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Making Zelnik at the Sibling Reunion – Karen Paul Holmes

Though the Babas mixed filo dough from scratch,

rolling it thin as onion skin, we use frozen.

But the feta must be sheep’s milk in brine,

and we never make zelnik without

heeding Mother’s warning in our heads:

Sand can hide inside the leeks!

Fill the sink with water, separate, swish, scrub.


Philip chops the stalks with a chef’s precision,

channeling our father. Eileen touches his shoulder,

sautés the hillock of pale green

crescent moons to tender in a bubbling inch of butter.

We discuss how many eggs, what ratio

of cottage cheese to feta—zelnik needs its salty sour bite.


Nancy and Beth handle the thawed filo quickly

so it won’t dry and crumble like a dragonfly wing.  

They peel and place each translucent sheet

while Phil and I swiftly brush with running butter,

Eileen at the ready to melt another stick.


After eight layers we spoon and spread the leek filling,

then finish off with filo, buttering more

and more to brown and crisp.


Our 50 fingers roll the crust’s edges to seal the hollow

we’ll feel tomorrow. We each peer into the oven, 

discuss if it’s time. No one waits for our pastry

to cool—though it tastes better warm than hot-hot.

Next day, we split the last piece five ways, then

fly off to five cities in three states, crossing ourselves

on takeoff as Mother instructed

when she kissed us goodbye.

This poem and its accompanying recipe are published in Holmes's book No Such Thing as Distance (Terrapin, 2018). The poem is also featured on Tracy K. Smith's podcast, The Slowdown.

Karen Paul Holmes has two poetry collections, No Such Thing as Distance (Terrapin, 2018) and Untying the Knot (Aldrich, 2014). Her poems have been featured on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer's Almanac and Tracy K. Smith’s The Slowdown. Publications include Diode, Valparaiso Review, Lascaux Review, and Prairie Schooner. To support fellow writers, she founded and hosts the Side Door Poets in Atlanta.

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