Sep 202012
 

Montenegrin Goat Cheese from bibberche.com

“Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” ~~G.K. Chesterton

Djurdja admits that she is at least 80 years old, but I believe that she is somewhat conservative. She complains constantly of her back pains, leg pains, head pains. She wobbles when she walks, but when no one is looking she straightens up and runs up a path, nesting her walking stick underneath her armpit for safe keeping. She gave birth to ten children, two of whom died as toddlers. The rest she dispersed all over the world, choosing to stay with her youngest son Danilo, his wife Sanja, and their three teenage children.

She was born in Metohija, the land of undulating hills, vineyards and sunshine, where old Serbian kings of the Middle Ages built their castles and churches, choosing to conduct wine through the pipes under ground rather than water. She married young and lived a hard life, the youngest wife in the commune, the inevitable target of the older women who tried to exert their power in any way possible in the cruel and patriarchal world dominated by men.

old Serbian woman from bibberche.com

Djurdja

In 1999 her world collapsed as NATO war planes bombed her village and the universe seemed to point an accusatory finger at every Serb living in the area. When it became obvious that the life of yesteryear could not continue, she abandoned her husband’s grave, gave away their meager possessions to the neighbors, parted with her flock of sheep, and took off for the scraggy and dry hills of coastal Montenegro, never once looking back at all those years she spent in Peć.

I met her son Danilo, a former engineer turned high school maintenance man, when he came to help my Uncle make salami. We were born in the same year, we have college degrees and we both have three children; that’s where the similarities stop. His two boys walk three miles to their high school. The oldest daughter takes the bus to the college in the near-by city of Kotor. All three of them have to help the family; the boys accompany their father when he goes out to fix things; the daughter wakes up at dawn to take the goats out to graze. When I was there, I did not hear them whine, complain, or talk back. They just did it, understanding that they contributed to the family. And they maintained an A average.

Goats from bibberche.com

I woke up early one morning and walked to their still unfinished two-story brick house with an old RV camped in the front yard and a dilapidated, green awning casting shade onto the patio. Djurdja was watering the plants, complaining of the merciless heat that was killing her tomatoes. Together we crossed the road to the meadow where her daughter-in-law, Sanja, stood surrounded by two dozen goats as she poured water into the trough. Sanja called the goats by their names, almost singing, and they trotted to her, stopping on the way to munch on some dry leaves. She had already milked them before I arrived and they were bleating happily as they played, crossing their horns in make-believe combat.

Her son arrived to relieve her and took the goats further into the thicket. The relentless Montenegrin summer was at its peak and greenery was scarce. The milk, Sanja told me, would be stronger and less fatty. They sell the milk to the tourists, and make cheese with the rest. She refused my offer to help her carry the buckets filled with frothy, white milk, and continued on across the road and behind the house where she started to turn milk into cheese. She brought a shallow, heavy enameled pot from the house and strained the milk into it through the cheesecloth. Then she stirred a few tablespoons of liquid rennet, covered the pot, and placed it on top of  a Smederevac, an ancient wood-burning stove.

Mking goat cheese from bibberche.com

Djurdja was cracking jokes all the time and lamenting over her life, while she watched every step Sanja made like a hawk, ready to pounce and scold her for the smallest error. But everything worked as planned and the three gallons of milk were slowly simmering, heated by gnarley dry wood. We moved to the patio and had shots of strong, sweet home-made cherry brandy that accompanied even stronger cups of Turkish coffee.

I did not have the time to observe the process in its entirety. I only wish I thought of visiting this family at the beginning of our stay. Milk had to cool off for several hours covered with a clean, starched linen kitchen towel before it would be sliced in cubes, allowing the whey to separate. The solids would be strained into a cheesecloth-lined wire strainer and left to drain for a few hours. After that, the disc (still wrapped in cheesecloth) would be placed onto a wooden board and pressed with a heavy rock. It usually ended up in the fridge for about a week to dry and age, without getting sour in the summer heat.

Goats from bibberche.com

I discovered a slightly yellow disc in my Aunt’s and Uncle’s fridge and I knew it was Sanja’s goats’ cheese. I unwrapped it and cut a few thin slices, not knowing if I would like the taste. It was still a bit milky, but dry, without being crumbly and too salty. There were small holes in it and the crust just started to form. It went perfectly well with a glass or two of Vranac, a famous heady Montenegrin red wine, made strong and stout by the endless sunny days.

We left the next day, but on our way I stopped by their house to say goodbye to Djurdja, Sanja, and Danilo. I felt honored that I met this hard-working family that offered me hours filled with smiles as they toiled under the scorching sun. I know their kids will become wonderful adults and I wish them at least a few days free of worry. But as they plan to keep those goats, my wish might be in vain.

Sanja and Danilo from bibberche.com

Sanja and Danilo

Oct 122010
 

Today was not a good day. I knew it when the phone rang the night before, right when we were finishing our dinner of grilled ribeye steaks, mashed potatoes, and mushroom and leek gravy. I knew it as I climbed into the car to go to work. I knew it when I met my manager’s eyes just before she averted them. I waited for more then an hour to talk to her, feeling like a pariah sitting in a booth, trying to calm a wildly beating heart. In my mind I was counting the bills left in the partly torn envelope hiding in my underwear drawer trying to calculate my family’s financial existence. The uncertainty and a million question marks lead me through a series of film noir scenarios until paranoia finally overwhelmed me. I dissected every hour of the previous several days at work, trying in vain to come up with a thread that would lead me to illumination. I analyzed my actions to the finest details hoping to find a reason for getting the cold shoulder.

In the end it was anticlimactic in its shallowness, but incredibly hurtful in its effect. My destiny was undergoing an unpredicted and undesirable change, and I could not do anything about it. I suffered the consequences of an uncommitted act. I was punished without  reason. Even though my arguments were valid and my voice rang true, I banged my head hard against the corporate wall and elicited nothing but a shoulder shrug. There had to be an investigation, and in the meantime my working conditions changed so much that my earnings, meager to start with, would dwindle by seventy percent.

