“Recipe for Life from a Hungarian Grandmother”


(Watercolor of a Coal Barge, Jane Kohut-Bartels, 2006)

The prompt over at dversepoets pub is ‘recipe’…but not just of cookery.  There are many recipes in life.  Check out the poems this prompt has brought forth from poets. A very fruitful prompt indeed at a particular time of the Season.


How do you measure another life?

By  success or fortitude or some sort

Of battle-field glory?

Grandmother Elizabeth,

The woman I am named for,

Must have been made of steel,

Blind courage and all the above.


From Hungary on a boat

Steerage of course, in the darkness part

where air and comfort were

Paid  by donations from the village,

Where expectations of survival were bleak

If the ship sprang a leak,

Yet this sixteen year old girl made the trip

From some village in Hungary,

(and went back five times pregnant, steerage of course, 

to bring out  family , to walk the streets of gold).


Registered at Ellis Island,

She was a pretty

Young woman

Met my grandfather straight

Off the boat.


They broke the bed,

that first night of married life

And the gossips in the tenement said

She would be fruitful, with dark hair and dark eyes

A Magyar, but not a gypsy, as if that mattered.


Fruitful enough, with thirteen children born,

Enough survived to build a clan.

One son, my father, cut down his own father,

Hanging from the rafters.

Poverty and cares must have made him

Choose this over life.

Elizabeth went on

And raised her children

And no one starved

And everyone became fruitful

In the course of their own lives…


She made satin quilts,

That slipped off  beds

Braided rugs from rags

Precious cloth not to be thrown away,

To  be, as we say now: ‘repurposed”.


Sitting on the treadle of her sewing machine

going  up and down to the rhythm of her labor

Seeing her stockings rolled up beneath her knees

Tied with cloth, and that rhythm and those knees

Were the security of love that was missing from home.


Large glass jars on the floor grates in the kitchen,

Where milk was curdled for sour cream

Half lemon stopper we competed to squeeze

The smell of boiled cabbage scented the house

Like the comforting scent of an old woman

With embracing arms and a wrinkled bosom.


She died when I was twelve,

Taught me to make quilts and kiflies

A buttery pastry filled with fruit, nuts.


Every  Christmas and Easter

I roll out the dough and fill the pastry

With love remembered from an old woman

Whose name I carry and whose heart

I can only hope to match.


Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2016


Grandmother Elizabeth’s Kiflie Recipe.


1 8 ounce package of cream cheese (full fat, please)

2 sticks of butter (don’t cheat and use margarine)

3 cups of unbleached flour (scant)

Get a good husband to knead into dough, or use a mixer. Chill.

Roll out and cut into squares.

Fill with Levar (prune paste) or apricot paste (simmer both separately until pasty)

Or crush walnuts, mix with egg white and scant sugar,

Fold over the squares and bake for 20 minutes in 350 oven (not too fast an oven)

When cool…sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Bet you can’t eat just one!

Merry Xmas and all other holidays at this time of the year!











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22 Responses to ““Recipe for Life from a Hungarian Grandmother””

  1. hayesspencer Says:

    Super poem! Your grandmother was indeed sn amazing person. Thank you for the kiflie tecipe as well. She sounds as intrepid and vital ad my grandmother, whose mother died when she was 10, of consumption.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ladynyo Says:

    Oh, Toni! Such tragedies in families! It’s amazing that we go on. I’ve wanted to write about the Hungarian side of my family….my father was total Hungarian…and were such loving and generous people. My grandmother was a peasant, but during the depression…she had a grocery store in New Brunswick and at one time owned half the land that Rutgers University is built on. She took in deeds for groceries, but of course, this really meant nothing. How do you feed and clothe 13 children? Amazing. This old stock…your family and mine and most others…well, they faced life unlike anything we really know or have experienced. Amazing people, amazing stock.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. whimsygizmo Says:

    Jane, this is beautiful, and powerful. An amazing person, indeed. Your father “cutting down” his own father hit me right in the gut. Perfect language use.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you so much! I wrote it so fast, too fast, and then the computer acted up. Showed its ass. There are so many stories for all of us. Thank you so much….I really wanted for years to say something about this remarkable woman…there are many other stories but I had her in my life for such a short time, but she made a deep, abiding impression. Thank you for reading and your lovely comment.


