the wheat-berries and stir until most of the remaining moisture has evaporated.  Turn off heat.

In a small bowl, combine two tablespoons of the flour, cinnamon, brown sugar, and walnuts. Add to wheat-berries and stir.  Taste. You can add more cinnamon or brown sugar if you like.  You can also add golden raisins, sesame seeds, or pomegranate seeds.

Spoon the mixture into a shallow dish and pat flat.  Sprinkle lightly with some of the remaining toasted flour.  

When completely cool, sprinkle liberally with confectioner’s sugar.  (Some people then take wax paper, place it on top of the kolyva, and gently pat it down so the sugar is pressed and resembles icing.  I like to leave it as it is.) Decorate with Jordan almonds.

Share a small serving with friends, and remember your loved one.

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