The rest of the working day passed in a haze with intervals of sobbing interchanged by determinations and the pledge to keep on and elevate myself above the stench of the injustice and pettyness. I spent a lot of time in the bathroom, trying to prevent splotchiness and avoid the not so goth effect of the mascara running down my cheeks joined with the tears. I faked a thousand smiles. I flirted with the octogenarians who assured me that I was the best and well deserving of a raise. I ran on pure spite, with nostrils flaring in anger one second, and gasping for air the next, completely overtaken by despair.

I could not wait to leave. A colleague went to make me an espresso, but I bolted as soon as I saw the “W” on the grill of the silver car approaching the parking lot. I vented for several minutes until we reached the apartment complex we call home, and then I broke down, completely, without reserve, unaware of the curious glances and questioning stares of the neighbors. I sobbed uncontrollably, crushed by the helplessness of the situation, feeling that I have betrayed my family somehow, by not being everything I could be.

The last thing I wanted was the Beasties to see me swollen from crying, eyes red, cheeks burning red from salty tears. They emerged like shadows from their room, wrapped their lithe bodies around me, hugged me really tight and kissed me a thousand times. We stood there, in a clinch, unable to move, afraid to break the tie, with me quietly sobbing and them whispering that everything would be all right.

I usually leave work at Crown Valley Parkway until I return the next day. As soon as I walk through the doors I discard my Cinderella clothes, take a shower to get the last remnant of the work off, and start living my real life, the life of creative energy, flowing sentences, imaginative dinners, and evocative conversation. I live a double life and it suits me well. I know that one of these days I will wake up smiling, knowing that I could continue and be the Princess for the eternity, that the golden carriage will never again turn to pumpkin.

But today nothing could pull me away from the tide of negativity encroaching into my sacred family life from that plain building off I-5. The stuffed grape leaves I prepared yesterday and simmered for a couple of hours put forth a burst of flavors, deeply Mediterranean, lemony, minty, and exotic. But my eyes were glazed, my throat constricted, my words on the verge of another crying spurt. I felt like I was betraying my family by not standing proud and walking out with my head held high and my integrity intact. But I do not have that luxury. I need to work. I need to stay there and fight like a lioness for my brood. And I hate every moment of it…

At work I am invisible at best, snubbed by botox-ridden housewives, patronized by laptop toting businessmen, and shuffled whimsically by the GED-wielding managers. I turn on my most sincere No. 6 smile and I face them all, invincible and proud, confident and at peace with myself. I perform my menial duties in a floating manner, hovering above, detached in mind, as if watching an old neo-realistic Italian flick.

I left the dinner table and assumed my favorite position on the love-seat, with my beloved laptop in my lap (!) The Beasties cleared the table and washed the dishes, Husband put the finishing touches on his edit for a Pepperdine professor’s paper, and I tried to catch up with my e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and Google reader. I was temporarily lost in an article when the older Beastie plopped a navy blue cup and saucer in front of me, claiming that was the tea that was going to drag me up to the surface. And then she added: “If you like it, I will make tea for you every day”.

As if I did not cry enough today already, I could not help it. I cried, but this time the tears were sweet, bourne out of love and tenderness. As the fragrant steam was filling my lungs, I promised myself that I would dig in, endure, fight, and come out victorious just to show my girls what needed to be done.

ANYA’S GET-ME-OUT-OF-THE-DUMPS-TAKE-ME-AWAY-FROM-IT-ALL TEA

The mixture of rosehips, hibiscus, yerba mate, herbs from Mount Kopaonik in Serbia, honey from the Serbian meadows and a squeeze of lemon our friend picked up recently screams comfort to me. Offered in my navy blue cup, with a serving of warm hugs, makes my heart sing.

I am submitting this post to Hearth and Soul event, hosted by Girlichef, among the others.

Aug 052010
 

It’s 7:30 Friday night. I am in my parents’ bedroom in front of the full-size mirror. I have a minute or two before my friends ring the bell. Did I cover the fresh-from-this-morning zit between my brows? Does my oversized shirt borrowed from Father cover my hips? Is my hair positioned just the way it should be (if I manage not to move my head at all)? Mother is amused by all the primping. Father is oblivious, as usual. When I peek into the living room he beckons me in, gives me some “just in case” money, and continues to watch the early news.

My friends are here. I close the door behind me, slam the gate shut and step out into a warm summer night, enveloped by the distant chorus of crickets from the park. The air is warm and heady with the last lingering perfume of lindens and the woody smell of farmers burning off grass beyond the levee. The evening is starting laden with anticipation, excitement, and a barely noticeable fear of disappointment.

We turn the corner and join a procession of boys and girls walking in small groups, all heading to the main street and the town square. Our interchanges are barely comprehensible, consisting mainly of giggles, tiny screeches we cover by hand, and shushing sounds – we do not want to be overheard (fifteen-year-old minds are filled with paranoia). We cast sideways glances while we advance towards our destination, trying not to miss that someone special. Our cheeks are flushed from the excitement. Our fingers are nervously twitching.

It’s Friday night in July and the city square will be filled not only with the usual crowd of high-schoolers, which is usually most excellent, but also with college students, who are finally back in town. We avoid the main street with all the lights and approach the square from the back, partly hidden by shadows from a tall apartment building on the right. To the un-initiated the whole scene looks pretty random, just another summer evening in a Serbian town. But we know that there are patterns each group follows, there are rules to which to adhere if you want to stand at the square, there are right ways to make sure you see and are not seen if that is your choice (Since late April my sister and I skipped our karate lessons on Saturday nights to go out, walk around, and dance in a discotheque at the Home of Culture* abutting the square. We consider ourselves pretty knowledgeable). We do not go as far as to make a map and use pointers and colored push-pins, but we plan our strategic approach before every outing, knowing with certainty the time everyone arrives and the place at the square they will eventually occupy.

