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The Ref

(by Natalka Burian)

(me, Bapcha Dorosz, and Mom)

My mother is an intrepid and fascinating woman in nearly every area of her life, but not in the kitchen. I remember her cooking only two things, ever. She made a mean pot of oatmeal—a dish she fixed for my brother and me for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and a colossal shrimp boil, heavily featuring Old Bay, that she made once every summer. Our takeout options in rural Maryland were limited. There was a single pizza place, a McDonalds near the closest highway exit, and a Friendly’s two towns over.

So most of our meals as kids were sandwiches and cereal (or oatmeal), except when our grandparents visited. Both of my grandmothers were proud and experienced home cooks, whipping up every iteration of Eastern European dumpling, soup, and bread from memory. There were tons of starches and meats in their rotations, and not a lot of vegetables—with the exception, of course, of beets.

When I was growing up, my parents weren’t home much. They worked constantly, leaving before we woke up in the morning, and usually coming home well after dinnertime. Both sets of grandparents took turns watching us; my mother’s parents and my father’s mother and her husband all lived in Philadelphia. They would alternate babysitting (and cooking) gigs—one set would drive down to stay with us for two weeks, and then they’d switch off.

Their visits never, ever overlapped. When they did, even by a day, even by a few hours, things got ugly. There is a word in Ukrainian, svah or svaha, that means in-law, and my grandparents abused and distorted that word, turning it into the most scathing of insults. There was swearing and crying, there was screaming and cursing the ground people were walking on, there was spitting, and there was most definitely object-hurling.

These altercations, sometimes traumatic and sometimes just hilarious, generally meant that my mom would have to come home from work to break things up. When she did, she always brought food—a bag of groceries to restore the peace. Nothing calmed the fury of my paternal grandmother better than pounding out a pork chop for a schnitzel—especially when she knew that my mother’s father would be well on his way back to Philadelphia by the time it was ready to eat.


Natalka Burian is the author of the young adult novel Welcome to the Slipstream; her website is She is the co-owner of two bars, Elsa and Ramona, in Brooklyn, and City of Daughters, a line of specialty cocktail goods. She is also the co-founder of The Freya Project, a feminist fundraising reading series that supports small, non-profit organizations doing crucial work in communities.

(our ancestral meat mallet)

Bapcha Dorosz’s Pork Schnitzel

(My grandmother always served these with gravy and knedle, an enormous, loaf-of-bread sized, simultaneously boiled and steamed Czech dumpling. I usually serve mine with mashed potatoes, which are a lot easier.)

4 pork chops

1/2 c. flour

1 c. bread crumbs

2 eggs, beaten with a splash of milk

1 t. paprika

salt and pepper

olive or canola oil for frying

Flatten each pork chop—with intent—until very, very thin. The thinner the better.

Pour flour and bread crumbs onto two different plates, and set egg mixture in a shallow dish in the center.

Mix paprika, salt and pepper into the flour with a fork.

Heat oil in a heavy pan at medium-high.

Salt and pepper the meat, and dip each prepared chop into the flour, covering the entire surface, front and back, in a thin, even layer.

Coat pork chops completely with egg mixture, then bread crumbs.

Add the pork to the hot oil, lightly frying for a few minutes on each side until golden in color.

Drain of excess oil on paper towels.

These will be crispy, but also inexplicably light and juicy.

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