My mom died ten years ago. Ten years ago we were under a different lockdown, one dictated by a team of hematologists; doctors who warned us that blood cells were low and immunity was compromised. Nurses walking down corridors wearing gloves and masks, disinfecting everything. Confined to a hospital bed in August when the blue sky is teasing you and knowing that if you leave for one hour, that may be the last hour you ever have. And so it was, August 2010 was the last hour. Following 10 months of horror, it is a story for another time.
Ten years later, I found myself in Coronavirus lockdown rummaging through old books when I found my mother’s meatball recipe, randomly folded and hidden between two other recipes. I almost choked. This is a recipe book I use often, how could I have missed this tiny nugget of whimsey? Stuck at home with hours to kill, I decided to get to work. I immediately took a picture and sent it to my cousins all over the world. We are on a chat group spanning countries from South Africa, Ghana, England, Australia, and Germany.
We grew up together in South Africa as first-generation South Africans with limited Greek; English and Afrikaans being our native tongues. ‘Koulla’s Keftedes’ recipe was the star of the Whatsapp show, my mother would have been impressed. From all corners of the world and different time zones, cousins vowed to start frying Koulla’s Keftedes in kitchens everywhere.
She was a low-key person, fancy wasn’t her thing. She cooked because she wanted to feed her family, she cooked to put us through university and she cooked to keep us eating together. Our mothers were all immigrants, young brides who left Cyprus for better lives. All had arranged marriages, leaving families and having children in new continents far away from home. Our mothers were the center of our lives, as all Greek mothers are. Strangely, we all lost our mothers fairly young, for some reason, women in our family do not live long, quite the opposite to most Greek families. I guess we are outliers.
My mother, like all Greek mothers of her generation, never wrote down recipes. Because of this, I have very little to go on. She died when I still had a Blackberry, so I have limited videos of her. Pictures are in albums and not stored on any device. Her writing – well, I have hardly anything. She was a reader, not a writer. She cooked a lot. I always remember her in the kitchen. She owned a fast-food restaurant so food was always plentiful, but one of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t pay enough attention. I wasn’t interested in the recipes because I guess I always thought she would be there to make them. It is the curse of the young, not paying attention because you believe it will always be there.
I have spent the last decade cooking but I very rarely cook Greek food. Maybe because I live in Cyprus now and Greek food is plentiful or maybe my mom set the bar too high and I’m too intimidated to compete. Now, with children of my own, or perhaps because in lockdown with time to think and idle hands, cooking food from my childhood finally appeals. Craving my mother’s food with that special mix of love and familiarity and home. Not stuck-under-lockdown home but home-is-where-the-heart-is home.
And this is how it came to be. A simple recipe, the loops of her g’s and the slant of her y’s and the simplicity of the method. My mom never wore makeup, only a smudge of lipstick. She never wore heels, always choosing sensible flats. She wasn’t wordy, she was practical and moved with purpose. Fry them in hot oil a few minutes and they are ready. She didn’t instruct me to put the heat on high, she didn’t advise on how finely to grate the potato. She just assumed it was obvious or that I would use my brain and figure it out.
Maybe she wanted me to put my own spin on it, I don’t know. Maybe she just assumed that because I had watched her cook these amazing little balls of goodness throughout my childhood that I would intrinsically know what to do, like osmosis, the method would have just absorbed into my mind. Maybe she assumed that because I am her daughter, I would just know.
They were my favourites. The parsley and onion and the crispy outside with the soft inside, biting into them feels like going home, like breaking into a familiar place. So many memories of my childhood self, standing by the pan and watching them change from light to golden, like magic. When they were done, I would burn my tongue every time because I could just not wait for a second more. Every single time without fail I would take another and burn myself all over again. Sometimes they would be oblong, other times round, but always with the same crispy outside and parsley onion-y flavored inside. My Anglo Saxon friends would beg her to make them when they came round, favouring them to the pale, soggy meatballs of their youth. Decades later, they still talk about those meatballs. Nothing like Koulla’s Keftedes.
To this day, I have never tasted one like my mother made and believe me, I have eaten plenty. When I found this recipe ten years later, I cried. I cried because those looped g’s and y’s and curly f’s took me back to a time when my mom wrote me sick notes because I didn’t want to swim in the school gala and a time when she sent me old fashioned letters by post while I was living abroad as a fledgling teacher. This recipe was a message spanning decades, the paper was intact, nothing was smudged, like it was written yesterday. Writing is a powerful thing, it takes you back.
And so it was, on a rainy Wednesday on day who-the-hell-knows of Coronavirus lockdown, I knew that the family needed to be fed and keftedes needed to be made.
My eight-year-old was fully onboard. She never met my mother, born a year after her death. Always keen to hear about her yiayia, with endless questions about what she looked like and who she was. She is at that age when she asks me why she doesn’t have a yiayia; obsessed with justice and all things being fair, she feels cheated. Well Sophie Bear, you were. You were robbed.
Together we washed and grated the potatoes, diced the onion, chopped the parsley, cracked an egg and mixed the meat. Our two hands made little balls and waited for the oil to heat. I have my mother’s hands. We dropped them in one by one and waited for the crispy coat to form… like magic, it did.
Were they as good? No.
Memory is a strange thing, perhaps I have elevated them to some godly mythological meatball, maybe I didn’t heat the oil just right. I believe it was the potato, I should have grated it finer. I blame the potato. But…. my eight-year-old burnt her mouth eating them by the stove and refused to stop. She raved about them and declared them the best meatballs she has ever had. True, she doesn’t have a point of reference so I suppose HER mom's meatballs are the BEST meatballs and this I guess is how all great meatball stories are made.