Historically, national cuisines have been remarkably resistant to change, which is why the immigrant’s refrigerator is the very last place to look for signs of assimilation.
The top shelf is where she keeps the lining of a sheep’s stomach—cold but not frozen, ready to be unwrapped. How it holds the ground meat in its stringy net is beyond reason. But then, so is the idea of a ground animal about to be wrapped in the lining of its stomach. This lining is not silver, but white. White is also the color of this animal’s coat. The first time she needed a coat was 1953, when she landed in a new country that wrapped her in a skin of coldness, one that required her to button up to the neck. Even though she buttoned up, Tuberculosis still found its way beneath her skin and into her lungs. By the time she was taken into hospital, the landlady had put her mother’s and father’s and brothers’ belongings on the pavement, and there the newly-arrived family stood until another immigrant family took pity on them.
Pity is something immigrants have in abundance, but they hoard and hide their pity from view. You cannot find pity tucked under an immigrant’s arm, along with the Daily News, as he leaves for the factory in the morning. You cannot see pity in an immigrant kitchen, in the pot that is frying ground lamb with onions and parsley and cinnamon and pepper and salt. You cannot find pity in an immigrant’s bootstraps. But you can find it in the bra-strap that lifts her tired breasts to the same height they were before she encountered the skin of cold.
The middle shelf is where she keeps her sheep’s-milk cheese. This cheese, though refrigerated, is still slightly warm. This signifies its freshness. Warm sheep’s-milk cheese means she has recently been to the home of another immigrant who has invited her in and made it possible to buy the filling she will later sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon, and wrap in a leaf of dough. This cheese-filled leaf of dough is called a finger. After it is deep-fried, this dough-finger will be the exact shade as her flesh-finger. If she is not careful, she could bite into her flesh by mistake. She’s not worried about this possibility—immigrants are careful, immigrants are not allowed to make mistakes.
Once, an immigrant made the mistake of swapping his diet of ground lamb wrapped in sheep’s stomach-lining, of dough-fingers filled with sheep’s milk cheese, for a diet of flakes of corn and cow’s milk and a pudding that was not a dessert but something filled with so much pig’s blood the red became black. Even though this new country’s food did not welcome him home like an immigrant wife, he was too proud to admit his mistake. He continued to drink the cow’s milk and eat the pudding made from pig’s blood. He found, through this diet, that no one could tell he had come from another land. Unless he had to say the word crisp. The sp sound was impossible for him to say. He found himself thinking about sentences before he spoke them out loud. This lessened the amount he spoke, until he developed a reputation among the new country’s old citizens for being stoic. The st sound was not as difficult to say as the sp. In fact, he could easily pronounce stoic. And now that he could say it, he could be it. None of the immigrants from his own country spoke about him, and when no one speaks about you, you do not exist.
She is unlike the other immigrants—even though she does not speak about him, she knows he still exists. She remembers him leaving to sit at a different kitchen table. On her finger there is the band he gave her. Not a white band like the binding of the sheep’s stomach, but yellow. Gold, she supposes, would be a more accurate description. This golden band wrapped around her flesh-finger ensures she will never mistake it for something filled with sheep’s-milk cheese. When he left, he took her stomach-lining with him. This band now holds her together; it reminds her she did not make mistakes; it reminds her she exists, even though her bottom shelf is empty, except for an open box of water biscuits that are no longer crisp.
Elena Georgiou’s book, mercy mercy me (University of Wisconsin) won a Lambda Literary Award and was a finalist for the Publishing Triangle Award. She is also co-editor (with Michael Lassell) of the poetry anthology, The World In Us (St. Martin’s Press). She received the Astraea Emerging Writers Award in poetry and a New York Foundation of the Arts Fellowship, and has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in Bomb Magazine, Denver Quarterly, MiPoesia, Natural Bridge, and Gargoyle. She is currently a poetry editor at Bloom and at Tarpaulin Sky, and is on the faculty in the MFA program at Goddard College, Vermont.