The first syllables 'balken' are derived from the old-Dutch phrase ‘balg,’ meaning ‘leftovers’ or ‘offal’. The word ‘brij’ means ‘mush,’ ‘goo’ or ...
Once a year, Grandpa hangs his cap on the hook and ventures into our dark, damp basement to help the women to make balken brij. Later, a couple of uncles feel guilty and join Grandpa in the basement to help him grind all the intestines. The women remain upstairs in the kitchen, proud their men did the right thing.
Even though my mother and aunts have attached the meat grinder to the old table, the men undo it and say, “It ain’t right. Gots to be tight. Gots to be on the table just so.”
Upstairs the women say, “Nah, we had that grinder on just right.” They go on with their preparations: organizing bowls, utensils, lining shoeboxes with waxed paper, and unwrapping tongue, intestines, and just about every other part of a cow the butcher wouldn’t give to his dog.
The men grind in the basement while the women drink another cup of coffee, wondering if the men will hear them if they sneak into the living room and turn the TV on to catch their favorite late morning soap. “Ain’t no fun watching ‘em with men in the house,” Aunt Delia says, while they look at the TV with regret.
“We started working at six. Ain’t right we can’t have our morning break,” Aunt Helena says.
The TV remains off, and the women stand by the counter in the kitchen, spread out like they’re doing assembly line work, rolling dough, cutting sausage, and passing bowls to the next person.
“I bet the butcher added cow’s eyes in here,” my uncle says. Grandpa doesn’t smile. He just sits on the chair watching his son-in-law crank the grinder, his face sternly warns him that this is serious business. Everything is serious business with Grandpa.
I go upstairs, and they let me pour flour over waxed paper and roll the dough. Then my aunt re-rolls it. “Needs to be a little flatter. We gots to feed lot of people,” she says. After the balken brij is cut into squares, I fill the shoeboxes, making sure each box has equal amounts. Then I stack boxes on the table exactly as my aunts have directed. Eventually, all this labor wrapped in waxed paper will fill our freezers.
“Smells good up there,” Uncle Oppy yells from the basement steps when the pig-in-the-blankets are baking.
“Stinks down there,” I laugh.
“We always get the stinky job,” he says.
“Bah, don’t let him fool you,” Aunt Alice says.
“Clean up,” my mom says. “It’s time for hot pigs and balken brij.”
Everyone crowds around the kitchen table, drinking one more cup of coffee, talking about what ingredient they needed more of, which one they didn’t need quite so much of. Pigs are never quite perfect, but someone always remembers the year when they were pretty darn close. We eat slowly, enjoying the hot pigs and the chance to just sit, proud of our day’s work.
After the men head for home, the women make jokes in Dutch, so I don’t know what they’re saying while they clean up the kitchen. And just like that, the kitchen returns to its normal state, except for the shoeboxes separated into piles for each aunt take home. It’s a rarity they watch a soap together. Usually, they call each other up as soon as it ends, but today they watch their afternoon soap in peace, oohing and aahing, hissing, You dirty rat, when a man does a woman wrong.
Grandpa walks to the coffee shop downtown, and my uncles return home for an afternoon nap since their wives are gone and can’t think of any chores for them to do. I sit on the front steps, sneaking my dog a little treat from today’s cooking.
“Yah, today’s a good day, huh, Pepper?” I say, petting him. He rests his head on my lap while I listen to my mom and aunts speak in Dutch about their soap opera.
It has been a good day. Yah.