David Frum

12.04.12

From a Polish Country House Kitchen ... To Your Kitchen

The Crittenden-Applebaum Polish cookbook, From a Polish Country House Kitchen, launched on Friday in Washington DC with a reception at the Polish ambassador's residence and in Toronto Sunday night at The Cookbook Store on Yorkville Avenue.

From a Polish Country House Kitchen originated on a long weekend visit to the Polish country house lovingly restored by Anne Applebaum and her husband, Radek Sikorski, Poland's foreign minister. Radek Sikorski had bought the house after the fall of communism for (if I remember right) about $2,000. The place was a ruin; literally, the pig sty of a collective farm. Radek and Anne rebuilt the house over the next two decades with the aspiration, in Radek's words, of entertaining their friends from Britain and America and causing them to wonder at the miracle by which this obscure corner of rural Poland had been left untouched by communism. (Radek wonderfully narrated the story of that rebuilding in his book, Full Circle, now unfortunately out of print but you can still find used copies online.)

Among those visitors four summers ago was a small group that included Danielle and myself. It had been a long time since we'd last visited Poland - all the way back in the spring of 1990 - and we could scarcely absorb the change that had taken place. Among those changes: the revival of an indigenous food culture.

The very center of that revival seemed to be the kitchen of Anne's beautiful house, from which emerged dinners of venison and wildfowl, mushrooms and beets, fresh eggs and thick creams. Danielle observed this all very carefully, after which she pronounced to Anne, "The Polish food revolution is complete! You must record this."

Anne demurred. She was following the success of her great history, Gulag, with a second book about the imposition of communist rule upon Central Europe (the just-published Iron Curtain).

"I'll help," Danielle insisted, and thus was born a creative partnership that ranks with Rogers & Hammerstein (or maybe Abbot & Costello).

Across the Atlantic, Danielle & Anne researched and then reinvented recipes to suit modern ideas of health and sustainability. One crucial test occurred in the kitchen of our house in Washington. A crew had come from the Polish equivalent of the Today show to watch Danielle prepare perogies. They exhibited great suspicion. What did this obviously Anglo-Saxon woman bearing an Ashkenazi Jewish name know of their cuisine? Then from the pan came perogies of duck and red cabbage, in an orange butter sauce, as delicate and tasty as Chinese dim sum. The expressions on the faces shifted from suspicious to ethereal.

My old Frum Forum website played a small role in the book. Staffers Meg Mali, Noah Kristula-Green, Tim Mak, Jeb Golinkin, Rachel Ryan were - as Danielle quipped- Polish food crash-test dummies. There was a time when work on the Frum site seemed to pay 75 cents an hour, plus all the Polish food one could eat.

Danielle & Anne spent the summer of 2010 together at Anne's country house, working with Polish photographers to produce the book's breathtaking photographs. It was in some ways a tough time for us. I'd been fired from AEI in March 2010 after my "Waterloo" column. I'd been afflicted in June with Lyme's disease and Bell's palsy. What better place to recover from all these crises than in the woods and flat fields in the middle of Europe. ("Good country for tanks," pronounced Radek, unsentimentally.) And what better way to recover than by sitting down each evening to the outpouring of that day's culinary work?

The cookbook was published in Poland late last year and has been a huge success there. It's been recognized as something more than a book about food. It's a book about place - and about recovery from some of this century's most terrible disasters. The book celebrates Poland's Jewish heritage too, with recipes I remember from my family, including the poached chicken my great-grandfather Louis ate almost every day of his late life: he survived deep into his nineties. As Nigella Lawson summed it up in her blurb: "This is Polish food for the modern palate: All of the flavors you would expect-sour pickles, tart beets, flavorsome game, bittersweet poppy seed-but lighter, fresher, and easier than ever before."

Now it is available in North America and the UK.