About the book
Over eight-hundred letters were written between the author’s newly-engaged parents during the time that her father was on the Republican war front fighting against Franco’s forces, and her mother awaiting the end of the war. Her father, Professor Juan Luis Alborg, would live to become a well-known literary historian and critic. Her mother’s life, on the other hand, was overshadowed by her husband’s academic celebrity. The letters were discovered whilst preparing for a symposium marking the centenary of her father’s birth, celebrated at the University of Malaga in 2014
This unique memoir is a microhistory of the Spanish Civil War at an individual level; it illuminates the ‘official story’ as told in history books at multiple levels. Her mother’s personal narrative adds to the understanding of this significant time because she shows how a family lived in the midst of war. A primary relevance is that she lived in Valencia, which in November 1936 become the official capital of the Republican government. Working in a government co-op gave her an insider’s view of the ongoing political and military situation. She describes the contrasting burdens between family life in Valencia, and the life of her fiancé soldier on the southern frontlines. The author’s mother is exemplary of the women who were formed under the liberal Second Spanish Republic (1931–39) only to be silenced during Franco’s repressive dictatorship (1939–75). The long-lost letters made Concha Alborg realize how little she understood her mother’s passion to set down complex feelings in the most difficult of circumstances. My Mother, That Stranger will be of interest to Hispanists, historians and literary critics for its uniqueness on the epistolary genre and gender studies, and to the general public as a heartfelt family memoir.
Excerpt From My Mother, That Stranger. Letters from the Spanish Civil War
In this memoir My Mother, That Stranger. Letters from the Spanish Civil War, Concha Alborg included recipes from her family in Spain. Today, we would like to share one with you.
“Rollitos;” Christmas Anisette Cookies:
All the entries in my mother’s recipe notebook are of desserts; there is not a single one of her savory dishes. The recipes are written neatly, underlined with red ink and they encompass a life trajectory of sorts. There are several from the old Alborg aunts, Isabel and Vicenta, some from her Spanish friends, all the way to my recipe for sherry cake and another for chocolate chip cookies, written in English! My mother never ceases to surprise me. It is interesting that she would take the time to write down these recipes, but not any of the meals she was best known for. It is as if she believed that cooking is an art and baking a science. She did not need to record her masterpieces, but needed the exact ingredients of the sweet treats, although she wrote “as much flour as needed” for the “rollitos.”
Growing up we seldom had sweet desserts. Fruit was served at the end of each meal, but cakes and cookies were reserved for holidays, such as the Saints’ Days and birthdays. Only at Christmas time did we have special treats of almond nougat and marzipan. “Meriendas” (a late afternoon or early evening snack) were usually made up of a sweet roll or a croissant, but those were store-bought. As children we usually had plain bread with some chocolate and a glass of milk, nothing more.
She made “rollitos” in early December for our Saint’s Day on the 8th and the leftovers were reserved for Christmas. They were and still are my favorite cookies ever! Their liqueur smell permeated the house and when I was a little girl, I could smell them the minute I stepped out of the elevator. The recipe I have in my mother’s handwriting with red ink on a 3 X 5 card is yellowed and stained, but I would never think of copying it anew.
I started making them as a young bride and continued doing so religiously after my daughters were born. I was glad that most of my friends and in-laws found them strong and strange and preferred the traditional American sugar cookies for Christmas, the more for me to savor. I know that making “rollitos” is a tedious job. They take a minimum of two hours and they are all rolled by hand in small donut-like circles the size of a ring. They are dipped in sugar, which makes one’s hands sticky and you need to wash them often. When I was little, I liked them best eaten warm and I was supposed to wait until they cooled down or I would get a stomach ache. But I found out that it was not true, because once I ate at least a baker’s dozen (an expression in English I love and we do not have in Spanish) when the “rollitos” had just come out of the oven and absolutely nothing happened to my stomach.
Diana, my oldest, learned to make them early and I thought she was a fan until the day that she took the dough and made one huge “rollitón” announcing: “Here, I’m done.” Luckily, her sister was old enough to take over and, again, I thought she enjoyed the family tradition, only to find out that she hated making them too and did not like eating them, even if they were warm. When my daughters grew up and left the nest, I found friends and neighbors to join me making them. I soon got the feeling as soon as the first Christmas songs were heard, that no one wanted to see me, and they would disappear from my kitchen with the excuse of being really busy. My late husband Peter, despite his serious character faults, was very helpful in the kitchen and a fellow “rollito” lover and made them with me for years. In desperation, during my years as a widow, I have recruited unsuspecting boyfriends to bake with me with the expectation of perhaps winning my heart, which has not happened yet.
As we know, life can have very sweet surprises and now I have two lovely twin granddaughters who enjoy making “rollitos” with me, I think. At least they humor me as long as I make them a “tortilla de patatas” in return, a potato omelet, which they love. Having two helpers instead of one makes it more efficient. Actually, I have doubled the recipe since now the three grandchildren expect their own tin of “rollitos” to take home. The twins are amazing. They have figured out that one rolls out the dough and the other dips “rollitos” in sugar, which saves with the hand washing. They know how to charm me and speak Spanish during our baking day. One year, when they were in the “fighting-with-each-other phase,” I allowed them to insult each other as much as they wanted as long as they used the affirmative and negative commands in Spanish, which are so tricky to learn. There is nothing like being a retired professor and a grandmother to come up with this trick!
Here is the recipe:
1 cup virgin olive oil
1 cup anisette
1 cup sugar and more for dipping
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 teaspoons baking powder
Flour, as much as needed (about six cups)
In a large bowl, combine the oil, anisette, eggs and sugar. Add the lemon zest and the baking powder. Add the flour little by little until it becomes manageable and it can be kneaded on the counter.
Form rings of half an inch-size wide dough. Dip them in sugar before baking. Bake in a 325-degree oven for 20 minutes. The bottom should be golden brown.
Makes about five dozen.
Dr. Concha Alborg was born in Valencia and grew up in Madrid. She has lived in the United States since the 1960s. She received a Masters from Emory University and a Ph.D. from Temple University. She was a professor of contemporary Spanish literature at Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. Some of her academic publications include: Cinco figuras en torno a la novela de posguerra, a critical edition of Caza menor, and Temas y técnicas en la narrativa de Jesús Fernández Santos. Her fiction and creative non-fiction publications are detailed on the press website.
Paul De Lancey