It’s better to leave the classics alone. Or not. A chance invention that turned a traditional dish on its head, became a family favourite and added fuel to an already raging fire of in-law tensions
Words by Terri Gilson; Art by Maya Pillai
In an attempt to disguise the taste of the liver, Mom would create bizarre concoctions of apples, onions, gravies and the like. But it was hopeless; there was nothing that could be done to transform that wretched bovine organ into something the least bit palatable. I still have traumatic flashbacks of sitting there, long after the family had deserted the dinner table, choking back apple smothered liver, while simultaneously throwing up in my mouth.
Growing up, dinners were mostly simple, really nothing to get excited about. And, then sometimes, they were horrifying. In the ‘70s, eating liver was actually encouraged, even considered good for your health. And, if there’s one thing Mom liked to feed us, it was stuff that was good for our health.
Back then, Mom wasn’t a great cook, nor was she a bad one. She simply cooked what was minimally required for the family’s survival. I mean, she was barely 20 years old when she had me. In my 20’s, on a good day, my one main meal would have been pizza from the restaurant I worked at. In those days I could barely provide myself with daily sustenance; much less keep a family of four fed and alive. In that context, her culinary skills were relatively impressive.
By the time Mom married Dad at the tender age of 19, I think she’d pretty much had her fill of cooking. The eldest of four kids, she had lost her own dad when she was only nine. So while grandma was out dating, Mom was regularly thrust into the undesirable role of babysitter and had to cook for her younger siblings.
But Mom’s other qualities and talents compensated for any perceived cooking deficits she may have had. She is one of the most positive, laidback and wise people I know. She may not be the Little-Miss-Sunshine-everything-has-silver-lining type, she was much more subdued than that. You can talk to her about anything and know that she would be really listening. And, you can always count on her to give you honest advice, that’s not the least bit sugarcoated.
For lack of a better term, Mom has adopted, what I’d call, a “sophisticated simplicity” to the way she approaches life. She had us kids very young and shared with me that she made a vow to herself very early on–no regrets, no what-ifs, no longing for what could have been in life. She was going to enjoy her life and make the best of her circumstances. And, she has kept that promise till date. She just doesn’t sweat the small stuff or let it get to her. And, she doesn’t make a big production of it either. Mom really wouldn’t let herself get too worked up over much, and that included cooking.
Unfortunately, this didn’t help her cause in the eyes of my Baba and Gido, my paternal grandparents. Cooking was an important quality they expected in their daughter-in-law. Even during my Mom and Dad’s wedding ceremony, Gido was trying to convince my Mom’s step-dad to stop the marriage! She was not the traditional Ukrainian Orthodox bride Dad’s parents had dreamed about. However, because Gido spoke only a few words of English, by the time they figured out what he was trying to say, it was too late.
Mom and Dad love to tell the story of how they met. It was in 1968, when she was working as a car hop at the A&W drive that Dad ended up in her section with his date (who happened to be a friend of Mom’s). While Mom was serving and chatting with them, she invited them to a party at her place the following night. When they finished eating, I guess Mom was hanging around talking a tad too long for Dad’s liking (he is not the most patient of souls), so Dad said to her, “Do you want a tip?” She said “Sure.” So he handed her a tip and said ‘get lost’. That was his “tip”. They both can’t stop laughing every time they tell us this story. I still don’t get what is funny about it, but I laugh along with them because when Dad laughs, it’s irresistible and nearly impossible not to join in.
Coming back to the story, he did show up at Mom’s party that next night and soon after broke up with this A&W date. The rest is, as they say, history. I recently asked Mom if she thought he was kind of an ‘as*h**e’ for saying that about the tip to her. She just laughed and said, “I guess. But whatever….he DID give me a tip. I didn’t think much of it at the time.” Water off a duck’s back–that’s Mom for you.
However, she did recall telling him years later, “See, you better watch what you say to someone, you never know when you’ll run into them again or marry them.” Too bad my Dad has yet to heed that advice. On their first date, they went to see the movie, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which Mom says ended up representing their life together.
Dad also loved hunting, so meat was always suspect at our house. You could never let your guard down when it came to the meat. When Dad cooked, it was even scarier than liver night. His repertoire consisted of a dish we affectionately dubbed “hamburger surprise”, which contained ground meat (which we could only hope was hamburger), mixed with a variety of mystery ingredients, all married together with a can of tomato soup.
Thankfully, Mom did the lion’s share of cooking and for the most part, we ate the basics–meat, potatoes and vegetables. Apart from occasions when she, too, tried to sneak slain woodland creatures into the spaghetti sauce or feed us liver, it all went okay. She kept us nourished.
Her Scottish cabbage rolls, although, were a totally different story! We considered them a real treat because we only got to eat them at holiday dinners. That was because they were a bit of a pain to make and Mom didn’t like cooking anything that was overly involved.