I walk around with my friends, almost believing they are the reason I am out. My eyes are nonchalantly (I think)  glancing over the throngs of youths, hoping to find him who is the only reason for my being here. While my strides get shorter, my heart beats faster. I see a couple of his friends on the steps. When I catch a glimpse of a striped purple and white t-shirt, I think my heart will jump out of my chest. My cheeks are blushed, my palms are sweating, and I cannot utter a word. I squeeze one of my friend’s arms in a silent alert, and avert my eyes from him, petrified even to imagine that he would notice my attention. I love him from afar. I look at him only when he is occupied with something else. I know his face as well as mine, the green eyes that stole my soul the first time I noticed him, the almost-black hair, shiny and parted in the middle, the rosy color of his cheeks, the smooth chin thrust arrogantly upwards, the lips in a perpetual mocking smile. Each part of that face is immortalized in my journals and poems.

Even though adrenalin is sending waves of whooshing sounds through my ears and my heart has no chance of slowing down, I am perfectly content. I saw him. My night is as big as the Milky Way, expanding with each second and each stolen sideways glance at him. I sometimes daydream that on one of these intoxicating summer nights he will miraculously feel the enormity of my affection, walk away from his friends, take my hand, and lead me away, into a life filled with only the two of us. But for now, just seeing him on those steps in front of the square is enough.

We circle the square several times, slowly, exchanging elbow-nudges and snickering. The groups slowly start to dissipate, the older ones heading to the bars, the younger ones headed home. The air is still pulsating with the unspent energy as we walk down the steps towards the main street. We are ready to face the light. As we move away from the square, our voices become louder and more confident. We pass two pastry stores, debating if a tall glass of lemonade and a cake would be a fitful ending to the evening. But from the right a seductive aroma of burning wood makes me look away from the sweet delights. An old Gypsy man has set up a hand-made grill between the “Hotel Belgrade” and a fabrics store. He is enveloped in gusts of smoke as he turns freshly picked corn with his hands. The kernels are popping, blistering, soaking the essence of the forests that feed the fire. I hand the man a bill, he hands me a hot ear of corn, blackened and smoking, wrapped loosely in newspaper. I bite into it, savoring each milky kernel, my teeth getting black, specks of char on my cheeks, lips and hands. I do not care any more. This is the taste of fifteen summers, the taste of innocence and hope. As we slowly walk back to our homes I eat greedily, with abandon, void of self-consciousness and restraint, looking forward to jumping on the couch and telling my sister every little detail of this exciting evening.

*Only in countries that went through social-realistic phase of “art” the names like this exist.

***

We came by some extremely fresh and succulent corn today. I was making Tomatillo Salsa Enchiladas and Mexican Rice for dinner. Corn salad? Corn salsa with black beans and red onions? Plain boiled corn? From somewhere in my mind a distant memory awoke and with a smile I decided we are having grilled corn. To make it jell with the rest of the dishes I made a chipotle-lime butter.

Our newly acquired Weber grill is not made from unrecognizeable iron scraps and Husband, who tended the corn does not have a gold tooth nor a black, bushy moustache (I am thankful for both). But the corn was perfect: charred on the outside, soft and milky on the inside, with the distinctive smokiness and redolent of the summers of my teenage years. Chipotle-lime butter added a hint of spice, reminding me that I am an adult after all, but I still smiled while I sank my teeth into a cob, charring my lips, my cheeks and my hands.

“Get Grillin’ with Family Fresh Cooking and Cookin’ Canuck, sponsored by Ile de France CheeseRösle,Emile HenryRouxbe and ManPans.”

I am contributing to Summer Fest event with this post.

Summer Fest 2010

Aug 022010
 

Mother and Father as close as you are likely to see them without Photoshop

I cannot recount how many times throughout my life I stated that my parents should not have ended up together. They are both very strong, intelligent, well-read (on different subjects, of course) and as a consequence extremely opinionated, stubborn, and uncompromising. I wish I could write a fairy tale about two complementary souls who, while different, managed to fulfill each other and ended up walking away into the sunset holding hands, giggling like children remembering their arguments, debates, and days of not understanding one another completely. But that is not their fairy tale.

To this day they continue to bicker, to antagonize one another, to dig out the smallest details in order to pick a fight. When we are around them we usually just roll our eyes during the incessant back-and-forths, resolved to their antics and aware that we are an audience to a drama rehearsed and played a thousand times.

Their personalities might not be in sync. But there are certain common core values that define both of them. They are extremely hard-working, diligent, responsible, and reliable people. They enjoy company, friends, good food, and conversation (in different measures and different volumes). They love to help people who need help. They are brutally honest (not counting little white lies uttered in self-defense). They have a great knack for story-telling (Father’s art of developing branches of digressions and adding embellishments to anything that happened is widely recognized amongst his friends and family).  They share the love of reading, and our house was a veritable library, constantly replenished by new, fresh from the printer volumes (is there a more intoxicating smell, beyond food, then a freshly printed book?). They are pretty good with finances, although they have different ideas about immediate monetary priorities (who says that Dunhill’s and Johnny Walker Black are not everyday necessities?). They are compulsively organized (Father’s organizational skills are clearly inspired by OCD, and we laugh when he aligns his keys, glasses, and wallet on the night stand in an exact and immutable way every single night).  They adore their grandchildren and spoil them in different ways, but of course, there cannot be a common ground. They love their children, even though they constantly complain about ingratitude and selfishness of the younger generation.

They have instilled all of these values in us. They taught us not to be tattle-tales, but to stand up not only for ourselves, but for others falsely accused. They taught us to respect people regardless of their ancestry, origin, place of birth, or social standing. They taught us to be proud, but not arrogant, to be kind, but not push-overs. Lying was punished more strictly then any other misdeed and honesty was praised above all things. They urged us to keep our promises and to be loyal to our friends. They encouraged us to go on vacations with friends and opened their house to countless  parties (New Year’s Eve’s parties, birthday parties, passing a hard exam parties, or just anything parties). Mother was the incarnation of Brecht’s Mother Courage. She cooked most of the meals, helped with costumes or broken hearts – whatever was needed at the time. Father was in charge of providing the booze and driving everybody home at the wee hours of the morning.

