My Family Recipe

How My Nana's Stuffed Cabbage Taught Me to Treat Myself Better

Even though she never wanted me to have the recipe.

October 30, 2018
Photo by Ty Mecham

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that’s meaningful to them and their loved ones.


“Looks like a pretty good start, Minch, but it definitely needed some tweaks,” my dad writes. "Edits in CAPS.”

Minch is a holdover nickname from my childhood—the other one is Mouse Cookie. It’d be impossible to pinpoint why I have so much trouble taking myself seriously.

The email that follows looks like it was shot up with a paintball gun full of “Edits in CAPS.” It’s a recipe draft for my great-grandmother Ethel Sellis’ stuffed cabbage. (Somehow, she skirted right by “Minch” in the childhood nickname lottery and landed on “Teddy.” “It’s because she was so adorable!” family members often explained. At which point I, Minch, would typically stalk out of the room to re-record this information in a journal filled with harshly scratched grievances.)

I'm the one closest to the cake. Despite my ready-stance and candle proximity, this was not my birthday.

The stuffed cabbage—though its name calls to mind a bowl of limp, sulfury, overcooked foliage—is in reality a warming, burbling, tomatoey stew. This email is my dad’s response to a fourth attempt at soliciting his review of the recipe, which, though we’ve made it together dozens of times, I’d never attempted to write out in full. Great, I think. I’m on deadline, and now I’ll need to transcribe this CAPS-laden mess into something workable at the eleventh hour. When I sent my dad the first iteration last week, detailing how I remembered the process, he’d simply responded, “Hm. I never break up whole peeled tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Sounds messy. Always use a chef’s knife.”


Ethel Sellis died the same week I was born—exactly one day after I burst into the world somewhat unceremoniously, and certainly dramatically, as a last-minute breech baby (which means butt-first, my sisters will remind you). I was named after her, in accordance with the modern Jewish practice where the new moniker needs only to reference the honored one in consonance. When I accused my parents of beckoning her passing by naming me one day early (Jewish tradition says that babies should be named after the already-deceased), my dad texted back, “Oh, please. She was already on her deathbed. Just be glad we didn’t name you Ethel.”

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Top Comment:
“My family (Eastern European) all make stuffed cabbage (and yes, the proper garnish is sour cream). Every one of my aunts swears her version is the best in the family, but I think my mom's is the best. But I haven't made it by myself! My family uses their own homemade sauerkraut and more often than not they'll add smoked meat on the bone to form the stew base, which they butchered and smoked themselves. How do I compete with that?!”
— Stephanie B.
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Ethel—or as her descendants called her, Nana—was a myth my whole childhood. There’s a trope I’ve always envied where people say, in constructs like this, that they learned so much about their ancient relative, or pen pal, or their neighbor’s cat, through small details that person (or feline) left behind. I don’t feel like that at all with Nana. There’s never been someone I more desperately wanted to know better.

But she did leave a few details behind. We had a small tin box, enameled in white and printed with miniature roasted turkeys and fruit bowls, full of her recipes. My mother, a world-class-sleuth, made sure these landed in our possession; I suspect she made a run for them seconds after the official signing of her marriage license. (She’d have scouted them out years earlier.) The recipes don’t give away much, though. Nana was a fantastic cook, so I’m told, but like many instructions born of her pre-computer generation, the corresponding recipes are terse and sparse.

We also had Nana’s prized shrimp forks: a mismatched set of two-pronged silver seafood utensils, pilfered from Chinese restaurants across New York City. They’re innately subversive, as forks go, having been owned by a woman who was raised Orthodox in a home that literally had a shul within it, but who secretly eschewed all things kosher. The joke about Nana is that when she married and moved out of her parents’ home to her own (shul-free) place nearby in Flatbush, she’d have to air out the apartment all day before her mother came to visit, to get rid of the smell of bacon. This tracks, because I’m told Nana was deeply joyful—“I never saw her in a mood,” says my mom—and bacon is the edible equivalent of unadulterated joy.

Ethel Sellis' recipe box and recipes.

