When a character in a historical novel looks out the window—well, what kind of window is that? Does it have shutters or panes, is it transparent or opaque, is there a window at all? Soon after I began to work on my historical novel, questions like this sent me on days-long quests before I could move my characters forward. Sometimes I just had to make an educated guess and move on, hoping I’d find the exact answer later, during rewrite. Many of those vital details were lost throughout history because contemporary people didn’t think it was worth recording such minutia, the way we don’t paint detailed pictures of the subway in today’s novels. But those are the details that make all the difference now between a realistic historical setting and a staged one.
In her vignette, Sabina Livadariu, who now lives in the United States, remembers an ordinary Saturday afternoon from her childhood in Iaşi, Romania during the 1980s, a time of food shortages and rations. See how many things one important detail illuminates about its time and place in history.
By Sabina Livadariu
Every Saturday afternoon, after she came back from work, my mother made a cake. She had a yellowed notebook full of recipes that came off its shelf every time she cooked something.
First, she opened the notebook, then she put on an apron, and then she set on the table in front of her all that she needed, flour, eggs, oil (butter was too scarce to be wasted on cakes) and some sugar. When everything was in place, silence fell. All the runners were in position, not one ingredient was breathing so it wouldn’t miss the starting shot.
Blam, the first egg cracked its shell on the edge of a porcelain bowl, and the making of the cake began.
Sitting on the kitchen sofa, I was watching my mother’s every move. How carefully she broke each egg’s shell in two. How she separated the white from the yolk, moving the yolk from one half-shell to the other until all of the white got tired of sticking to them. Just when I thought that she had finished with the egg, she would gracefully put her index finger into the shell, scooping even the last drop of white that hung in there.
I always thought that that’s the proper way to use an egg. Growing up, each time I made fried eggs, I would stick my finger into the shell and scoop until all the white fell in my pan.
One day, I was in my own kitchen, I had a whole carton of eggs on the table, and I was making pancakes. I’d already wrecked two eggs, my fingers were sticky, and I resented the whole thing, what a stupid way to use an egg. And then I realized what my mother’s real reason for that intrusiveness was.
She simply never had enough eggs for her cakes.