My parents are not perfect. But they are good people. They make each other miserable and compete in petty power-wielding contests. But they managed to lead us each into our own right direction. We are all honest to the point of naiveté. We are kind, fierce in defense of the weaker. We are loyal friends. We love to read, converse, socialize, and debate. We love to entertain, to offer plenty of good wine, scrumptious food, and unforgettable music. We are passionate, frugal, and extremely organized. Oh, each of them had different methods, but we have, I hope, become the people each of them envisioned.

I read a post on one of the blogs I haunt regularly, The Bitten Word, about keeping inventory of your fridge, when you go shopping for veggies, or you get a CSA delivery. I commented in earnest, having just cleaned and organized my refrigerator, and labeled the dry-erase board with every single ingredient in it (minus the door, which is self-evident, and the upper shelf, which alway holds 2 gallons of milk and various juices (orange, grapefruit, cranberry, pomegranate, peach, tomato…). The idea is to erase the ingredient once it’s used to keep a better overview. My parents would be proud. And I am glowing in the aftermath of the accomplishment. Husband is somewhat worried, confused, and not really as enthusiastic as I am.  He looked at the board as he might look at a new puppy he will have to walk and clean up after.  But I am sure he’ll learn to appreciate it once it starts saving time and money, and doesn’t actually poop on the carpet.

THE REFRIGERATOR INVENTORY:

Jul 262010
 

I never thought I would have children. I felt somewhat detached from my siblings in our early days, even though all three of us were born within four years. I learned to read when I was four, and was drawn to books more then to the kids my age. I was shy and awkward around other children, and smaller kids frightened me. I never looked at the babies laying in the strollers. Younger children ignored me and I avoided them as much as I could.

They, in turn, adored my sister, listened to every word she said, and followed her directions as if she were the Pied Piper of Hamelin. She could coerce them to do her bidding and the adults at the time were getting pretty frustrated with the usual defense of the young ones when confronted with the accusatory question of  ”Why did you do it?” “Ljiljiana said so” was a mantra among them, something all of them understood and could not convey to the older generation. They were stealing corn from the neighbor who had only five corn plants, running up and down the elevator in a newly erected apartment building, pressing the buzzers and running away, calling people on the phone pretending to sell small, green tractors (I am sure all seven and eight year olds sounded like bona fide salesmen – not!), smoking Father’s cigarillos on the balcony, in full view of the neighbors. She was the dare-devil, the pirate, the adventuress. She loved the action and did not think twice about breaking the rules. And for that, she was the hero. And still is to a bunch of almost middle-aged man and women who still tell fairy tales about my sister’s influence on their lives.

While she was taking the neighborhood kids (and our brother) on the path of adventure and rebellion, I was laying on the couch, getting lost in literary worlds. When I envisioned my future, I saw myself as Virginia Wolf in a cottage, composing the most influential prose. Or like Georges Sand, strolling along the Champs-Elysees with Chopin (did I mention that I had a morbid posthumous crush on him? To this day his music makes my knees wobbly). I saw my life children-free.

It was not meant to be. When I was about twenty five, I developed this horrible habit of peeking into baby-strollers, asking questions about babies and smiling at baby gurgles and coos. I was astounded. This new development got me thinking and planning. I told my husband that it was time for me to become a mother and I got pregnant. Unfortunately, I miscarried. My father, an ObGyn at the time, threw his briefcase against the door when he heard the news. But I did not give up. I planned the next pregnancy in detail: my child would be born in November, preferably Scorpio. I’d go to Serbia and have her there, with Father supervising it. I’d loose all the baby weight and attend my 10th high school reunion in style, still glowing from the brand-new-motherly bliss.

It all happened as I planned, except that my first daughter was born a bit later in November as a Sagitarian.

She is eighteen years old now and attends UC Berkeley. But I did not stop there. We have Anya, soon to be a twelve year old, and Zoe, the awaited Scorpio who will turn eleven in November. To this day I wake up in panic, realizing that I am a mother. The days pass me by and I remember the pregnancies and deliveries, but it still astounds me that I have children.

The College Kritter calls me when she has an interesting linguistics assignment. We talk for hours about the etymology, Latin, and comparative analysis of languages. We took a trip to the Yucatan this spring, as much friends now as mother and daughter, and enjoyed every minute of it. She is in Europe now, doing the Eurotrail backpack trip that is the unspoken prerequisite at Berkeley, and I cannot wait for her to fill me in. I know that we are connected. I see my influence on her life. And I feel relieved.

The Beasties have each other. I do not know how much of my experiences I have instilled in them. We read books together. We watch movies together (it astounds me that they would sit quietly through a black-and-white film, and deem it perfectly entertaining). I let them choose a “topic of the day” and we spend 10 to 15 minutes researching human anatomy, Greek architecture or history of China. And they go away to their room, dig out Barbies and disappear from my world altogether.

Husband and I went shopping today. We were gone for most of the afternoon. The Beasties were at home alone, by their own choice. We came back hauling a bunch of grocery bags, and the first thing I heard when I entered our apartment was: “Mama, you have to see our photos”! I left the bags on the kitchen counter and looked at the pictures they took of their lunch, PB&J sandwiches. Not only did they make the sandwiches on their own (OK, they used blackberry preserves, which have large pieces of blackberries), but they styled them and took the pictures.

I was putting the groceries away and I could not stop smiling. My children adore my sister. She still has that Pied Piper charm and on their list of cool peeps, she is at the top. I am their mother and by definition I cannot be “cool”. But knowing that they appreciate what I do, what I am, what I strive for allows me to take a deep breath and admit that I might be doing a good job as a mother.

