Rica nu stia sa zica rau, ratusca, ramurica. I stared at the cracked ceiling of my bedroom in Romania, repeating the eight words under my breath. Rica nu stia sa zica rau, ratusca, ramurica. More than anything, I wanted to roll my r's, to speak Romanian without the telltale American accent. The simple exercise became a prayer. Rica nu stia sa zica rau, ratusca, ramurica. More than anything, I wanted to assimilate into the country that was my second home.
My problems with identity probably sound familiar to many children of immigration. I felt most at home when surrounded by Romanians. I ate mici on the Fourth of July with Romanians. I met my best friend through the Romanian community. But when I spoke Romanian, I was something else: an American. I wanted to demolish that language barrier, to jump up and down on its remains, to destroy what marked me as an imposter, a pretender, a fake.
Instead, I ran away. When my parents spoke to me in Romanian, I answered in English. When my friends called me a "fake Romanian," I laughed. I chose to distance myself from my culture, and I made sure everyone was aware of that choice. But beneath the surface I felt adrift in a sea of ambiguous identity. I wanted to feel at home in two cultures; instead I felt like an outsider to both.
About two years ago, I caught the baking bug. Starting out with pre-made mixes and rock-hard chocolate chip cookies, I worked my way up to custards, traybakes, and the occasional cake. I loved the methodical, precise nature of baking and came to appreciate the chemical underpinnings that made it possible. Though I did bake for myself, I baked mostly for others, revelling in the warm nods and crumb-filled smiles as people tasted the cake I'd spent the weekend making.
As I started baking more on my own, I began leafing through old family recipes scrawled on yellowed scraps or typed up in long-forgotten emails. The aromas of cornulete, fursecuri, and saratele soon wafted through our house, evoking memories of summers long ago in our grandparent's apartments in Bucharest. The all-too-loud radio in Buni Doina's kitchen as she labored over prajituri de cirese. Plucking gogosi from the fryer with Buni's scoldings ringing in our ears. Watching Buni spoon generous amounts of honey and ground walnuts atop steaming mucenici. On some days, I imagined Buni's expert eye watching me stretch dough into clumsy figure eights, five thousand miles away.
Buni's most important baking lesson, though, was not about moisture or measurements. Like me, Buni Doina can be overbearing at times, stubborn in the face of offered help, unyielding in her ways. But in the kitchen, dusted in powdered sugar, there is no denying her devotion to our happiness. Every stir of her wooden spoon is a step back to the common ground that unites us, fueled by constant, unrelenting affection. Her baking is not confined to an amalgamation of sugar, butter, and flour. It's an outstretched hand, an open invitation, a makeshift bridge thrown across the divides of age and culture.
Thanks to Buni, the reason I bake has evolved. What started as stress relief is now a lifeline to my heritage, a language that allows me to communicate with my family in ways my tongue cannot. By rolling dough for saratele and crushing walnuts for cornulete, my baking speaks more fluently to my Romanian heritage than my broken Romanian ever could. Making my parents the desserts of their childhood, seeing their warm, nostalgic smiles as they taste that first bite of cremsnit, I reconnect to our family and culture. Through baking, I've come to see food not simply as sustenance, but as a universal language, a way to say the unspoken and voice the impossible.