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I was ten years old by the time my mother trained me to help her prepare meza. She was training me to become the perfect nusë for my future (hopefully Albanian), husband. This training was also to help me appear like the perfect daughter to the company that consistently entered my house. I wouldn’t want to look like a disobedient daughter. I would be the perfect daughter, like my mother, and do as I was told. My brothers, on the other hand, never attended these training events because they were boys. My mother had me “to help her” and help her I did. While I learned how to clean and prepare and be a proper girl, George, Michael and Joseph, were playing video games in our shared bedroom.
The tradition to create the perfect daughter immigrated with my mother from Albania to New York. I wished it stayed on the boat. These old-school Albanian traditions are incompatible with a modern lifestyle, especially one in New York. At ten-years-old, I wanted to be hanging out with my brothers. I wanted to watch Star Wars, play Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation, or simply just read my books when the company was over.
Instead, I watched my mom perfectly cut sausage into thin slices. Then she cut smoked beef, also, into thin slices. On the rectangular porcelain plate, she laid the sausage on one side and the smoked beef on the other. In the middle of both types of meat, she folded prosciutto. The next plate was meant for cheese, which included, fontinella, feta (to us, Albanian cheese), and if my mother is feeling nice, mozzarella balls. All of this was bought specifically at Markatta. This was once Little Italy in the Bronx, but then Albanians immigrated throughout the seventies and Little Italy became Little Albania. My mother continued to make meza with these foods and the particular patterns she put them in because Nana, her mother-in-law, preferred it that way. So, while she created patterns with food, the only patterns I was making were with white napkins, folded in half with the imprinted flowers on each corner facing the same way.
After everything was set, she’d ask me to count how many guests were. Then she’d have me take out the forks and polish any marks or fingerprints off them.
If our company came unannounced, which happened three out of four times, they watched from the living room as we made meza in the kitchen. They didn’t come because they were invited, but the company came to pay respect to my Baba and Nana. They are well respected among the Albanian community and family were expected to come see them here and there. If they were guests from my father’s side, they often yelled at my mother that they already ate and didn’t want her to make anything. But they’d clean the plates by devouring everything with their hands. It’s a very Shkreli thing to do, eating with your hands. We loved to eat, even if we just ate. Guests from my mother’s side yelled at us to stop but ate one or two things using their forks.
I once asked my mom in a whispered tone why we continue making meza if they keep pleading, “No.”
“It’s called respect,” she said.
“So, it’s respectful to serve people who just walk into our house?”
“Yes, it is. They drove all the way to see Baba and Nana,” she said.
“So, why isn’t Nana doing it?”
“Because we’re doing it. Now, go shake hands with the old man first, then his brother, then his son and kiss his wife hello.” And I did as I was told.
I don’t think my mother knew what was respectful in this matter. Making meza was something she did without knowing why she did it and only did it because she was told to by her grandmother. To respect my mother, I helped her. This is how traditions are passed on, even if we don’t understand them. We honor what our mothers ask of us. The guests never sat in order from oldest to youngest male and then women. So, I always looked like a pulë running around with no head greeting them as I was told, walking back and forth between people instead of in a natural circle around the table.
After the hellos and are you “vajzë e mirë?”’s (and obviously I was a good girl, I was ten years old), I grabbed the plates, polished forks, and perfectly folded napkins and placed one of each in front of each person, respectfully, as my mother placed the three plates of meza down. Shumë e vajzë mirë followed from the women and then I awkwardly asked in broken Albanian, “What would you like to drink?”
Albanian coffee was always the first pick besides raqi — grapa we made in our basement. I watched my mom make each coffee, one with two sugars and another with none. She never let me bring the coffee to the table until one day, when I was at the prime of my training. My mother was busy doing something else and entrusted me with bringing over the precious kafe. She handed me the porcelain, gold trimmed tea looking cup on its matching dish. She said, “Katherine, bring this coffee to the old man. But make sure you don’t spill it. He won’t think you’re marriage material.”