Zoe's PB&J

Anya's PB&J;

Jul 172010
 

When I was four years old, I got the mumps. Father was a physician, but the remedy did not come from a pharmacy. Instead of reluctantly ingesting grape-flavored syrup or being force-fed pink gel antibiotics, my neck, jaws, and cheeks were enveloped in smoked, thickly sliced ribbons of bacon, and wrapped with a bandana tied tightly on top of my head. I slept several nights stewing in smoke and grease, while my sister, sixteen months younger, shared my bed (not on her own volition). Mother and Father hoped I’d give her the  mumps and get the whole thing over with for our household. My fever almost melted the bacon, but my misery did not move my parents to spare me that porcine torture. In a few days, the swelling was gone,  my temperature subsided, and I was bacon-free, even though I smelled like a ham hock for days.*

Mother’s hearty Potato and Smoked Meat Soup brought back the memories of warm bacon layering my cheeks, and I suffered horrible olfactory flashbacks while eating even the smallest serving. My sister did not suffer any consequences from that ordeal. For no reason whatsoever she detested green beans. The randomness of her choice used to bother me because my dislike was obviously and unequivocally cemented in logic. Ultimately it did not matter because to Mother it was all the same. We had to eat whatever she prepared and the only negotiation concerned portion size. I suffered through the harsh and unusually cruel punishment of forcefully swallowing the odious soup with the stoicism of a martyr, while considering my sister’s insistence on hating green beans a pretentious whim, shallow and fickle, borne out of stubbornness. After all, her favorite dish was spring peas!

We grew up. Our palates continued to develop as we moved away from Mother’s hearth, well-prepared to embrace the world of culinary adventures. I moved to America. My sister moved to Germany. New experiences challenged us every day and molded us into what we are today. Somewhere in the process I stopped hating the smell of cooked smoked pork. Instead of dragging me back in time to suffer the horror of being wrapped in bacon, that smell evolved into a beacon guiding me home. My biggest anguish now is the inability to procure Serbian grade smoked pork products in California. One day soon…

My sister and I plan our summer visits to Serbia to spend as much time together as we can. We sit on the balcony looking down on hundreds of red roofs, sipping a glass of wine, reliving our teenage and adolescent years, crying and laughing. We talk until late at night in the room that used to be ours, digging out every embarrassing detail we tried to forget for years, confessing minor sins in hope of forgiveness, and hushing each other when the giggles get out of control for fear the husbands and the kids might wake up.

Once in a while I can coax my sister to accompany me to the market. I have to promise a leisurely pace and a visit to one of our favorite cafés. She reluctantly agrees, spends some time primping while I write the list, prepare the bags, and tap my foot impatiently. We walk under the linden trees that line our street and breathe in the familiar smell of our town in summer. The old concrete is gone and new pinkish tiles line the sidewalks, but our feet still find the invisible paths they engraved years before. The student cafeteria is a bank now. The old pastry and ice cream shops are not there any more, replaced by…well, newer pastry and ice cream shops. The stores have changed their names to things more colorful and international. But this is still our town, moreso than if we lived here year round.

Walking past the men offering currency exchange (no, not that kind of exchange) in a “psst, hey buddy” whisper**, and past the tavern that serves the best braised tripe (so I’ve heard) in town, we arrive at the market. Heading towards the covered and air-conditioned part, we wade through Gypsies offering packs of socks or new brooms. Entering the cool building that houses dairy and meat vendors, we buy chicken leg quarters from Father’s friend who taught me how to cut up the chicken properly. Next we sample cheeses, trying in vain to find the elusive one we enjoyed as children. We buy brown eggs, collected that morning, and nestle them carefully in one of the egg cartons I brought from the U.S.  We go outside and loop around the stalls, touching, smelling, tasting. We joke with the farmers and humor unsolicited life advice from old ladies dressed in brown with babushkas on their heads. We pack our canvas bags full of summer produce and carry them between us. The bags rest on the floor-tile of the  restaurant “Proleće”, while we sip a Schwepps Bitter Lemon or an icecafe, and watch people go by. There are some new kids running around, high on life and drunk on the promises of the future. And we see each other, and our friends as we were when we owned this town way back “in the day”, feeling at the top of the world, invincible and eternal.

Refreshed, but prompted by the sun to pick up the pace, we arrive home and empty the bags on the kitchen table. Red orbs of tomatoes, long triangles of pale yellow peppers, bright orange carrots, dark-skinned cucumbers, perfect ovals of new potatoes, and yellow, purple-speckled romano beans.

My sister finally overcame her childhood confusions and embraced the beans in all their summer splendor. I cannot be with her this summer, while she strolls along the river bank, or sits at the table flanking the house, marveling at the size of the magnolia tree our grandfather planted many years ago. I will not be there to wake her up with a cup of strong Turkish coffee, or to keep her awake at night with infinite stories of our youth. The least I can do is make the beans that define the summer for me. I picked them up at Irvine Farmers Market.

MOTHER’S ROMANO BEANS  (MAMINA BORANIJA)

I usually prepare it with chicken in hopes of luring the College Kritter to eat it, but it is equally delicious as a vegetarian version.

Ingredients:

  • 1 Tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 medium carrots, sliced
  • 1 celery stalk, diced
  • 500gr (1 lb) romano beans, green or yellow
  • 2-3 chicken leg quarters, depending on size (optional)
  • 1 ½ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground pepper
  • 1 can (28 oz) diced tomatoes

Directions:

Add the oil to a 5 quart pot or a Dutch oven and heat on medium temperature. Sautee onions, garlic, carrots and celery until transluscent, 6-7 minutes. Add the beans and the chicken (if used), and enough water to cover the meat and the vegetables. Season with salt and pepper. Turn tne temperature to high, until it boils, then turn it down to medium low. Simmer for 30 minutes and add the tomatoes. Cook for another 30 minutes until chicken is cooked and the beans are tender. Taste and adjust the seasononings. Sprinkle with fresh minced parsley. Serve with freshly baked bread. Serves 4.

*My sister did get the mumps just like the adults planned. And  couple of years later she got sick with them again. This time, our younger brother was the unwilling victim of torture by bacon.

**This is a relic from the 90s, when the country was under embargo and economic sanctions.  Hyperinflation could render a paycheck worthless in mere hours, so people would convert their dinars into dollars or marks to preserve the spending power of their earnings.  But currency exchange was an illegal grey market that took place on street corners with men who looked for all the world like they were trying to move fake Rolex watches.  Now that currency exchange is available in any bank, those guys are still there, still whispering as if Milosevic were still in power.

