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A Tale of Two Gołąbki

(by Laurel DiGangi)

Whenever I ate dinner at my paternal grandmother’s home, I secretly wished I was eating my mother’s Polish food instead. The dish I craved most was stuffed cabbage rolls, or gołąbki. Gramma Busia filled her second-rate gołąbki with raw ground beef and cooked rice, then baked them in a casserole beneath a layer of tomato soup until the cabbage was soft and mushy. In contrast, my mother filled her gołąbki with crumbled cooked beef and rice, sauteed onion, and garlic, then fried them in butter on the stovetop until the cabbage caramelized, turning deep brown and crispy on the edges. I always tried to grab the crispiest.


In many ways, my mother, Joan, was a classic, post-World War II stay-at-home mom. She was warm and nurturing to me and my younger brother, Georgie. She took her mundane tasks seriously, even carefully ironing our bedding and underwear. Yet she was as free-spirited and wacky as the actresses she adored: Lucille Ball, Judy Holliday, and Shirley MacLaine. She reveled in the creative aspects of housewifery, like gardening and home decorating. Her knickknack shelves included an eclectic mix of anteaters, owls, shaggy dogs, Catholic saints, and Buddhas, and she spray-painted our basement walls in abstract, fluorescent swirls. Because she talked too much, too fast, and in circles, often adding a bit of unexpected spice, people often saw her as a scatterbrain, a “dumb blonde,” and her time-blindness left them with no doubt. She was frequently late, despite the occasion’s importance. I realize now that she probably suffered from ADHD, but then it was a newly-discovered malady diagnosed only in boys, not grown women.


Mom learned to cook from her mother, who, like my grandfather, was born in Chicago. Their parents—my great-grandparents—had arrived there at the turn of the century during the “za chlebem” (“for bread”) wave of Polish immigration. Mom grew up in an insular, Polish-American community, and until the age of seven, so did I. My family lived on the second floor of my grandparents’ “two-flat,” which helped us kids bond with them and consider them our “regular” Gramma and Grampa. They’d ride the basement swing with us, play “catch” and hide and seek. They spoke both English and Polish fluently, teaching us fun words like “dupa” for our buttocks and “gówno” for poo.

(me with my "regular" Gramma)

My relationship with my paternal grandparents had no such closeness. Busia (pronounced “Boo-sha,” although the proper Polish translation for grandmother is “Babcia”) emigrated from Poland and was 18 years older than my “regular” Gramma. Whenever we visited her and Dziadzia (pronounced “Ja-ja”), we were part of a large family gathering that included Dad’s siblings and their spouses. Georgie and I sat at the kids’ table with my cousins, while the adults spoke a weird mishmash of English and Polish, always switching to pure Polish when the talk got interesting. My few conversations with Busia were brief and were always interpreted by a nearby grown-up.


Despite being a third-generation Pole, my mother spoke the language fluently—and proudly. “Busia was so happy when she met me for the first time because I spoke Polish,” she told me more than once. But she also confided how Busia and Dad’s sisters used to criticize her for wearing stylish pencil skirts and tight sweaters; she shouldn’t be “showing off” her hourglass figure. Years later, after Mom gained weight, Busia often called her fat. Mom had been sensitive about her weight and complained to me privately about Busia, but always treated her kindly. After all, Mom was raised to treat her elders with respect. 

(Mom and Busia)

Dad’s family also criticized Mom for arriving late at these gatherings. I must say they had a point. But part of Mom’s tardiness was her obsessive perfectionism regarding food. She wanted to bring her best potato salad, kolaczki (filled cookies), plum cake, and other culinary delights to these gatherings. Cooking was her way of showing love and seeking acceptance. She served me and Georgie hot meals each day when we came home from school on our lunch break: soup and fried bologna sandwiches, grilled cheese, or SpaghettiOs. And when she made regular Gramma’s crispy gołąbki, she always baked a separate casserole for Dad, smothered with tomato soup, just like Busia used to make.


