By Elisa Adams
I am an Albanian-American: first generation on my father's side and second on my mom's. Since I was a young girl, I used to watch my grandmother, Nana, make baklava. I loved those times. When the bakalava pan came out, I knew I was in for a treat: at least three hours of undivided attention with my Nana, where we would talk and talk while she put together the baklava.
We would go shopping for the ingredients together, and as she didn't drive, I was her personal chauffeur. Our grocery list was simple: filo dough, butter, walnuts, sugar, and lemon juice. With the exception of making the filo dough (which is the most time-consuming part of the process), she did almost everything by hand.
Back at home, she would very carefully put each ingredient out on the table. She defrosted the filo dough and covered it with a moist towel so as keep it from drying out, and then got the butter melting on a very reduced flame in which the sugar water and lemon juice mixture went.
While that was all in process, Nana would gather her necessary equipment for the mashing of the nuts: the part I loved the most of all.
She would get her wooden mortar and pestle and two dish towels, one for her lap and one to use as a cover so the nuts wouldn't jump out. There would be a bowl for the crushed nuts and a bowl for the uncrushed ones. It took about two hours to go through one pound, and during that time we would have the most glorious conversations. We would catch up on all the activities and exciting news, talk about our lives, and have her offer her quiet, non-judgmental advice. Over the years, discussions ranged from why one of my friends wouldn't play with me at the playground to how to deal with the frustrations of marriage. She was my rock. We shared a deeper connection than I did with my own parents. Needless to say, I cherished this time with her. It was ours, an uninterrupted, glorious heart-to-heart connection.
Since my Nana died, I have continuted the tradition of making baklava, and when I was 22, my mom's dear friend asked me to come spend the weekend with her in NY and teach her how to make baklava. I was so excited! I really loved her, and this would be a wonderful opportunity to relive our great times together and be together alone...and uninterrupted.
I began as Nana and I did: defrosting the filo dough, readying the butter and making the syrup mixture. And then the time came that I was waiting for....walnut crushing and conversation! I asked Cynthia for her mortar and pestle.
She replied, "My what?"
"Your mortar and pestle, you know what we use to crush the nuts..."
"Oh!" She said, "I have a Cuisinart."
"What is that?" I asked.
"It's this marvelous invention: you put the nuts in and it will crush them in just a few seconds."
She quickly took the nuts from my hand, tossed them into the Cuisinart and turned it on. Before I could count to 20, they were done. She looked over at me and said, "See, isn't it great?"
I was sitting down now, with my head and in my hands and sobbing spontaneously and uncontrollably. Between the tears I sputtered, "This...is...my...favorite time...I usually...get to...catch up...with you...and talk...Now that...is ...G-O-N-E!"
Modernization has changed many things for the better. In this instance, it failed. I still have my Nana's mortar and pestle and from time to time, when I want to share that special, uninterrupted time with someone, I take it out and crush the nuts the old fashioned way.