“Put some coffee on, we’re coming over!” Mother’s face would turn crimson at the beginning of the sentence, and as she put the receiver down on our heavy, black, roto-dial phone, I could feel the panic settle. She would mumble under her breath, never giving way to profanities, wringing her hands, and trying to calm her rapidly beating heart. Like a general on the eve of a crucial battle, she would plot a strategy, assigning duties and organizing the ranks. In minutes she would have a plan which usually made us groan in pain. No shortcuts, no easy-way-outs, no five-minute-fridge-to-table-deals. We were the grunts and we obeyed, grumbling all the way to the small neighborhood grocery store, dispatched to procure the missing ingredients to properly welcome the guests.
In the meantime, Sonja and Pedja (Mother’s sister and her husband) would bundle up their brand new curly baby, Vladimir, crank up the old Citroen Diana, and set out on the five to six hour trip from the city of Novi Sad where they resided, to our hometown of Čačak, to have a cup of coffee, laughing all the way, completely aware of the martial law that had been imposed on our household. They knew Mother abhorred surprises, even the best ones, and taunted her as often as they could. We did not buy into the state of raised alert, knowing that our hip and totally cool Aunt and Uncle would show up dressed in jeans, low maintenance as always, cracking jokes and making us feel really special.
They would enter through the back door bringing the spirit of rebellion and non-conformity, the sense of adventure and daring to be different. They would deposit Vladimir into our greedy hands as we fought to be the first to hug him and caress him and pet him and call him George. Sonja would fall into a chair, lifting her feet on another, while Pedja would find his way to the fridge to get a beer or fix himself a screwdriver (back in the early 80s we assumed that it was the official drink of the guild, as he was a carpenter). Mother would desperately try to get him to sit down for a steaming cup of Turkish coffee as he paced around the kitchen to stretch his legs, getting in her way constantly.
Pretty soon Father would bring a snifter of cognac for Sonja, and a semblance of a drink for my allergic-to-alcohol Mother. There would be music, and the delicacies would start appearing on the table: homemade rolls served hot with kajmak, fresh farmer’s cheese and cold cuts, different varieties of phyllo dough pastries, roasted peppers dressed with a vinaigrette and garlic, tomato-cucumber salad when in season, cheese and meat strudels, roasted suckling pig, or mixed grilled meats, and unavoidable sweets. Pedja was boisterous, and his voice could overpower Father’s forceful and excitable expressions. The men would loudly toast each other, while the sisters would look for a moment to sync their voices in perfect harmony and make the world stop as they sang, their eyes locked together in unmistakable love.
Right after the feast, the little red car that could would be idling loudly, cranked up for the return trip, the baby bundled snuggly, smiling in his sleep. Both Mother and Father would protest, trying to get Sonja and Pedja to spend the night, but they would just wave them off, hug and kiss everybody, climb into the car and drive away with a last shout carried out through the window, “See you next time for coffee!” After the Citroen disappeared around the corner, Mother would retreat to the kitchen, shaking her head incredulously as if this had been the first time. It would be hours before her heart slowed and the redness in her face returned to pink.
I often scolded Mother for making this seemingly unnecessary fuss when people stopped by our house. I lectured her on the futility of spending a day in the kitchen to appease every passer-by (at times, my omniscient tirades turned from sarcastic to vitriolic), assuring her with the wisdom of all of my sixteen years lived on the planet that real friends and family did not visit for the food or drinks, but for the company. Serve them water, or serve them pheasant under glass, they would still love you. Sometimes she would only smile. Sometimes she would give me a sideways glance that asked me nicely to just shut up. But she did not accept my advice. She still gets a rapid heartbeat when someone announces a visit and she scrambles to offer sustenance to everybody who enters the house.
I am sure that Sonja and Pedja would have been satisfied with just a cup of coffee, but I realize that they appreciated Mother’s efforts and humored her at every occasion. They knew that she prepared the food to please them, thinking of their preferences, picking the best produce, the freshest ingredients, and the most succulent meats. They knew that she indulged their culinary whims, even when they did not ask for it. She offered the food they loved and could not get in Novi Sad. She offered it with a great amount of affection, even if it was hidden behind her flushed cheeks and snarky remarks. She thought they were crazy for traveling for five hours on an impulse. They thought she was crazy for spending five hours cooking. But after all this crazy talk there was the fact that only love can make you pack up your family and jump in the car to drive forever for a cup of coffee, and only love can make you turn that cup of coffee into a feast.
When I made Chives and Cheese Bread from , I was thinking that it would have been perfect for an impulsive visit from a friend. It’s quick, it’s versatile, and it uses the ingredients readily available in the pantry. Husband raved about it. The Beasties loved it as an after-school snack, and part of their lunch the next day. It satisfied my craving for a savory breakfast, lightly toasted and smeared with butter.
Sure, my friends and family are still going to love me if I welcomed them with an offering of bottled water. But this bread, still warm from the oven, would translate my love so much better. I am sure that Mother will be sporting her most I-told-you-so smile as soon as she reads my post. And I will have to tell her that I inherited all of her masochistic genes that psychologically chain me to the kitchen. And that I am eternally grateful.
My sister often invites me over for a cup of coffee, and we drink it virtually, chatting on Skype. I daydream that one day she will call me just to tell me that she is on her way to our house all the way from Frankfurt, Germany, hoping to get a decent cup of Turkish coffee. I might not be all flushed and ridden with arrhythmia, but the dining room table would showcase a pile of food. And I am not kidding.
I changed the ingredients somewhat, but I did not stray too far from Dorie’s suggestions. I sauteed chopped smoked ham, added scallions towards the end, and mixed it into the batter. Instead of chopped cheese, I added feta. For the recipe, go get Dorie’s new book , which recently won an award in Paris for the best French cookbook. But if you want to make this bread tomorrow, Dorie has posted the recipe on Serious Eats. I am sure that my fellow bloggers participating in our French Fridays with Dorie group have an abundance of praise for this dish.