Dad told me that Busia had a difficult childhood, but all he knew was that she began working at a very young age. If I wanted to know more, he’d say, I’d have to talk to his sister Angie, as if family stories were only passed on to older children, with the youngest getting nothing but scraps. It wasn’t until many years later, after Aunt Angie and I became closer, that I finally learned about the now deceased Busia’s sad life. Her mother, Ludwiga, died when Busia was eight years old, and her father, Francis, quickly remarried. His new wife, like the archetypal wicked stepmother, wanted Busia gone, and she was sent several villages away to live with a married couple as a paid companion to their children.


Busia was devastated but in time bonded with this family, whom she thought of as her adoptive siblings and parents. But that wasn’t the plan. Two years later, the couple announced Busia’s “promotion” to their full-time nanny, housekeeper, and cook. She kept none of her wages.


When she was 14, her older brother bought her a steamship ticket, and after three weeks barefoot in steerage, she arrived in Chicago, where she got a job in a boarding house, emptying urine and excrement from chamber pots. That’s where she met Dziadzia, who had run away from home to avoid conscription in the Austrian army, hiding in farm shacks during the day and traveling at night, eating raw vegetables he dug up for food before escaping to America.


I wondered: How did Busia learn to cook? From the mother who died when she was still so young? From the evil stepmother who abandoned her? From the family who employed her? With only a first-grade education, was she even able to read a recipe? Did cooking, in her mind, have any connection to love, or was it always a chore, a fulfillment of her duties? I never got the answer.


No wonder she thought we all were fat and spoiled. We had never experienced famine or traumatic heartbreak. I grew up thinking that my maternal grandparents were more authentic, but Busia and Dziadzia were the true immigrants whose suffering gave me access to an entire banquet of food and possibilities.


I didn’t know that crispy fried gołąbki with a pre-cooked filling was an anomaly until I worked as a graphic designer for a cookbook publisher. I was disappointed that the editors had no interest in my mother’s recipe, opting instead for the baked version slathered in tomato soup. I remembered how Mom would tell me to “keep an eye on those gołąbki so they don’t burn” while she went to bring up the laundry or grab a ringing phone. I’d hover over the skillet, my nose inches away from crackling butter, inhaling the steamy aroma. But she wouldn’t let me turn them over for fear I might break one open. That was her job. I could only turn off the burner. Then one evening, I felt daring, and flipped each gołąbek over carefully without breaking a single one. When she came back and saw what I’d done, she wasn’t angry; she was proud.


She was also proud the day I served her crispy fried gołąbki that I prepared myself. Old age had caught up with her. She could no longer care for herself and had moved in with my husband and me. She took her first bite and threw her head back in bliss. “Oh, Laurie,” she said, her voice quavering, “they taste just like mine!”


Laurel DiGangi’s fiction and creative nonfiction have been published in the Chicago Reader, Denver Quarterly, and Fourth Genre, among many others. She currently teaches writing at Woodbury University in Burbank, California, and can be found at

Gołąbki (Crispy Fried Cabbage)

5 c. cooked white long grain rice

1 1/2 large onions, finely chopped

1 - 2 T. butter

3 lb. ground beef

salt, pepper, and garlic powder to taste

2 eggs

2 large heads of cabbage

butter for frying

Cook rice per package directions and set aside.

In a large frying pan, melt 1 – 2 T. butter and sauté onions until transparent.

Set aside in a large mixing bowl.

In the same pan, sauté ground beef, breaking apart and crumbling well.

Drain fat and add beef to onions.

Add cooked rice and let cool until easy to handle.

Add salt, pepper, garlic powder, and eggs, mixing well.

(Filling may be prepared in advance. Refrigerate if not proceeding to make cabbage rolls )

Bring a large pot of water to boil.

Cut around the core of each cabbage with a sharp knife and place them in boiling water, which should cover them almost completely.

When the outer leaves have cooked, pull them off and set aside to cool on paper towels. Continue until all leaves are cooked.

With a sharp knife, shave away some of the thickness of the veins in the cabbage leaves.

Place each leaf cupping up, vein at the bottom, and add filling.

Begin rolling from the bottom, then bring in the sides, continuing to roll toward the top.

Heat butter in a large pan and fry until cabbage is slightly browned, turning once.



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