I am submitting this for “Two For Tuesdays” event.

24TNewerSpainInIowa

Jul 112010
 

Cleveland, Ohio, was our home for over a decade. I moved there from Michigan, Husband from Georgia, and we met in the early fall of 1997. The city’s “emerald necklace”, the Metroparks, served as our courting grounds. Surrounded by hues of burnt orange, sienna, ochre, crimson, and sunflower, spectacularly revealed in ancient oaks, elegant maples, and stately elms, we fell in love, not only with each other, but with the city, too. And in my food-obsessed mind, the best thing Cleveland had to offer was the West Side Market on 25th and Lorain.

I went shopping with my Serbian friends to the West Side Market before Husband-time. But once I introduced him to it, the visits became a weekly routine. For him it was an exotic place, a glimpse into the world of other cultures, and a way to fill the trunk with produce without going bankrupt. For me, it was like coming home, inhaling the smells and filling the soul with the sights of abundance, while listening with curiosity to the excited voices in many different languages.

The outer area of the Market is shaped like an “L”. There you can find fruits and vegetables, flowers, herbs, and seasonal products. The building itself is nestled in the hook of the “L”, and inside you buy meat, charcuterie, cheese, fish, dairy, and cooked goods.

We would park, donate a dollar to whichever person was there hawking The Homeless Grapevine newsletter, and continue with quickening strides toward the entrance of the main building, looking around the produce stands, taking a quick inventory, and storing the information for later. Before anything else, we had to make a stop at Frank’s Bratwurst, located at one of the entrances. Hard roll, brown mustard, sausage for me. Soft roll, sauerkraut, Stadium mustard, sausage for Husband. After exchanging a line or two with the owners, we’d move a couple of steps, to make room for the endless line of bratwurst aficionados. First few bites we’d devour in complete silence. The next phase would introduce a smile and a series of grunts. The finish would be more leisurely, devoid of hunger induced panic, with long glances inspecting the stands (like we did not know the layout by heart), fortified and prepared to enjoy the rest of our outing.

Photo: Chris Stephens, Plain Dealer

We’d traverse five steps and enter the Greek-run Mediterranean Imported Foods, which was a haven for the Serbian community. White cornmeal, feta cheese, olives, sardines, roasted peppers, jams, juices from Europe – you could find everything your little immigrant’s heart desired there. At the Hungarian delicatessen we’d buy smoked bacon, hot sausages, and head cheese. Across the aisle was The Urban Herbs, a must for spices and hard to find varieties of beans and rice (best Himalayan rice you can find without a Sherpa).

Kaufmann’s Poultry was our favorite stand for buying anything chicken, rabbit or duck (occasionally we even managed to secure some rare chicken feet for the younger Beastie, who is quite enamored with gnawing on them, to the absolute revolt of the remainder of the family). We were seriously worried for a period of time that a very young future College Kritter would elope with the gray-haired owner of the stand, after she declared that would be the most awesome job on Earth (which, for the most part, was a giant move forward for her, abandoning the plans on becoming a driver of the garbage truck, or even more coveted, the Zamboni).

After making our usual loopty-loop, buying lunch meat, and either fish, pork, beef, lamb, goat, or even bison, we would venture outside and start the quest for weekly produce and fruit. We had our favorite vendors (Eddie with the Boutros Brothers always took great care to get us the best produce and warn us off anything less).  But the names of our other favorites elude me. We only occasionally risked the unknown. Husband would make the trip to the car, carrying the loot, while I visited the last stop, my herb guy, who was always very helpful with advice and tips regarding growing vegetables.

The trip home was always a beautiful coda, composed of snippets of excited conversation, reveling in the glory of nature and the sense of security, which only a car-load of food can bring. Once at home, we’d get everything out of the bags, put it on the counter, and admire it for a minute or two. That was enough to make my day exceptionally good.

When we moved to California, we left pieces of ourselves at the West Side Market. We miss those Mondays fiercely, and lament our loss constantly. I roam the Internet searching for farms, farm stands and farmers markets. And I do not want to believe that Ohio can beat California on food shopping, ’cause I’ve been to San Francisco and Berkeley, and I know better.

We went to our first SoCal Farmers Market in Irvine today. It was a completely different experience from Cleveland. A much younger, more sophisticated, and less ethnic crowd. People were more relaxed, taking their time (but it could be an overall Californian thing), sporting designer duds, showing off their pets and their children. There were less staple foods, more organic produce, more variety to choose from, and a lot more samples. I definitely felt like a tourist. But that could be just me – I still feel like we are imposing on California. It was not my beloved place back east. But I felt the familiar heart-quickening. And I definitely know I’ll go back, even if I have to avoid work on an occasional Saturday. Who knows, there just might be another vendor who will become a friend.

Jun 142010
 

Once upon a time, in my previous life, we had a nice house with a big expanse of grass sloping down towards the lake. A wooden fence separated us from the neighbors on the right and in front. Along the “L” shape that fences formed, I had my father, a retired Ob-Gyn, turn the dirt over for a vegetable garden. Sure, here is a picture of me, in the midsts of freezing November gales, forcing a weak, old man to manually attack the clay-infused dirt of Northern Ohio. But he wanted to be helpful, and he was mostly bored while visiting. And away he went, digging for several days, with me dragging him in the house from time to time, dangling a high-ball glass from the deck in lieu of a carrot, afraid he would die of exhaustion (I don’t remember many childhood scenes with my Father doing menial work). You don’t know the wonders a stiff drink can work for an obstinate, proud, stuck in his 30s, and obviously in pain grandfather.

In the end I had a rectangular plot of freshly turned dirt, 30×20 feet. Before I even attempted planting, I researched for months, wrote notes and reminders, read garden blogs and studied. I am the Ant, not the Grasshopper – story of my life. We decided to go natural in fertilizing, and I started to get acquainted with compost bins. My neighbors’ son, a high school senior, promised to build me one if I kept him in constant supply of my chocolate chip cookies. That sounded like a very favorable deal to me, especially after he threw in snow-blowing our sidewalks in the winter.

