This page contains:
- Disregard for personal autonomy
- Body transformation
In Greece, we have a saying: You must eat the body part you want to grow stronger. Or maybe that’s just something my grandmother used to say.
After partying with friends until the early hours, Katerina and I take a detour before we go home. The meat market in downtown Athens houses three restaurants and they all open at five in the morning for the workers who unload pounds of meat all night long. There, we sit at a small square table, a sheet of wax paper serving as tablecloth, and I eat tripe soup to cure my endless hangover. But especially my upset stomach. It’s not like the ones my grandmother makes; it lacks substance. But it’s good enough.
Katerina takes a look at my plate and scrunches her face.
“That’s disgusting,” she says. But soon enough she gives me one of her smirks, to show that she means well. Always soft, even when she wants to be mean.
I smile and let the warm, gelatinous broth slide down my throat.
“A stomach for a stomach.”
My Nana was famous for her cooking skills and children would visit her even when I was not there. Sometimes I would turn around the corner coming from school and there they would be, flocking outside her front door. She would hand out biscuits or little chocolate truffles, but only if they promised to not tell their parents. Some did tell, children being children and all, but the parents did not mind, just as long as it wasn’t too often and didn’t spoil their appetite.
When I brought friends with me, she would serve them rice pudding or honey rolls, topping both with lots of cinnamon. Her door was always open for them and she would always have something to give. They would leave her house looking almost transparent and light, like made of spun sugar. Like there was no meat in them.
She never allowed me to have any, though. I could only eat sweets at home whenever my mother relented after days of pressure. But I never managed to eat any of my grandmother’s desserts.
“These are not for you, Dina,” she would say, prying the tray of profiteroles out of my small fingers. “You are a girl for the meat. Sweets will do you no good.”
Once, I went to her house—it was only five minutes away from ours—and found Katerina already there. She was coming out of Grandma’s kitchen, a little lost and pale but with a smile sticky with honey.
I placed my books on the dining room table and followed Grandma around the house. I pestered her for an hour for some of the desserts she gave to Katerina. She eventually stopped avoiding me and turned around.
“I have something for you too,” she said as if I had finally convinced her and disappeared into the kitchen.
But as I sat at the table—quietly celebrating my victory—she came back, hands cupped around a steaming bowl of bonesoup. A bone was floating in there, long and narrow; I couldn’t tell exactly what kind.
“I made some just this morning.” She offered it to me as if it was my favorite dish.
My face dropped.
Katerina smirked under her cinnamon-crusted lips and her sugar-coated cheeks, beautiful as always. She smelled sickly sweet. For a moment—perhaps it was my sweet-tooth brain—she looked mostly made of custard, her eyes were two pastel blue candied almonds, her chin was a shortbread biscuit. But parts of her were still meat. Her hair was black, and slick down her shoulders like always. I looked away and the image was gone.
“Children need strong bones to grow,” my grandmother continued. She sat next to me at the table and spoon-fed me the soup until the bowl was clean.
A bone for a bone.
And as if to confirm her words, Katerina broke her arm later that day. She stayed out of school for a month. I visited her every day to keep her updated on schoolwork.
Apparently, I was the only child in town that needed strong bones even though I hardly ever got sick.
If my grandmother bumped into me on the street and I had eaten something sweet before, it was like she could smell it on me, her whole face would change, like someone had done her personal harm. She would grab me by the hand and drag me home to my parents. There was nothing my father—her son—could do to appease her then but promise they would never give me sweets again.
And when a child got sick or got hurt like Katerina—and children did get sick all the time—she would act if she had been right all along.
When I asked her then why she would give out sweets to the children instead of meat like she did with me, she would look at me dead serious and say:
“How else would they come into my kitchen?”
I am up late at night but this time to study for finals. I am trying hard to concentrate but my phone keeps flashing messages from Katerina.
There’s a guy in her film school, one year her senior, giving her the runaround.
Have you tried ignoring him?
Katerina sends me a sad face.
I know she wants me to enable her. Tell her she should call him in the middle of the night and check for any suspicious noises in the background. I don’t reply.
I am starving.
I go to the kitchen and open the fridge. They say sugar is a good fuel for the brain, but sweets are not sitting well with me. Grandma would probably be very happy if she knew. There’s some leftover kebab in the back but what I’d really go for right now is lamb brains.
When I was taking the entrance exams for the School of Architecture, Grandma cooked furiously every day. She even asked me to move to her place temporarily so she could feed me around the clock. I said no because I wasn’t a baby—although I was living with my parents until I left for college—but she brought the food to us anyway. The dish she cooked the most was fried lamb brains.
“A brain for a brain,” she would say.
When I got into college, she would brag to everyone who would listen that it was her cooking that got me through. My success was hers as well. We are a family. A continuation.
I stare at my phone for a moment. There are two new messages from Katerina, but I don’t read them. Instead, I call Grandma.
“Do you have any lamb brains?” I ask and I can feel her smiling through the phone.
“I am coming over.”
It is a month after the exams when I get a call from Dad. Nana had a heart attack, and she is not doing well. She is at the hospital now, but she is old, and she might not make it. I must go now if I want to have a last conversation with her while she is still conscious.