  5. erbiage Says:

    This is full of the ebb and flow of life. Beautiful, poignant.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you, erbiage. There is much more to this women, if only I knew more. She died at age 85, but she lived quite a full life. And she loved all her children and grandchildren, unconditionally. I think that is an expression of great gratitude for the live she had here, in spite of the tragedies.


  7. Björn Rudberg (brudberg) Says:

    What a wonderful full life, having it all, the adventure, the family, the tragedies. It must have been so interesting to listen to her stories… a few of my closest friends are from Hungary, and I love their recipes.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Bodhirose Says:

    This made me remember the silk-like quilt we had when I was growing up…it always slipped off the bed too. And then sitting on that treadle sewing machine…my mother had one and we would “ride” on it as she sewed. Things were so very different in those days…people were much tougher back then I think. I loved your story of your grandmother, Jane, and her strong stock. Would love to know more!


  9. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you, Gayle. I would love to know more about her, too…but my mother, of a very different culture and class, hated that side of the family…called them peasants and our time together was sparse. I think you are very right: People were much tougher back then. But loved stronger with less issues. Or perhaps some of the same issues, but they got over it without therapy and pills. I think also, many of us had those slippery quilts in our early life! LOL! Your comment about your own quilt made me laugh, and it seems that many of us are closer than we knew. Thanks for reading and your wonderful comment!


  10. ladynyo Says:

    Yep, they got good food in Hungary…if you like pork and lots of potatoes and sour cream and paprika! Her life had such tragedy, with 5 children dying in childhood, and the Spanish Flu of 1918 got one or two. Funny, she became a reformed Baptist when she came here….and there was no music/dancing/cards/movies allowed. Every one of her children that survived became musicians. My father was a French Horn player….his father was a violinist. There is a wonderful story how he became that, in Hungary, and it includes a gypsy camp, but that is for another poem. Thank you, Bjorn for reading and your comment.


  11. kim881 Says:

    Thank you for sharing your grandmother’s recipe for life, Jane. It was full of poverty, danger and experience – and full of love. I enjoyed the description of:
    ‘Large glass jars on the floor grates in her kitchen,
    Where milk was curdled for sour cream
    Half lemon stopper we competed to squeeze
    The smell of boiled cabbage permeated the house
    Like the comforting scent of an old woman
    With embracing arms and a wrinkled bosom.’
    I also love the recipe, which I will steal happily and greedily!


  12. ladynyo Says:

    LOL! Kim…roll out the kiflie dough thinly. It’s impossible to find levar (prune paste) down here in the South USA…so I take dried prunes and dried apricots and simmer until they are soft. Apricots never get soft so cut them up first into smaller pieces before you simmer. Then, smash the boogers well.

    I only use about a teaspoon of filling in the squares,…fold over and pinch. Bake about 20 minutes but don’t let them get browned….just a little around the edges. When cool…sprinkle with powdered sugar. Don’t put them back in the fridge….they will become butter and tough. Just put them in a tin lined with wax paper…leave on the counter. See how long they last. LOL!
    Hugs…and you will love these kiflies…I make one about 10 inches long (usually they are 3 inches long) and a score them diagonally and then bake and they are a breakfast pastry with coffee. I’ve eaten so many of these pastries….that I don’t have a taste for them anymore..past the first few dozen. LOL!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. kim881 Says:


    Liked by 1 person

  14. Waltermarks Says:

    Your granny was a tough cookie. Sounds like you learned some valuable recipes from her. I don’t think that one will work for us. My wife doesn’t bake and I don’t knead.


  15. ladynyo Says:

    Quel dommage!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. ladynyo Says:


    Liked by 1 person

  17. lillian Says:

    This is a wonderful reflective ode to your grandmother. I devoured it (no pun intended with this recipe prompt)! I especially love the stanza about you sitting on the sewing machine treadle….but the entire thing is so very well done and tells the life story / saga of another generation. So brave. Such work ethic. So much love.
    Thank you so much for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Mish Says:

    An amazing story of strength and survival. Most of us can only imagine the struggles and poverty of those times. I like how this ends with a treasured family recipe filled with love.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you, Mish. There are more stories, but for another time.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. ladynyo Says:

    Lilian…how lovely of you. thank you for reading and your marvelous comment. She was quite a woman, and the strength of that generation flowed through her veins.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. lillian Says:

    …and through your words!

    Liked by 1 person

  22. ladynyo Says:


    Liked by 1 person

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