Last year, I discovered the perfect way to describe my family's uneasy relationship to our Slovenian roots. In Slovenian, it goes like this: “Hoditi kot mačka okrog vrele kaše.”
Don't know the language? Neither do I. It is one of the many things that disappeared when my mother's family took a dive into the American melting pot.
So here is a translation: “To walk like a cat around boiling porridge.”
The phrase does sound a little clumsy in English. It probably works better in Albanian or Serbian.
Translation issues aside, this piece of Slovenian folk wisdom does a beautiful job of conjuring up an image of ambivalence. We've all experienced it, cats and humans alike. We have circled around something that is both alluring and painful. Felt torn between two opposing desires, to draw closer and to pull away.
In the last few years, I have been drawing closer. Trying to understand my family's history and our Slovenian immigrant heritage.
It hasn't been easy. Much has been forgotten--or buried under layers of shame and secrecy.
The Slovenian language was lost in a generation. My immigrant grandfather's children changed his surname into something short, simple and Anglo-American. And no one--except my mother--was willing to talk much about the family history.
Just one thing endured.
Food. One in particular: Potica, Slovenia's most famous dish.
Potica is a yeast bread so rich that it qualifies as cake. My family's version features paper-thin spirals of dough, cinnamon-scented walnuts, and so much honey that you might mistake it for baklava.
I make potica every Christmas. So far, the tradition has persisted through four generations, beginning with my grandmother and continuing down to a couple of nephews and one of my own children. For my extended family, this single food has become the one enduring link to our roots in Eastern Europe.
Five years ago, I set out on a quest to learn more about my Slovenian heritage and my family history. I have tried to approach it from many directions: Reading. Language tapes. A short but lovely visit to Slovenia. Genealogy research. DNA testing. Spending time at San Francisco's Slovenian Hall. Questioning my mother.
This year, I discovered a new path to understanding. Cooking.
I don't know why it took me so long. It seems like such an obvious route, to go back to the kitchen.
In January, I designated 2012 as my year of cooking ethnically. I would make one Slovenian dinner a week, drawing on my small collection of vintage Slovenian American cookbooks. It would be a culinary homecoming. I didn't know what was in store, but I figured it would be an adventure.
Another Tuesday has rolled around. It is my designated Slovenian cooking day.
I share my kitchen with a husband and two inquisitive cats. My husband, normally the main chef in the family, helps with the side dishes. The cats watch.
Trent, our black cat, likes to jump on the stove and circle the pot. Lately, he has found some surprises, when he sticks his nose where it doesn't belong.
One recent night, I stared into a vat of boiling buckwheat mush and wondered if it would really turn into those little round dumplings that Slovenians call žganci. Another week, I dropped a giant rolled cheese dumpling known as struklji into the pot of boiling water and hoped for the best. Despite my worries, both dishes were delicious--and unusual.
Last week, I tried to recreate a mysterious bean soup my mother recalled from her childhood. She even remembered the Slovenian name, which she kept repeating to me. At first, I couldn't make it out. Finally, I got it. She meant “bleki,” a square-shaped noodle that defined the dish, at least in her family.
The more I cook, the more my mother seems to remember--about the food, the Slovenian language, and her family. My family.
Together, we rediscover the past. It is a culinary homecoming, as we circle around that simmering cauldron that lies between us.
For more on Blair’s journey through Slovenian cooking, check out the Religion edition of Kosovo 2.0 magazine on May 21st (delicious recipes included)!
The article was originally written in English.
Illustration: Andrea Manzati
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