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Their languages were different, but the food needed no translation

How fragrances trigger memories! Mint reminds me of long-ago summer picnics by a waterfall. Eau de Cologne triggers the memory of my mother dressing for a dinner party. I smell a burning bread crumb and recall the head of the family engrossed in conversation and therefore overdoing the toastmaking of which he was in charge.

A whiff of spaghetti sauce cooking down at Al Ducci's the other day took me back to an incident when I once spent a week in a friend's home with only a newly arrived Polish woman named Helena.

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Her total English vocabulary at the time consisted of "good morning," "good night," "please," "bread," "dinner," and "OK." She had a Polish-English dictionary so worn that it had been covered with brown wrapping paper.

I pointed to words like "thank" and "you." She showed me their Polish equivalents and pronounced them. She liked it when I was able to say "please" and "good night" in her tongue. We did a lot of gesticulating. (Try to explain daylight saving time someday to a person who speaks no English.)

One evening she said, "Dinner?"

I opened the refrigerator door to find three small beef patties, which she had cooked for the previous dinner, sitting there cold and unappetizing – and a small dish of rice left over from the dinner before that. She shook her head and pointed to her stomach, plainly showing me that she didn't appreciate what she saw.

I was not about to waste food. So I took a can of soup from the pantry shelf. Helena opened it with the can opener. Part of it I spooned into a kettle, motioning to her to add a small amount of water. Then I threw in the rice, shredded the beef patties into the mixture, added a bit of chopped onion, and stirred it over the heat.

She clapped her hands in a flash of comprehension. "Oh!" she exclaimed. "Goulash!"

"Yes, goulash," I said. And we hugged each other.

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Maybe it's an international word.


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