And the main party line on Nana from my dad and grandma was that she loved indulgences, as any joyful person would, but that she always did “everything in moderation.” This became almost like a posthumous slogan for her, as if she were running for the most moderate ghost. “Nana? Oh, she was so much fun,” my dad’s brother might say when prompted on Thanksgiving. “She loved a good meal, a glass of wine, even a cigarette now and again. But,” and here he’d pause pointedly, taking a giant swing of wine. “Everything in moderation. Always moderation, with her!”

As a kid I used to imagine her as a fabulous, refined movie star (in retrospect, it’s obvious that I, never having actually met Nana, was instead picturing Zsa Zsa Gabor) wrapped in some sort of hybrid mink-and-crispy-bacon coat, smoking a cigarette with one elegant, bony-fingered hand, and really going at a shrimp tree with the other. But just for a few minutes, because everything in moderation.


As much as I’d like to be moderate—in control, cool, calm, relaxed—I’m not. I’m less like Nana, and more like her two daughters, who were always regularly estranging themselves from one another over sleights like forgetting to return a casserole dish.

I can’t help but gravitate toward the most. My temperament is extreme. It’s full of prickly edges that I’d rather be polished, and hair-bending neuroticism. I’m about as cool, calm, and relaxed as a bursting piñata, or a roiling pot of soup. I’m governed largely by anxiety: a frustratingly elusive force that’s as fluid as it is isolating. It sneaks back up on me, whenever I think I may've kicked it for good—a creeping heat and a thumping, like I’ve just downed a few ounces of whiskey.

In my head, it’s always been something that’ll go away, one day.

For now, I have moments sometimes—a few minutes, a few days, a full week—of relief, and it feels like I’ve just remembered I know how to fly. Like I’ve pressed a button and curtains have opened and I can suddenly recognize my own life, and I remember why I built it this way.


It’s 1998. My dad, Nana’s oldest grandson, bears his classic uniform, which is, inexplicably, a double-breasted Guayabera button-up, khaki shorts, and a pair of rubber thong-sandals that appear to be made from a basketball. He’s leaning over a Dutch oven, searing a hunk of meat. Then, later, he’s stirring something into a tomato sauce. One that’s simmering—gurgling, really—with so much truculence, it makes the stovetop look like an unattended crime scene.

Me, I’m darting around, barefoot, asking for tastes. Same as last time I smelled a sauce on the stove, and came sprinting out. I burn my tongue, but I don’t care. I have to have another bite, right that second. And for a little while, I’m not thinking about anything else but that sauce.

It’s such a release.

Mom, Dad, my sister Zoe, and me.

My dad is a champion of sauces and stews, with Nana’s stuffed cabbage king of them all. I adore that stuffed cabbage more than I’ve ever adored anything—it captures all that I love about comfort food: meatballs; soft, vegetal textures; thick, flavorful sauce. Ladled over warm, buttery egg noodles.

“Have you ever had anything so good in your entire life?” my dad asks, cutting a stuffed cabbage roll in two and handing us each an enormous spoonful, complete with hot tomato sauce and shredded chuck, braised until quite literally falling apart. A drop of sauce falls onto his sandals.

“Never,” I say, handing him a towel.

He waves it off, pointing at his shoe. “No need,” he says. “They’re waterproof.”


When I was an infant, someone gave my parents an odd gift: a food mill, so you could turn whatever you were eating into baby food. They used to feed me that stuffed cabbage as if it were puréed pumpkin. As I aged, it’s no wonder that it became a siren song to me. That the sumptuous, rich scent it’d give off as it bubbled away on the stove was enough to pry me from whatever I was doing and lure me into the kitchen, shoeless and ravenous as one of Pavlov’s dogs.

My dad is a champion of sauces and stews, with Nana’s stuffed cabbage king of them all. I adore that stuffed cabbage more than I’ve ever adored anything—it captures all that I love about comfort food: meatballs; soft, vegetal textures; thick, flavorful sauce. Ladled over warm, buttery egg noodles.

I often think of this Nora Ephron proclamation in Heartburn: “What I love about cooking is that after a hard day, there is something comforting about the fact that if you melt butter and add flour and then hot stock, it will get thick! It’s a sure thing! It’s a sure thing in a world where nothing is sure.”

