Back of the Restaurant

July 12, 2017

I am the product of two cultures: that of my parents who abandoned a comfortable life to escape the rising holocaust in Czechoslovakia, and that of my birthplace: Ecuador, the South American country where they found refuge. At the time, it was exotic and unfamiliar to Europeans—underdeveloped, largely rural, and poor. In the port city of Guayaquil, where they settled several years after arriving, the rainy season brought a plague of crickets that landed on people and coated the streets like a brown blanket.

My parents had a difficult time adapting to a culture that was so different from their own. After trying various unsuccessful enterprises, they settled on a restaurant business, specializing in Czech and Hungarian cuisines, which were almost unknown in their host country and greatly appreciated by the locals.  

 

For years, I watched my mother, Regina, spending long hours at the stove—sad that her relentless and wearisome work was required to survive. We lived in the back room, eating at the restaurant, my brothers and I making a commercial space into our childhood home. There was no time for my mother to impart her cooking skills, but I did ask how to make rice. (I have no idea why I was so interested in rice.) Eventually our family had enough money to move to an apartment, but before we had transferred many of our possessions, the restaurant burned down. Fires were quite common because so many buildings were made of wood; we lost bicycles, furniture, trunks filled with heirlooms from Europe—irreplaceable things. One of my strongest memories is seeing my parents standing in the middle of the devastation, looking defeated, and to this day, the smell of burning wood has never escaped me.

 

After the fire, my parents opened a bakery about a block from our apartment. My mother still worked long hours, but with the help of a professional baker, so she had some time to prepare our family meals. I still have her Hungarian cookbook with recipes for goulash, cucumber salad, and palacsinta (crepes with jam), but they’re written in a language I do not speak. (My parents spoke German with each other and with their refugee friends, so I picked up some of that language, but they reverted to Hungarian with each other when they didn’t want us to know what they were saying.) Years later, I asked my mother to share her recipes for my favorite eastern European dishes. I treasure those yellowed pages, some handwritten in her old-world style. At the bottom of a recipe for apple cake, she wrote “good appetite.” Eventually, she became adept at Ecuadorian dishes—humitas (similar to tamales), llapingachos (fried potato cakes served with a peanut sauce), and shrimp ceviche, one of the few dishes I can prepare.

 

When I was a teenager, my mother decided to instigate “fruit day,” and every Wednesday we ate only fruit. She had some stomach problems, which I think were stress-related, and got interested in vegetarianism as a healthy alternative. Even as a child, I felt her sense of depression, displacement, and loss of a homeland. We eventually moved to the United States, where she took a waitressing job at a fancy hotel in Miami Beach (it made me a big tipper for life). After settling in New York, she still worked hard in the garment district, but her spirits lifted in a place where she felt more at home. She even introduced an American convention into her culinary repertoire: Jello-O. In retirement, she learned to sculpt and play bridge, and I got to see her a bit more sanguine than her days at the stove; she would say that if you’re a bridge player, you are never alone.

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Eva Zelig is an award-winning TV producer/writer and filmmaker for PBS and other networks. Her recent documentary is An Unknown Country, which tells the story of European Jews who fled Nazi persecution to find refuge in Ecuador. 

Shrimp Ceviche

 

1 1/2 c. fresh orange juice

1/2 c. fresh lemon juice

1 large ripe tomato, peeled, seeded, and chopped

1 onion, finely chopped

1 fresh hot red or green pepper, seeded and finely chopped (or substitute Tabasco sauce to taste)

4 T. ketchup

salt and pepper to taste

optional: finely chopped cilantro

2 lb. shrimp, shelled and deveined

 

Mix together all ingredients except shrimp and set aside.

Bring a large pan of salted water to a boil, and cook shrimp for 3 - 4 minutes.

Drain the shrimp and toss them in the dressing.

Let the mixture stand in the refrigerator for two hours or more.

(In Ecuador, ceviche is served with a side of “maíz tostado” or toasted corn.)

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