Before I moved to Alexandria, I worked for the NPR affiliate in Atlanta in arts and fundraising. I enjoyed my job, but I didn’t have a passion for it. My thirtieth birthday was looming, and I understood that I was too young to feel so stuck. At the time I used to say, “I seriously cannot attend another meeting where we plan for yet another meeting.” I was a classic millennial, equal parts naive and arrogant.
In the midst of this perceived crisis, a friend’s grandmother was dying, and he asked if I would accompany him on a trip to Colorado so that he could say goodbye. I know I should have been touched that he entrusted me to help him complete this task, but I was instead focused on a great reason to get out of town and take a few days off.
The journey to Moab, Utah, was long and beautiful. We drove the red hills of what looked to me like another planet. When we arrived at her little cottage, the anticipated visit only lasted a short, somber period of time, as these sorts of goodbyes often do. Throughout the visit, I was wholly aware of my presence as an outsider – an observer to an intensely intimate and private moment. I tried to look past my own discomfort and draw as much perspective as possible from what I lay witness to; the end of a life. After the emotions had passed and his grandmother went back to her comforting, drug-induced slumber, his aunts began to carry on about grandmother’s nurse. He was a former Navy Seal but treated her with such kindness. A gentle giant of sorts.
When the giant arrived, a burly man standing well over six feet, the household’s entire tone changed. Immediately everyone, including myself, was suddenly at ease. After short introductions, he casually asked if anyone wanted cookies that he had prepared. If you know me, you know that I never say no to a cookie, especially when they are prepared by such a handsome man. Peeling off the lid, I immediately felt a lump in my throat. All of the stoicism and politeness I had been clinging to evaporated – a paltry veil at best.
I looked up at him and demanded, incredulously, “Where are you from?”
“How do you know how to make these cookies?!”
“They are a family recipe.”
I just stared in the tin box and looking back at me were my great grandmother’s cookies – we called them Kolaches. They are an Eastern European cookie of cream cheese dough, butter, fruit filling, and powdered sugar. Notoriously difficult, she made them every year at the holidays, and I would shovel them in my face and pockets. Mae was the best cook in the family, and her baked goods were the stuff of Pechulis family legend. When she died a few years prior, no family member had taken up to try and replicate her deceptively “simple” baked goods. I took a bite, prepared for the disappointment that they were not, in fact, the cookies of my childhood. I was stunned into a deep silence. They not only looked like her cookies; they tasted identical. Clearly, I grieved deeply and wanted to know everything. The Navy Seal and I talked for hours about cookies, family, and food. I kept looking over at my friend’s grandmother at the end of her life. It occurred to me that life is far too short not to find your passion. And at that moment, I decided my passion would be to make another person, even just one, feel as connected to a memory of my great grandmother, and the man that unknowingly brought her back to me, as I did in that moment that I tasted those cookies.
I came back to Atlanta, quit my job moved to DMV and went to culinary school. The rest is history.
I’ve been trying to replicate her cookies for Saturday and Sunday pick up at Bagel Uprising. While they lack the polish that years of making them brings, each week they bring me a little closer to her memory and the memory of all of the great cooks in my family. (Her son, my grandfather, Joe, pictured here. He was a restauranteur my entire life).
Food bonds us. A comforting meal transcends time, place, or circumstance. In a time when we are so disconnected, so despondent, so separate, I can only have hope that those of us in the business of feeding others might offer some semblance of comfort, love, and if we are really lucky, a memory of a better time.
If you wander down Del Ray’s, “The Avenue,” you won’t miss the farm-red building with a rustic fence bordering the patio. Stomping Ground opened two years ago and quickly became popular for its made-from-scratch biscuits and its neighborhood vibe. On weekends, excited guests line up before Stomping Ground opens hoping to be the first to get a just-out-of-the-oven biscuit or a fresh salad. Stomping Ground is mostly known for its fast casual breakfast and lunch but on Thursdays and Fridays they provide a full dinner service after 5:00pm. All meals are built from local, seasonal food that is organic whenever possible.
2309 Mt Vernon Avenue
Alexandria, VA 22301