Berastagi: "Kuch-Alein"

North Sumatra
Republic of Indonesia

June 29, 2008

Meine Kinderlein,

In the summertime, when I was a young boy, my parents scooped me off the streets of New York and carted me and my sister Paula up to "the mountains." "The mountains" is how we New Yorkers refer to the Catskill Mountains, a cool two-hour drive north of the hot City.

The mothers and children usually stayed all summer. The women played mahjong and canasta and tended to their family. We children swam, played ball and took short hikes. We put on shows. The big event every day was when the bundle of mail was delivered to the RFD mailbox on the main road. We argued over who would sort the letters and bring them to the families. And once a week, the Krug's Bakery truck showed up. They had the best powdered donuts and crusty blueberry pies you ever tasted. With home made ice cream on top.

The fathers came up from The City on Friday night. Mom was cooking happily and we anxiously-awaiting kids always sang, "Daddy, what did you bring me?" Daddy drove back to work early Monday morning. Much later I learned that the round-trip weekend drive was known affectionately as "the bull run."

In "the mountains" there was a well-established institution known as the kuch-alein. Kuch alein literally means to cook alone or to cook for yourself. Here's the way it worked: in a large boarding house, several families had a bedroom room or two upstairs. On the main floor was a spacious, open area with ten or fifteen small kitchens, side by side. Each kitchen had a stove, sink, a refrigerator, some cabinets and a dinette set. Every mother cooked alone for her children, and each family ate separately, but all at the same time in the large and noisy dining room.

I thought that the kuch-alein was indigenous and unique to The Catskills. Turns out that the idea is centuries old and practiced until this very day in the Batak villages in the Karo Highlands of North Sumatra.