I remember thinking to myself, “Why would he care if I’m marriage material or not? I’m ten. Are they trying to arrange my marriage? Is this old man trying to set me up with his grandson? I swear, I’ll run away.”
I wonder if one of my brothers had walked the coffee over and spilled some of it, would this old man think they were not marriage material?
I walked over slower than slow; our guests probably thought I was mentally incapable of doing something so simple. At the same time, that was fine with me because that meant my marriage wouldn’t be arranged anytime soon. Though, I don’t think my parents would have married me off at ten. At least I hoped not. It wasn’t the eighties, it was 2004.
I placed down the coffee, not one drop spilled. The old man looked at me, smiled, and said something in Albanian to Baba that I couldn’t understand. I got nervous and asked to leave the room.
When I turned thirteen I decided it was time for me to learn how to properly make an Albanian coffee. I happened to be at my Tezë’s house and my mom asked her niece, Vicky, to make her a coffee. I followed Vicky into the kitchen and asked her to teach me. She agreed and told me there was a special trick to making the perfect cup.
The xheze is what you use to make the coffee. It’s a small red coffeepot. You measure the water with that porcelain cup and pour it into the xheze. Once boiled add the two ingredients: sugar and coffee. Making the coffee for my mother meant one teaspoon of sugar and only one teaspoon.
Using a long-handled silver teaspoon, scoop the sugar and watch it disappear into the boiling water. The thick brown coffee sat in a glass jar and the aroma hits you in the face like a smoke bomb. Scoop out the powder until it’s packed like a mountain on the spoon. Tap it once against the jar and watch a few specks roll off like a mini avalanche. Mix the coffee into the water and place the xheze back onto the stove to boil.
“You have to let it boil two more times,” Vicky said. “The shkumë is the most important part. That’s how you know if you made a good coffee or not.” I didn’t know what she meant by shkumë (foam) until I made it for my Baba. The coffee will start to rise up the xheze, remove it before it overflows. Mix it and then place it over the flame one last time until it rises again. The final step is to pour the coffee into the cup and serve it without spilling. Once inside the cup, the shkumë should be a lighter brown than the coffee itself. The thick layer of foam should not break apart or move when walking the coffee over. If the shkumë formed (which at the time it did because I hadn’t made it, Vicky did) then the coffee was perfect.
My favorite part about being at Tezë’s house was when she and my mother finished drinking their coffee. My cousin (but, really my big sister) Martha, Vicky’s youngest sister whom I call Pookie, used to read their fortunes from the images the coffee created. You’re supposed to drink the coffee till you taste the grinds settled at the bottom of the cup. But instead of finishing it, you flip the cup over its dish. The remains of the liquid will form a moat around the cup and a few minutes later you flip it back over and all the grinds end up on the sides to create “images.” I was always enamored by this and learned how to read the fortunes myself.
Pookie said things to my mom like, “You have good luck. There are many threes in your cup.” Or something like, “Someone is getting married on your husband’s side.” Or to mess with her, “Katherine is going to marry someone with the letter, N.” My mom glared at me and I always turned red because I knew my thirteen-year-old-self wasn’t marrying anyone anytime soon.
A couple days after learning how to make the coffee, after my Baba’s routine post-lunch nap, I offered to make him a cup. He was pleased with the idea. My mom wasn’t around, and I didn’t expect a “man” to make coffee for himself. I made it for him then because I saw my mom or Nana make it for him countless times. I didn’t even think he knew how to make a coffee, though now I’m sure he does. I never saw him do it. He expected a woman to make it for him, which if you’re used to it, that expectation doesn’t seem so outmoded.
On most mornings, my mother pours my father an American coffee, never the other way around. My father once asked me to pour him a cup and I said, “Why? You have legs and arms. Do it yourself.” My mother yelled at me that I was being disrespectful and should do whatever’s asked of me.