A lot of unexpectedly sad things happened to our family that fall and winter. But, spring arrived with hope, lifting us up from the sorrow and self-doubt. We brought bags of fertile, dark soil from our neighborhood home-and-garden store, which were strewn on top of the dirt. All over the house I had miniature greenhouses nestled close to the heating vents and windows, to get the maximum results. Some seeds I brought from Serbia – mostly red, triangular peppers, pale-green zucchinis, and tomatoes. The majority I bought locally. I nourished the baby plants from the first cotyledons, brushing the dirt off the leaves, nudging the crooked ones towards  the light, and watching them grow, stronger and bigger, every morning.

When the dangers of the frost disappeared, I planted the seedlings, following a detailed plan I made during the winter months. Tomato plants went along one fence, the peppers along the other. Zucchini took over the middle, joining the eggplants, while the beets and swiss chard guarded the edges towards the grass. Basil seedlings were carefully positioned in between the tomato plants, and a few bean seeds were thrown in, just for the heck of it. The mint already grew wild along one side of the house, and I planted lavender and thyme next to the steps leading to the deck. All the lettuces, garlic and spinach went in another, small plot, between the house and the sour cherry tree.  We threw hay all around the plants, to keep the heat and moisture down, and prevent the weeds from taking over. The garden looked amazing.

And from the first day of planting, until everything had to be turned over and buried for the incoming winter, my routine rarely changed: after feeding all three daughters breakfast, and fixing lunches, I’d make some coffee, see the Husband off to work, and saunter off to the garden, to welcome new leaves and the first little fruits. I would snip off a yellowish sprig, hand-pollinate the zucchini flowers, pile the hay tighter around the stems; as the summer days grew longer, I harvested several types of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, chard and zucchini (that is, until the vile vine borer implanted itself in my gourds and destroyed them). The rabbits became the enemy, completely annihilating my gourmet lettuces and spinach, and the barbaric hordes of Canadian geese with their goslings trampled the new and fragile vegetables, pecking the leaves off my pepper plants, and leaving little piles of guano all over the yard, garden, and the grass.

I learned every day.  I despersed depressing thoughts in constant fight with the pests and animals trying to feed off my labor. I came into the house holding armfuls of chard, thinking of the ways to use it, and for the moment putting aside the other, more painful thoughts. My garden kept me afloat, not only by its abundance, but by its ever-changing beauty. It was my first encounter with dirt under my nails, and its intoxicating aroma took me far away from the every-day worries. It was my escape, my drug of choice, my Disneyland.

—–

Things happened and we changed latitudes. Now we call Southern California our home. No more November gales, no more snow-blowers. Hello sunshine, 365 days out of the year (yeah, yeah, I know, sometimes it does rain) . We don’t have room for a garden. A concrete patio meets the dirt slope planted with mimosas and other desert-favoring vegetation. But the railing of the fence that separates the concrete from the dirt houses beautiful pots, brimming with life. My “garden” is small, but I can still saunter out of the kitchen with my scissors and pick some basil, rosemary, sage, mint, lavender, shallots, or thyme, and hear my heart singing. It’s all it takes to bring a smile to my lips.

Posted by Lana at 11:05 pm
Jun 062010
 

When I was growing up in Serbia, during the 70s and 80s, eating locally grown, seasonal food was not a matter of choice. That was the only choice we had. Not that anybody spent numerous sleepless nights pondering the reasons. We bought our bread and pastries freshly baked every morning. When rye bread became available, a small revolution ensued…

My mother would get up every morning, really early, like 5:30, and run over to the corner grocery store to get bread and yogurt (I still remember with nostalgia those plump glass bottles topped with foil caps). She would choose the clothes for my Father, and put them out on the bed. She’d make breakfast for the three of us, and after Father left the house for the hospital, and we were dispatched to school, she’d meet Milorad, the milk man, who brought two liters of freshest dairy gold to our door, emptying it with skill and flourish, never spilling a drop, into her pot from a huge metal canister. She would go through the ritual of offering him some coffee, which he would invariably refuse, rushing to get to his other customers. After he left, she would heat the milk on the stove, keep it on low simmer, until it started to bubble, and then move it to the pantry to cool off.

On Fridays, Milorad’s wife, Vinka, would appear in the morning with him, bringing cheese and young “kajmak” (I have to devote a whole post to “kajmak”; it deserves more than a fleeting mention). She would stay and have coffee with Mother, while Milorad went on his route delivering milk. We loved this middle-aged, shy woman, who smelled like fresh grass and milk. She had the most beautiful cornflower-blue eyes I have ever seen, her hair hidden by “marama” (what’s in these parts known as a “babushka”).  On Fridays when the school started in the afternoon, my sister and brother and I would run to her and she would embrace all three of us together with fierceness and abandon, and hold on for a long time, tears sparkling in her sad, beautiful eyes. Only later, when we were teenagers, did Mother tell us that Vinka had  lost her only son to leukemia when he was 12 years old.

- – - – - – - – - -

With the essentials out of her way, Mother would don her town garb, add some very subtle make-up, put on a pair of comfortable, but stylish, preferably Italian shoes, grab a wicker basket or a canvas bag and head on to the town’s green market, head held high, smiling for the entire world  and wishing “Good Morning!” to all the friends, acquaintances  and neighbors (and in our town, that would include everybody on the street at the time.) At the market she knew all the vendors. Very intuitive, empathic, and sensitive, she joked with them, asked about their children, listened to their woes and troubles, and managed to get the best bargains in town. She convinced some of them to start selling herbs like dill and basil, which was pretty adventurous in a land which considered salt, pepper, paprika, and parsley the only necessary additions in cooking. Her basket was always filled to the point of overspilling, overburdened with plump, fully ripe,  delicious and fragrant vegetables and fruits.

