I was a very imaginative and impressionable child (somehow, when you grow up, these characteristics are not as adorable and no longer praised). I weaved stories around a scene on the street, traveled to far-away lands following the smell of jasmine, and wrote perfectly rhymed poems inspired by a flower or a puddle. The rituals and traditions, especially those connected to religion, always carried a dose of the exotic for me, changing the routine of everyday life into a fairy tale.
Tall, bearded Eastern Orthodox priests garbed in long, black cassocks, their heads covered with kamilavkas*, were just visitors from some yet unidentified moment in the past, mysterious and aloof. They waived sensors and filled rooms with smoke that immediately took me to an obscure, tiny Greek island where the evergreens wept honey-colored sap, and the sun bleached the rocks. They sent hundreds of droplets of holy water into the corners of every room as they shook bunches of soaked basil in the attempt to expel evil spirits, while their deep, harmonious voices sang incantations in Old Church Slavic that I could not understand.
The domed churches were like old castles, imposing fortresses encircled by green Serbian hills, giving off the sense of invincibility and strength. Every time I touched their damp and cold stone walls, I envisioned thousands of other children before me touching them, and I felt a connection with all the little feet that walked the ground hundreds of years before me. In my mind, I saw all these hands holding each other like in a paper chain.
We were not raised in religion, even though Father’s forebears were priests for several generations. But our household, like so many Serbian households, was engrossed with the traditions and customs that pagan Old Slavs brought with them when they decided to move from the Carpathian mountains to the Balkan Peninsula. Stubborn and defiant, they did not take to Christianity easily. In order to lure them in, the Greek missionaries, Cyril and Methodius, incorporated a multitude of ancient Slavic beliefs, changing some names and adapting the old to the new.
In 1054, Pope Leo IX and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Cerularius, slapped each other with anathemas (excommunication), and East and West have never been the same since. To make matters even more complicated, several Eastern Orthodox Churches have not accepted the Gregorian calendar, and all the major events are postponed by about two weeks. That’s why in Serbia, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th, New Year’s Eve is January 13th (which does not mean that there are no wild parties on December 31st), and the October Revolution actually happened in November. Easter is calculated differently, and sometimes there are four or five weeks separating the Western celebration from the Eastern one. This year they coincide on April 24th.
For some of my compatriots in Serbia and diaspora, Monday was the first day of Great Lent which lasts for seven weeks until Easter Sunday. There is no Fat Tuesday, nor Ash Wednesday. There are no carnivals and last moments of indulgence and exaggeration, no King Cakes and Paczki, no crazy Fasching, costumes, nor make-believe. There are strict rules to this fast, and the faithful are supposed to adhere to them. Throughout the Lent, they abstain from red meat, eggs, and dairy, while they are allowed to consume fish and seafood. Tobacco and alcohol are not allowed, although wine does not fall under the restrictions. The first and the last week are even stricter, as no wine, oil, fish, nor seafood is allowed.
These are the tenets and they are not optional. You do not get to choose what to give up. There are no soft-serve “I gave up abstinence for Lent” jokes. However, I know a lot of Serbs who will give up their beloved pork for weeks, but will continue to puff endless Marlboros, chug beer, and sip šljivovica*. I won’t even mention the fowl language, petty jealousies, spreading gossip, and hating your neighbors that should not be expressed during Lent, but very few obey. Cleansing your body is hard, but detoxing your heart seems much harder.
When I crossed the ocean, I did not bring the religion with me. But I brought an icon of Jesus that my friends Miško and Nataša gave me the night before I boarded the intercontinental plane to Detroit, Michigan, along with a small glass jar full of pebbles from the bank of the River Morava. Visiting me in the states for the first time, Father brought me another icon of St. Nicholas, patron saint of our family since the advent of Christianity in Serbia. He also provided the ornate cresset that hangs above the icon tile. When Njanja died, I took from her wall the framed reproduction of the White Angel (the fresco is from the Monastery Mileševa). College Kritter loves incense. She brings little paper-wrapped sachets filled with tiny pieces of aromatic sap every summer she spends in Serbia.
But alongside all of my Eastern Orthodox paraphernalia, I keep an engraving of an emaciated St. Joseph that my fiercely devoted Catholic ex-stepmother-in-law gave me when the College Kritter was born, just to watch over us. Right next to the entrance door hangs the Egyptian eye that my sister brought from her travels through Northern Africa. It is meant to ward of the evil spirits and protect the home. A beautifully carved and vibrantly painted Indonesian goddess hovers above my bed, protecting me and the children. I received her as a parting gift from a friend when I left Michigan and moved to Ohio. One Christmas, Younger Beastie gave me a Dream Catcher that hangs above my head board, making my dreams pleasant and happy. The last to be added was the Mayan goddess Ixchel, that College Kritter bought for me at Chichen Itza last spring. Who cares that she is supposed to be the goddess of pregnant women? She reigns supreme from atop a bookshelf.
All these are little pieces of love, given to me by people who cared. They all work together in unison, bringing back the elusive feelings of exotic and distant lands that marked my childhood. I am still as impressionable and imaginative as before, believing that all of these objects offer a touch of magic to our home, allowing me to have my fairy tales. Husband just thinks they look cool, and perhaps even edible as he is fasting sunrise to sunup until the solstice, not religiously, but as a diet.
We will not be following the Great Lent, but my recipe for today is evocative of its purpose: it is plain, simple bread, shaped into individual servings. It symbolizes for me the basics of humanity, its simplicity, its strength, and its nourishment.
*kamilavka looks like a Lincoln’s stovepipe had, but without the brim
LEPINJE (SERBIAN FLATBREAD)
- 500ml (about 2 cups) warm water
- 1 envelope instant yeast
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 Tbsp sunflower oil (if adhering to the strict fast, skip the oil)
- 650gr all purpose flour (the dough will be very loose)
Put the yeast and sugar in a big bowl and add a bit of water. Let it rise for 5 minutes until bubbly. Add the rest of water, salt, and oil if using, and start adding flour gradually, mixing with a wooden spoon. It took 650gr of four for me to achieve the right consistency. Stir vigorously for a couple of minutes and let it rest on room temperature for 15-20 minutes. Mix again, and let it rest another 15-20 minutes. Repeat one more time, letting it proof for 15-20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 250C (450F).
Pour out the dough onto the floured working surface, pat it into a circle, and cut into six even pieces. Flour your hands and roll each piece into a ball. Flatten it to desired thickness (I wanted mine thinner, to be similar to pita, but I have made them thicker, to be served with grilled meat), from ¼ inch to ½ inch (1-2cm). Let them rest for another 10-15 minutes. In the meantime, put the baking sheet in the oven (or even better pizza stone, if available).
Move two by two to the hot baking sheet and bake for 5-6 minutes, until lightly brown and bubbly.
More recipes appropriate for Great Lent: