The Outdoor Kitchen (Smoke House) and Serbian Musaka
There is a kitchen in the house that Pava only used on rainy days, and through the Winter. In the Summer, she always cooked in the smokehouse since they were displaced after the Bosnian War. Before that, she had two gorgeous homes: one lovely apartment in the city and a country house a little bit away for relaxation and family. The second home in the country is a Serbo-Croat-Bosnian tradition. But, as a child, she lost everything in WWII, so this industrious woman knew how to live with “it all” and “with nothing”. She sat on the little stool and used the bench as her table. There she worked in the cooler early morning to prepare the meal for the day. Petar and Pava are very small people. She was under 5 feet. He is probably 5 feet.
Vanja and I come every year (I missed the last two, due to caring for dad) and I love to cook for them both. I use the inside kitchen. It is still a very rustic cooking experience, but manageable.
This year, the inside kitchen has been “out of commission” since our arrival. I have had to resort to “Pava’s style” of cooking: in the smokehouse, on the tiny little stool, using the bench as my counter. It takes a while for me to fold myself onto the stool and even longer to unfold myself each time I rise up.
So much is gone. The wooden spoons. The potato peeler. Trashed, I assume. So, today is Serbian Musaka Day. (You can find my recipe for this dish here.) Yesterday, I made a simple pasta dinner. Of course, they never eat pasta unless we are visiting. I really enjoy stopping by the butcher with Vanja, picking out the exact kind of meat for the meal, and having it freshly ground while waiting. Do you see the square covered with bricks on the floor, above? I am in the Smoke House, remember? That is the pit where the fire is built each December for smoking the pig. Right now, I head them rooting next door, as it is about lunch time for them. They are housed in the little pig house built about 5 meters from the smoke house…. right between the cracks.
Of course, we only buy and grind beef. Petar raises pigs every year (Spring through Fall), takes them to the slaughter house, and then brings the hung animal back home and butchers it himself. Grinds it how he likes. Makes sausages. Wraps it up and freezes it – smokes probably half of it, including the sausage. The rods and hooks to hang the meat are holding the pots for the summer and this little house always smells pretty good.
It is the same with the chickens. The pig house is sanitized in the late fall when the pigs are butchered, and early Spring he buys 50 chicken and raises them for a couple of months. Then, there is a man with a special machine that defeathers the birds who comes to the house with the equipment on his truck. Pava and Petar would slaughter the birds and put them through the “machine” for defeathering. They said it worked like a charm. Usually, Igor and Lori would plan to be there to help that weekend each year. After all, one pig and half the chickens are for them. They freeze the chickens like this: legs and thighs attached, breast meat, wings, soup meat. They have so much chicken in their freezer, I cannot imagine how they go through it all, but they do. Remember – this is a family of carnivores!
The chickens are thawed for celebratory occasions as Petar is famous for his char-grilled roasted chicken, or rostilj, as it is called here. The legs and thighs are everyone’s favourite parts.
I peeled the potatoes, cleaned and sliced the onions, minced the garlic, made the salad, then sliced the potatoes before rising from the stool that seemed to have become a permanent fixture on my lower anatomy.
The onion, garlic and meat was fried and seasoned. While I am doing this, I sip on my morning coffee. Here it is either Turkish coffee, or “cooked coffee” (I call it sludge), or Nes. You heard me right. “Nes”. Boy! Has that company got the corner on the market here. They have Nes Classic, Nes Strong, Nes Mild, 2 in 1 Nes and 3 in 1 Nes. The latter two are sold in single serving pouches. Just add hot water and enjoy a thick sweet processed cup ‘o something resembling “joe”…. but, anyway, after being here for a while, it is actually tasty. It is expensive, so it is a luxury item and sought after by the masses of poor that still live here. There is money here, now, as well, but the disparity between the rich and the poor is significant. More than significant.
The sliced and soaked potatoes were layered in the pan, sprinkled with Vegeta, topped with a sparse layer of the cooked meat mixture and the Serbian Musaka grew into a giant meal: four layers of potatoes and three layers of meat.
Into the oven it went at 10:30 am and by 11:30 am was cooked. Four eggs and some rich milk were beaten together and poured over the top. Back into the oven for 15 more minutes, and voila! (Dishes in the summer are always washed in the outdoor sink. Everyone has one, and in this town, they all look just like this. Design is not a strong point, here. It is all about function.)
Ring the lunch bell! I finally understand the Mediterranean Tomato and Onion Salad. If we had tomatoes that tasted like this in Canada, this would be the salad of choice at home, too. Revealingly, the Serbian word for tomato (my favourite food on the planet) is Paradise (not spelled that way, but pronounced that way. Very fitting.)
Meanwhile, Vanja and Petar moved the freezer, cleaned and moved the fridge, washed the floors in the utility room and set it all up ready to go! One morning with a great deal accomplished before 11 am.
Lunch was devoured with relish. Few manners employed. Bread dipped into the meat juices. Great conversation and laughter with mouths full. Dishes were washed before an eye could be blinked and we were off to “The Park” to answer and read our e-mail by 1pm.
And in the afternoon? Usually a nap. It has been known to be 52 degrees Celsius here on one of my stays. It is hot. There is no air conditioning. Everyone naps for a couple of hours if they can get to sleep in the stifling heat.
Today was cool, so we ran errands; we ordered kitchen cabinets, looked at tables, and bought a front hall closet and shoe cupboard. All in all: productive.
A couple of days later, thighs and legs were defrosted. Petar almost lost them in the flood. The chickens, I mean. He had to move 50 chickens three times, but says these are the best, ever!
I fried them and attempted to make oven roasted potatoes in the little oven in the smokehouse. Finally, I place the chicken on top of them to finish cooking. Everything was delicious – not as initially imagined, but under the circumstances, I was impressed at my “Cooking After the Flood” prowess and the men were delighted and elbow deep into their chicken legs! Lip smackin’ yum.
Well nourished, even in the direst of circumstances – and I guess “the direst of circumstances” would be having no food at all. Whatever the tragedy one endures, there is always something worse that “could have” happened. But, I don’t appreciate hearing those stories. I think that Vanja’s father, under these circumstances has triumphed past my imagination. I didn’t think he could or would live long without Pava. He has. And his body is strong, and healthy. His mind is forgetful and scattered. His emotions are thread bare, but he is most definitely a survivor.
Why is it, though, that one person must endure so very much in his life to prove to himself over and over and over again that he can survive this, too?
Surely, he need not prove this to his God, for his God would know? I am not one who believes in the old adage “One is only given what one can handle.” Or this one: “There must be an unknown lesson one needed to learn.” Sh$t happens. It just does. And to the best people.