On her way back home she would sometimes stop at her favorite butcher shop. The butcher was, we were convinced, secretly enamored of my mother. He taught her how to pick the best cuts of meat, and how to make sausage. He called the night before to let her know what would be available. He kept the cuts she wanted hidden until she appeared and later on, he named his daughter after her.  She would get the freshest cuts of meat , not too much, though, a pound or less. Satisfied with her purchases, she would walk home, precariously carrying her loot, already imagining the pots and pans on the stove brimming with delicious food for her family.  In Serbia, like in many countries in non-western Europe, midday meal, eaten around 2.00 p.m. was the most substantial. Dinner was an optional repast.

- – - – - – - – - -

We always ate together, at the table set with a nice cotton tablecloth, china and silverware aligned perfectly. And very often we had company: our school friends, one of my Father’s patients or associates, a relative from far away awaiting results from a lab test, etc. If he was not called off to deliver another baby, Father would reign over the meal at his place at the head of the table, requesting peace and quiet, but joining any conversation that would inevitably start, as soon as Mother would fill our bowls with soup. We talked in the usual Serbian manner, interrupting each other, each of us convinced that ours was the most pertinent piece of information.

At the time we didn’t fully appreciate the food we ate. It was “taken for granted.” Are there more secure and comfortable words than those three? I don’t think so. We never doubted that we would find our way home guided by the sounds and smells from Mother’s kitchen. We just accepted it as a given, as something that is cemented, that is forever our right. Later on, when we ventured elsewhere, when the fates took us to some other homes, into the lives of some other families, we were stunned. We realized what we had, as the fortunate tend to do, only too late,  when we were adults ourselves.

I live on another continent, far away from my Mother and her kitchen. But I think that I finally got her approach. I dish out a lot of my love with every morsel of food; I send a message of adoration through every hand-picked, fresh, in-season ingredient I choose for my family. I have to think hard, I have to ponder, I have to spend sleepless nights over the issues of food. But in the end, I hope my kids take my cooking for granted until they find themselves standing in their own kitchens slicing and stirring and serving the ingredients that their own eyes and hands deem worthy to pass their own children’s lips… children that will, of course, take it all for granted.

May 302010
 

My Serbian neighbor and friend for many years, Dragana, moved away today, for good.

They had moved to California from Ohio in 2005, and we stayed behind. Our frequent telephone conversations consisted mostly of her trying to explain how wrong we were to cling to ice and snow, when we can have the land of eternal sunshine. She talked avocados, citrus, pomegranates, cheap produce at a local Persian store. Her Lorelei song was very seductive.  Things happened, our lives changed drastically, and all of a sudden, a move anywhere became a focal point. Why not the land of eternal sunshine? And who does not love avocados?

Of course, several other reasons contributed to chosing California, but we arrived, on the last day of August 2008, which was Husband’s birthday, exhausted and weary, completely broke and desperate, to share a big pot of Serbian beans and warm bread with Dragana and her family.

They had secured an empty apartment next door to them for us. We had nothing when we moved in, our household kept safe in storage back in Ohio. They gave us furniture, refrigerator, and blow-up beds on which to sleep. They shared their food every day with us, until the first paychecks appeared.

I remember one occasion in September when we needed to pay $40.00 for the older Beastie’s field trips to come – it was as big as a million at the time. Dragana gave us the two $20.00 bills as if she picked them from her young lemon tree on the patio.

With time we managed to get on our feet. And we settled into a comfortable routine. She would usually yell “Hey, friend/sister, put some coffee on!” while coming home from work or store. I would yell back a greeting, without bothering to leave my chair in front of the computer. Or she would just come over, sweep our patio and yell “Coffee is ready! What are you waiting for?”

The coffee had to be just right, not, as she called it “the Serbian swill” I like, but hard-core Arabic blend purchased at our local Persian store. We would settle on her patio, or mine, drink coffee and gossip, reminisce,  give advice to one another, and laugh

In the neighborhood she was known as Mom. All the little Mexican kids called her that. She fed them, hugged them, kept them warm, all in her brusque, intimidatting and to-the-point way. The food from her kitchen went out anywhere a hungry mouth existed, platters of food– but if you did not remember to return the platter, your ass was fried!

Since the day she told me they were moving, I felt as if an elephant was sitting on my chest. Yes, we’ll see each other at work Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and any other day for coffee. And, yes, their new place is only 3 miles away from us – in American distances  a spit away. But I will miss her presence. I will miss her reliability. I will miss her generosity and her commanding way of running a day. I will miss having at least a couple of her plates and bowls on the kitchen counter, full of samples from her daily menu, and I will miss the opportunity to fill those same plates and bowls with something I made and return them to her (I think they throw you in jail in Serbia if you return a plate empty – squeaky clean is not enough.)

We had our last Turkish coffee together today. She walked away in long strides, as usual, toting behind a vacuum cleaner and an armfull of cleaning supllies, with her visiting Serbian mother in tow. She waved goodbye, I waved back, as if it were just another day. I went back to the house, and I cried. I cried for our friendship, I cried for all the goodness of this woman, I cried for  all the memories.

And for Dragana, I post a very simple, but essential “recipe” for making  Turkish coffee, Serbian way.

arabic coffee, dzezva and "cuturica" (chu-tu-ri-tza), serbian flask, contaning slivovitza, many times a necessary accompaniment to coffee

You need a Turkish coffee pot, aka dzezva. Measure up the right amount of water, using smallish cups which will hold the coffee. If taking coffee with sugar, add it now so it dissolves (I omit the sugar, but Dragana likes hers just a little sweet). Leave the dzezva on high heat until the water boils. Take off the heat and measure 1 teaspoon of very, very, very finely ground coffee per cup  into the pot. Stir well and return to the stove. When the foam on top starts rising, remove from heat, and spoon a bit of foam into each cup (skipping Dragana’s, she does not like the foam).  Pour some coffee into the cups, little by little, going around, so that consistency is equal in all. Find a comfortable spot on the couch, and share a cup of Turkish with a friend. And remember, sip and enjoy, and do not drink the dregs on the bottom, no matter how emotional this post makes you!

a cup of Joe (or should it be Jovan, if it is Serbian?)