Eating, too. Both at the basic level—if you’re hungry, food will satiate you—and in its ability to conjure identical, or poignantly referential, sensory information over and over again. Once, in the dead of summer, on the boardwalk in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, I saw a gangly teenage boy walk by, eating a paper cone full of fried dough. He wore a shirt that said, “Bad pizza is like bad sex: still pretty good.” Whatever your personal philosophy on bad sex, his shirt, I thought, made a solid point about pizza. Assuming you've ever had pizza that made you feel good.

The version of Nana's recipe she initially shared.

When I became a food writer, one of the first dishes I wanted to make myself was Nana’s stuffed cabbage. And yet, I realized, standing in my kitchen one weekend, I’d never made it alone. I looked at Nana’s recipe, on a photocopy of the original index card—my mom benevolently released a small issue of prints, a few years back—and it said to start by boiling the cabbage. But as I read on, I saw that so many other pieces of the process were missing.

It took my dad many decades of needling to get out of Nana all the extra embellishments she made to the recipe recorded on her index card. Like that she added ginger snaps, crumbled into the sauce at the end to thicken it. Or that she often included a piece of chuck steak at the bottom of the pot, which she’d brown thoroughly before layering everything else on top. If you tried to make the dish just from her winnowed-down recipe (to which she affixed a small photo of herself, as if she’s watching) you’d end up with something fine. But not something amazing. Not the stuff to change the course of a life—to summon even the most fixedly Minch-like of Minches out of their rooms for a bite.

I love this detail about my dad’s dogged pursuit for the recipe. It suggests the slightest streak of intemperance in Nana. Would the world’s most moderate ghost really care if someone made her stuffed cabbage just as well as she did?

Somehow, my dad didn’t see any parallels in the piecemeal way he provided “feedback” when I asked him to look over the recipe I’d written up. In the way he initially forgot to correct the thickness to which the onions should be sliced, or in his withholding of the detail that the tomato soup had to be Campbell’s brand, until my third prodding email.

Days after I turned over the final recipe to my editor, I sent my dad a follow-up note asking if our stylist could garnish the dish with some chopped parsley, should she need to add a little green. I got an email in response:

“Hm,” he wrote. “Never heard of that, Minch.” Then, on the next line: “Don’t forget: The proper garnish is sour cream.”

Nana and my dad.

Last week, I made Nana’s stuffed cabbage—the full version—for myself, by myself. I followed all of the steps, and it came out just how I wanted it to. Tender rounds of rice and beef, spiced perfectly, up against thin sheaths of cabbage, afloat in the most brilliantly flavored, brothy sauce: laced with ginger and full of sweet notes and subtle tang. The same way it tasted when Nana made it, I’m sure.

Eating a bowl of Nana’s stuffed cabbage won’t change who I am. It won’t make me more like her—whoever that was. And it certainly won’t tell me any more about her than I already know. Whether she really was so thoroughly unruffled, she’d have made a perfect spring day seem too hot or too cold; or, whether, like me, she had certain facets to her character she wished she could swat down like she was playing Whac-A-Mole. Whether her gleefully patterned recipe box was the product of very careful consideration, of an intention to leave behind specific information about herself that she wanted me, or anyone, to have.

Food is, in this way, limited. But while I’m making Nana’s stuffed cabbage—and, when I’m eating it—I feel better.

And most of the time, that’s a pretty good start.

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9 Comments

Eric K. November 3, 2018
Danggg, Nana had swag.
 
Michelle S. October 30, 2018
Nana's stuffed cabbage never looked so elegant!<br />
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. October 30, 2018
Right??
 
Hana A. October 30, 2018
Ella! What a beautiful story and testament to Nana. I'm sure she'd approve of your version... good call nixing the parsley. ;)
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. October 30, 2018
Thank you, Hana!
 
Joanna S. October 30, 2018
This is so lovely, ella. Love dad's edits in CAPS :)
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. October 30, 2018
Thanks, Joanna!
 
Stephanie B. October 30, 2018
This makes me want to go home and enjoy a bowl of sarmale on a cold day. My family (Eastern European) all make stuffed cabbage (and yes, the proper garnish is sour cream). Every one of my aunts swears her version is the best in the family, but I think my mom's is the best. But I haven't made it by myself! My family uses their own homemade sauerkraut and more often than not they'll add smoked meat on the bone to form the stew base, which they butchered and smoked themselves. How do I compete with that?!
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. October 30, 2018
Wow—smoked meat on the bone sounds unbeatable! And very cozy.