Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Sometimes I Just Get Krompir-ed Out: A Weekend of Lika-style Hospitality

We are visiting my husband's ancestral lands in Lika (pronounced "leeka") a long thin area that lies just behind the sharp hills of the Dalmatian and Kvarner coast. It reminds me of Vermont more than anything. Maple trees, pines, cows, sheep, and a few little ski resorts, all less than an hour from the Riviera-style coast. The leaves have just begun to turn, but no tourists come for the fall show.

Except us. The people who live in this area -- or rather I should say "still live in this area" because it's been significantly depopulated by the past century's wars and economic diasporas -- are happy to welcome us when we drop in uninvited to visit them in their kitchens.

At first, this act of dropping in makes me feel intensely uncomfortable, because it's against the rules of good manners my mother raised me with. But my husband persists. We must stop to say hello to this cousin, that neighbor, the uncle's widow, and you can't forget that family... it would be extremely rude not to. A slap in the face. You can't visit one without visiting them all. Call first? What on earth for? The split second our American SUV rolled into town everyone for miles and miles knew we were here.

So, from mid-morning 'til late-night we spend an entire day making the rounds. Each time we park and walk straight into the kitchen, where people are already gathered. If the family owns two kitchens -- newly-flush families often build a new house just a few yards away from the old one -- you automatically go to the old kitchen. I get the feeling the new kitchen is a bit like a fancy new front parlor. You're proud of it but you don't touch it except for special occasions. And for god's sake don't go in there with your shoes on! Who knows what's on them from walking in the farmyard?

The old kitchen inevitably has at least two stoves. The first is an ancient wood-burning Susler. This is the main stove in continual use, merrily keeping the room warm all fall and winter along with being handy for cooking. The second stove might be gas or electric, or a combination. It's there for overflow capabilities, when you need a few extra burners.

The host and the men present sit around the table and often do a shot or two of homemade liquor to break the ice. Any women present may sit (if they are not cooking) but a bit further away, at the end of the table or perhaps in a chair across the room. It's as though they are spectators rather than main participants. They may occasionally toss interjections into the conversation, and they clearly listen keenly to everything, but nothing centers on them. I sit at the table, but don't speak enough of the language to say much of anything. And anyway, I am an Amerikanka stranger so all rules are off for me.

Meanwhile, the hostess busies herself getting a snack ready. First she slices a bunch of krompiri (potatoes), from her own garden, in half lengthwise, dusts the open sides with salt, and bakes them in or on the stove. You eat these with your fingers, peeling off the skin and popping them in your mouth. (My husband was startled when he learned people ate potato skins in America.)

The hostess also creates two platters of accompanyments, one of cheese (which if it's not homemade, she apologizes about) and one of slices of cold bacon and sometimes prosciutto. Then, she offers everyone fresh coffee, as well as plunking down (an unasked-for) bottle of cola for the Amerikanka.

This was a delicious snack... at the first two kitchens. By the time we hit house number three, I begin to yearn for something green and/or crunchy. By house number five, I ask for a glass of water and ate nothing at all, hoping it would not be construed as an insult. Thankfully my husband chowed down enough krompiri for both of us, and then went on to one final kitchen visit after that while I crashed for the night.

As we are leaving town the next morning, my husband's aunt comes tearing out of her house with a warm bag she thrusts into my arms. She's gotten up early to cook a dozen or so krompiri for our journey. I desperately master control of my facial muscles to appear grateful. My husband says, "What's that?" And then, god love his Likan stomach, he is absolutely delighted with the answer.


Anonymous said...

I love nothing more than knowing I can turn up unannounced and that nobody thinks this is odd, but then I do this in the US, too. But I have never had anyone put out a bottle of Coke for me. Wish I were over there now, but at least I will be heading to Vermont soon. :)

Gordo said...

There is a saying: "Drop in like a Partisan" usually meaning uninvited. My partner uses this term for "cold calls/visits" in business.

As a Canadianska, I'm also uncomfortable about this practice. However, all manner of cousins, real or honourary, welcomed our uninvited selves into their homes.

Your food/drink presentation is exactly as described, though the women I've met are all strong minded and opinionated, ruling many of the conversations.

Expected as they're all descended from Grandma "Sheriff", the first female motorcyclist in Serbia, and at 5 feet tall, a formidable Nazi opponent. but that's another story. ;-)

Sandrina said...

I just looove taj krompir, and I've tried to make it here in Sweden but there's no chance to get that crisp and salty taste in a state-of-the-art oven. I wish we had a "letnja kuhinja" and "smederevac" in my parents house. But then the Swedish neighbours would go crazy and sue us for building something without a permit in our own garden.

Ah... Western civilization....

Lisa Petrarca said...

My grandfather was from Lika...I hope to visit someday. Did you take any pictures? I'd love to see them!!

Mario said...

Rosemary, back to your blog after a long time. You got the hardest core imaginable Serbi from Lika! Sombor is such an opposite. While you consider moving to Serbia permanently, think about medical services you witnessed. That changed my plans as economic decay lately has become unbearable. My Slovenian pension would be worth twice there.
Regards from Ljubljana
Marijan M. Miletic', MSc EE retired