Wives are meant to serve their husbands. And the only reason these women that I looked up to think this way is because they were told by the women who raised them, and so on ad infinitum. But, we’re in America now, and in America, women are supposed to be equal to men. My brothers get to sit back, enjoy their morning coffee while I serve them another cup.
This is probably the reason why I hate being a waitress during college because I’m serving people. My father never wanted me to work because he wanted me to focus on school. He was also afraid I would be taken advantage of by my boss or coworkers. My brothers made sure I was allowed to even if my first job was at a bowling alley serving customers on a regular. But, at least there I’m getting paid for it, whereas my mother gets no recognition aside from an occasional thank you from my father. I think he appreciates what my mom does for him, but I also don’t think he’s aware of how lucky he is to have a wife who pours him a cup of coffee every morning. If he was getting married now and not the eighties, whatever woman he married most likely would make him get his own coffee.
I won’t be pouring my husband’s coffee unless he says, “Please, love.”
When I was making the coffee for Baba I did exactly what Vicky told me to do. I made Baba the perfect Albanian coffee. The shkumë sat perfectly atop. I was proud of myself. I walked it over to Baba on the corner of the couch, closest to the kitchen, which made not spilling it a lot easier. I sat down across from him and waited as patiently as I could for him to take a sip.
Eventually, after I watched all the steam dissipate into the air, he finally picked up the porcelain cup and took one sip, then placed it back onto the table and said in perfect English, “And now, you are ready to get married.” My face went from glee to complete anger. I didn’t want to get married at thirteen. I was thirteen! How could he even think that? Just because I made one good coffee I’m ready for marriage? I know that’s all it took for my Nana, who was nine when she was arranged to marry him, and my mom who was proposed to three times at the ripe old age of thirteen, then fifteen, and then seventeen to my father.
But, not me!
The next day Baba asked me to make him another coffee. And I did so nervously as my mom watched. When I made it this time, no shkumë formed. The foam had split apart like ice melting in a lake. My mother shook her head in disappointment and said, “You’ll never get married if you can’t make a proper coffee.”
I was so happy.
I was entering my senior year of college when Nana passed away. She had Alzheimer’s for ten years and I was with her every step of the way as well as my whole household. The week of her death our garden over produced flowers and the pear tree’s branches were falling to the ground. When she died, I told my family, her life was depleting but was going into the plants she had planted when we first moved into that house in 2000.
On the day of her death, instead of my mother giving me time to grieve, I had to host family members: close, distant, extremely distant family, even random friends arriving at my house the minute word got around. About 150 people or more were in my house at one point. I tried to ignore the crowd by staying in the kitchen, washing dish after dish. My brothers were with the company and away from the kitchen. And the only time they entered was to check on me or grab something while my mother was busy. My female cousins, who according to family custom should have been helping, were just sitting around smoking cigarettes and making coffee for themselves. Embarrassing. Disrespectful.
My mom took me off of cleaning duty and put me on coffee duty. Me: the girl who made the worst coffee, needed to make 150 coffees or more since people just kept coming and leaving. The first twenty were shkumë-less — even more embarrassing — and were sent out by my mom. The next fifty were somewhat better. And then, finally, shkumë started to form — these I proudly served. When I walked away after handing coffees to a group of very short, old, witchy women wearing rubas on their heads with matching black shirts and long skirts and socks covering all their skin, they started to whisper, “martoj, martoj.”
The witches were talking about marrying me off on the day of Nana’s death. The old women’s priorities made me roll my eyes, both then and now. I still wasn’t ready, which in turn made the shkumë on any other coffee I made, disappear.
Katherine Shkreli received her MFA from Manhattanville College in the Spring of 2018 where she remains acting Editor-in-Chief of The Manhattanville Review. Her nonfiction delves into themes of Albanian heritage, adapting to social differences as a first-generation American daughter of immigrants, and overcoming cultural divides.