I text Katerina, still in disbelief. The woman boasted she had reached eighty-eight years of age without getting sick for a single day. When I was younger, I thought she was an immortal witch, and I guess I still haven’t shaken that belief.
My Dad is her youngest and her dearest. A boy for the meat. Most of her other children are estranged or have died from one sickness or the other. He doesn’t like to admit he is a mama’s boy, but I know.
“Your Grandma was a child during the war,” he tells me, sipping scalding coffee from a paper cup. No sugar. His eyes are glassy from staying by her side all night. “Do you know how many kids people had back then?”
I’ve heard the story so many times. Grandma had eleven siblings. Or twelve kids were born in the family. How many of those have made it to adulthood is another thing entirely. My Nana was lucky because she was tough and worked hard. When the famine came, she was already an asset to the family. People thought like that back then. She was a girl, which was a problem for her parents, but she wouldn’t give up. Fruits and vegetables were rare. Meat was nearly impossible to find. And perhaps that is the reason why Nana is so obsessed with it. When they rationed the food, she would get a decent portion to keep her strong for the fields. She kept working twice as hard as any of her brothers to earn her meals. In the end she outlived them all, even the famine.
In a way, she was her parents’ favorite child. Just like my father is her favorite child. And sometimes that makes the difference between life and death. Between meat and sugar.
A little after the sun goes up Dad waves me inside the room. It’s been less than a week since I saw her last, but I almost don’t recognize her. Her face is gaunt, her plump cheeks are sunken, as if along with her energy someone stole all the meat from her body overnight.
She smiles faintly like she knows what I am thinking of.
“Hospital food is shit,” she tells me. “Not enough meat.”
Father looks around for a wandering nurse, embarrassed. I take a chair and push it close to where her head rests.
“Soon, you’ll get cooking again,” I tell her. I try to sound confident, much like her when I was a kid, but she shakes her head just so.
“I’ll do no such thing.”
She suddenly grabs my hand and pulls me closer. Her strength for a woman her age is impossible.
“I need to eat something, or I’ll never leave this place,” she whispers in my ear, her eyes pleading. “Cook something that will make me strong again.”
If I weren’t so numb, I would laugh. I don’t know how to cook anything, but I know she keeps a book with recipes at her house. In her kitchen. But it isn’t just cooking she is asking for. She hungers for her own kind of food. One that fills you in but leaves others hollow.
Before I have time to answer, Katerina rushes inside, phone in hand.
“Why didn’t you answer?” She asks me. “I’ve been searching for the past twenty minutes.”
Then she stops and bites her lips. “I’m sorry.”
She grabs the last chair in the room and huddles next to me, her eyes already full of tears. Grandma smiles at her but doesn’t talk anymore. Her eyes pass over me every now and then and I pretend not to notice.
We sit in silence for hours.
“Do you think she is going to want this?” Katerina holds Grandma’s cookbook as she comes to the living room.
I glance up from duffel bag I am filling with Grandma’s essentials. “I think she is going to be really mad if she finds out you moved it.”
That stops her in her tracks. She caresses the cover like an old friend.
“I bet the children will miss her. She cooked so many sweets in here. For me, for all of us.”
Not for me, I don’t say. Instead, I change the subject.
“Still sad over that guy?”
She shrugs. “Not really.”
I know she is lying to me and herself but lying is the first step to getting over him. For now, it’s good enough.
“I mean, people are literally dying. That’s more important than some guy, right?”
When she realizes what she has said she turns pale. “Oh, Dina, I am sorry. I didn’t mean it that way.”
She runs to me and gives me a hug from behind. I am still bent over the duffel bag, but I let her hug me. I know it will make her feel better. Too bad there’s nothing that will help me feel better.
“It’s okay,” I say. I leave the duffel bag half-packed and plop down on the sofa. “You know, we don’t have to go back right away. Grandma is probably sleeping. Let’s take a break.”
I turn on the TV and Katerina sits next to me just like we did when we were kids, watching cartoons on weekend afternoons. Katerina would have her fill of ekmek or apple pie and I would have whatever Nana was cooking for me. Katerina would be sick for a few days afterwards, but she would get well again. Children get sick all the time. Nobody thinks anything of it. What if an old lady shows them how to spin sugar in a small kitchen? What if that sugar replaces a broken arm, or an infected ear? If the stolen body part is good enough, who is going to notice? Some people are for the meat. They need it and they should get it.
The cookbook is still on Katerina’s lap. She has her black slick hair up in a ponytail. It makes her neck look longer and elegant. She’s always a little wan nowadays, but it adds to her charm. Even sad and tired she looks gorgeous. I don’t know what that guy was thinking.
Sitting so close to her in stillness I can’t help but notice her perfume. It smells faintly of vanilla. Like the one Grandma used in her custard. Her ears look like perfectly piped Viennese whirls. There’s cinnamon at the corners of her mouth. She is mostly sugar and dough now, but there are some good bits that are still meat.
Grandma can’t hold on too long with hospital food.
I take the book gently from Katerina’s lap and go into the kitchen. She looks up at me confused. I wonder how well I can follow Nana’s notes.
A heart for a heart.
“I will make you a chocolate cake,” I smile. “It’s good for the heartbreak.”