Over on my Dad’s side, Sunday with the Ukrainian relatives was all about the food. I guess we must have appeared consistently malnourished upon arrival at Baba’s each week, because she would embrace us, pinch our cheeks and point us in the direction of the table, always overflowing with mounds of traditional Ukrainian fare, while exclaiming, “Eat! Eat! You’re so skinny!” And, so we ate. We ate borscht, pierogies, kubassa and cabbage rolls. We ate until we could eat no more.
Yet, back at the homestead, during those holiday dinners, it was the Scottish cabbage rolls we devoured. We didn’t even attempt to hide it from the Ukrainians. In fact, it was almost flaunted. No wonder there were some serious tensions brewing between my Mom and the in-laws. Apparently, Baba actually did think we were malnourished–“children should be chubby,” she grumbled as she blamed my Mom’s poor parenting skills. The cabbage rolls, then, only served as fuel to the fire that already strained their relationship.
But I have to say: those hearty, Scottish, meaty, rolled treasures, bursting with ground beef, rice and mushrooms, covered in creamy canned tomato soup, were totally worth the potential disownment from the Ukrainian side of the family. I couldn’t help but favour them over the traditional, bland, puny, rice-filled ones my Baba made. This is something most Ukrainians could never understand. I guess that was my Mom’s Scottish roots in me doing the tasting. We devoured the rolls like starved children and it was only recently that Mom disclosed the secret red sauce in those rolls that made it so special. Ketchup… it was good ol’ ketchup. True to her style, Mom always did like to keep it simple.
Here’s her version of the origin story of the rather infamous Scottish cabbage rolls:
An interview with Edie K, aka Mom
Me: Did you ever try to sneak slain woodland creature meat into the cabbage rolls?
Mom: Yes, I did and I succeeded. You were always suspicious. But nobody else could tell. I did it lots.
Me: Do you like cooking?
Mom: I don’t mind cooking but I especially don’t like cleaning up after cooking. When you guys were kids, cooking was a bit of a chore. Well, you know what it’s like feeding a family, don’t you? You just have to get dinner on the table. You can’t be creative and get fancy all the time.
Me: How did you come up with the recipe for these Cabbage rolls?
Mom: Actually it’s a funny story. The recipe came from my Auntie May. I asked her for it. She was also a Scott that was married to a Ukrainian. And, this was the only cabbage roll I had ever eaten. I didn’t even know about the other kind (the real Ukrainian ones) until I met your Dad. But the funny part is that I actually like the other ones better–the traditional ones that only have rice in them. I only made the ground beef ones because your dad and you kids liked them better. I added the ketchup because it seemed like they needed a little more flavour and I thought,“Well, ketchup goes so good with hamburger …” Oh! Also, they were actually easier to make than the other ones.
Me: How did Dad (your 100 per cent Ukrainian husband) react the first time you served him these “Scottish cabbage rolls”?
Mom: He loved them. He’s a meat guy.
Me: Did you make any other “Scottish” food?
Mom: Well, I don’t know if you can call them Scottish food. I guess that was just their way of cooking–meat and potatoes. No, I never made haggis or anything like that. But I made shortbread. I think shortbread cookies are actually Scottish. I called the cabbage rolls Scottish cabbage rolls because they were different and I was Scottish. It was a little joke between your Dad and me. They were quite different from his mother’s and he actually liked them better!
Recipe for “Edie K’s Scottish Cabbage Rolls”
1 large cabbage
1 lb. ground beef
4 cups of brown rice
1 medium onion, diced
1 cup sliced mushroom
1 cup ketchup (add additional to taste)
2 (10 oz.) cans condensed tomato soup
- Preheat oven to 250 degrees F and spray a large casserole dish or roaster pan with non-stick cooking spray.
- Cook cabbage in microwave for 10 minutes, and then cool. Turn and return to microwave and cook for another 10 minutes (Mom started to use this method when she got a microwave in the ‘80s because it was much faster).
- Remove core from cabbage and carefully remove cabbage leaves. Return to microwave for another 5 minutes if the leaves aren’t flexible enough and they don’t come off easily. Be careful, as they can tear.
- Brown ground beef with chopped onion on stove top. Add mushrooms when beef is nearly done. Cook until meat is browned and onions and mushrooms are soft.
- Cook rice until done.
- Mix ground beef mixture, rice and ketchup together in large bowl. Add additional ketchup to your liking.
- Roll about a tablespoon of the filling up in the cabbage roll. This video demonstrates the basic technique of rolling a cabbage leaf.
- Place gently in prepared pan and pour tomato soup over the cabbage rolls.
- Bake in oven for about 2 hours or until cabbage is tender. Serve warm.