The Story

For Richer, For Poorer
Romanian Polenta with Sheep’s Milk Feta
By Lindsay Sterling
Laura Coroi saw my Immigrant Kitchens poster at the YMCA and introduced herself. She’s from Romania and loves to cook. So days later here we are in her yellow house in Yarmouth where she lives with her husband, Bogdan, also from Romania, and their two kids, Alex and Sabina, who were born here. On the counter are 4 hardboiled eggs, a bag of Bellino polenta, butter, and a white tub of Bulgarian feta. Her eyes are wide just looking at this cheese (you can get it at Italian markets like Micucci’s on India St. in Portland, Maine).
As we cook Laura shares what it was like growing up in Bucharest in the ‘80’s. She remembers wearing her winter jacket in the classroom because the government turned off the heat. She cut off the tips of her gloves so she could wear them while she took notes. “You would like the subway to last forever,” she says. It was the only place that was always warm. One time she came home to find her mother crying. They were dizzy with hunger (the government rationed just 1 pound of meat and 3 eggs for protein per person per month!) but worse, she couldn’t offer her cold daughter a simple cup of tea. The government controlled the water, too. At their house, it wouldn’t go on until 7. And then her grandparents, parents, and siblings all had only one half hour to wash themselves, their clothes and dishes, and to gather water for cooking. It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor. Laura’s father was an aerospace engineer. This was communism.
Bogdan is mimicking his grandmother, wrestling the thickening polenta with a wooden dowel called a facalet. Laura laughs at him and at both their grandmothers’ pride in keeping the lumps out. In an ovenproof dish she mashes a hunk of cheese with a fork into crumbles. Then she layers slices of hardboiled egg over them, pours the polenta over the egg, and puts the dish in the oven.
All that talk of rationing brings up the story of how she came here. In her twenties she was working in the office of a nuclear power plant near Bucharest. Bogdan worked there too in construction. Their families had been friends a long time, but she wanted to know more. Like what would it be like to spend the weekend with him on the Black Sea Coast? Laura’s father offered Bogdan his rationed gasoline (one person could get just 5 gallons a month). Bogdan sucked the siphoning tube, shoved it into his gas tank, and listened with excitement to his tank filling. The coast proved positive. The couple married in Bucharest, and soon after Bogdan was accepted at the University of Missouri’s nuclear engineering department in the United States. She followed, and got into graduate school there, too. Fifteen years later, he works at a Maine hospital determining radiation amounts for cancer patients, and she encourages her son’s dream of attending MIT by strategically placing physics books around the house.
Bogdan and Laura serve their favorite dish, mamaliga cu ou si branza (polenta with egg and cheese) in his grandmother’s Romanian pottery. Each bite is at once creamy and mild, salty and oozing, that powdery egg yolk balancing perfectly in the middle. She calls it comfort food. Indeed, it’s thick and steaming and satisfying. It’s double comfort to know that it doesn’t take much to make. I recall just four ingredients: polenta, egg, butter, and feta. Plus water. I always take that one for granted.

copyright Lindsay Sterling 2010