Food, perhaps more than anything, gives us a sense of who we are. In this series, regular blogger Victoria Brown interviews traders about the foods that are important to them, and how their experiences of food have shaped their identity. This month: Ewa Weremij of Bianca e Mora
Words: Victoria Brown
“At home, the main event is Christmas,” says Ewa Weremij, trader and partner at Bianca e Mora, “I don’t know why.” She trails off, chuckling.
Ewa grew up in Hrubieszow, a town in south-east Poland. She spent 17 years living in Emilia Romagna in Italy, before moving to London in 2009. She feels at home in both Italy and London but says, “when I go to see my parents, that’s my real home.”
On Christmas Eve “we need to put 12 dishes on the table,” she continues. For Catholic families, the 12 dishes represent the 12 disciples; for everyone else they are seen to bring good luck for the 12 months to come.
Meat is not allowed on Christmas Eve: “On the 24th we eat fish—a lot of things with carp. Carp with gelatines, carp with carrots.” Some people keep a carp scale in their wallet to bring them wealth and luck the following year.
On the 25th December, one dish her family like to eat is bigos, a stew of pickled and fresh cabbage, pork and sausage. It’s widely regarded as Poland’s national dish, though its components vary from region to region. Ewa’s family add mushrooms, prunes and “juniper for forest smells”—ingredients typical of her region. “It is a special dish for Christmas time” and is said to bring good luck for the year to come.
All cultures have rituals around eating and preparing food, some more obvious than others. We’re all aware that we cook and eat certain dishes for special occasions, festivals and religious events, such as Christmas, but less apparent are the daily or weekly rituals that we take for granted, such as the way that we structure our meals and the sort of food that we eat.
The most memorable meal for Ewa—the one that most reminds her of home—is the Sunday meal with her family. Because her mother worked and the family all arrived home at different times, they rarely had the chance to eat together during the week. Sunday was the only time that they regularly sat down to eat together and so it was a special meal for them. “For Sunday, my mum would always make the special dishes,” she recalls.
The soup course
“In Poland we always had soup, a second plate and dessert. On Sundays my mother always made a chicken broth with macaroni for the soup course and the main course was usually pork, perhaps meatballs, with potatoes and other vegetables. In summer we would have salad; in the winter, pickled vegetables, such as tomatoes and cabbage.”
Anthropologist Monica Janowski has written about how Polish migrant women living in the UK “remember a pattern of meals which structured time and social/kin relations”. The ability to provide a proper Polish meal symbolised a number of things for the women in Janowski’s study: their role as mother, provider, “cook-general” and “female-head”.
As for Ewa, the Sunday meal was particularly important for them—a formalised occasion when the food was laid out nicely and everyone ate together, building social bonds and symbolising the togetherness of the family.
A symbol of home
For Janowski’s women, bread became a symbol of home. For Ewa, it is soup: “We make soup with everything,” she explains. “Tomato with rice or pasta, cabbage, cucumber soup, which you can do with pickled cucumber for the wintertime or fresh cucumber for the summertime, and soup made with fruit.”
Ewa is adamant that a proper meal always begins with soup. In the UK she cooks big batches and freezes small portions for her dinner, like her mother did for her when she was a child, “because the people who live with me don’t eat soup—and I need the soup!”
The foods that people cook and eat, how they cook and eat them, where and when they consume them, with whom and under what circumstances can tell us a lot about them, their peers and society more generally.
On a more personal level, cooking can be a way of showing someone you love them—that you want to nurture them, that you care. For Ewa, cooking is an expression of her new found confidence: “Before I went to Italy I was a little bit of a closed person. After 17 years there, I changed. Now I love to cook and to share with people.”