The Last Sunka of the Lugonja Legacy: Petar Lugonja’s Sunka
Such deserved pride on the face of this humble man. Arriving this year, is bittersweet. Vanja’s dad has not been well. The hope is that we will get him relocated in Belgrade before Winter. Most likely, Igor will do the relocation bit. We will do the finding apartment bit, while here, we hope. My fingers are crossed. It is a tall order, but he is finally ready. So, now is the time. His last little piggies were raised last year. I got to know them well. He holds the huge hind leg of one of his own home raised three little piggies: dry cured and smoked in the smoke house just behind him. It was stuffed in a bag in his fridge waiting for the yearly ritual of cutting into and tasting this primordial treasure.
“Oh little piggies, how I love thee. Let me count the ways. ” He would say, in his own words, “I will take such good and loving care of you while alive, and you will take such wonderful care of me when you are dead.” How they loved him and responded to his chants early each morning and before bed at night. He would revel in pulling a mixture of the freshest blend of grasses from the field for their afternoon snack and feeding each by hand.
No one’s sunka is better. I have been coming to the Balkans for several years now, and everyone in the countryside raises their own pigs and has a smokehouse. I have tasted many a homemade sample of sunka and none is better than Petar’s. His is seasoned to perfection and the flesh is tender… delicate, so soft as it melts on the tongue. It must be tasted to understand. The traditional smoke flavour is there, and each person’s holds that similar “recognizable essence of sunka”. Petar’s begins with the baby pig, the feed, the love and coddling – to the kill and the cure. Every aspect of the process affects the flavour and texture. He will tell you that. He will also deny that a man’s character in the Balkan’s is measured by his sunka, though his chest rises and his shoulders pull back as she stands that entire inch taller when praised for his sunka. He is a legacy. The making of this sunka has been passed down through the generations of his family from back and back and back – too far back to remember – and too far back to deny its providence. As the sun rose over the hills of Kupres and warmed the land when he was but a tiny tot, he was learning to fend for himself and his young brothers and sisters. He learned how to cure and smoke meat while knee high and has shared this knowledge with two sons, and two grandsons. None of which will continue this family ritual.
There is so much more than a leg of smoked cured pork on that table, no? And, now it is done. My heart aches, yet rejoices in the fact that I experienced this ritual, shared in the celebration and I, too, understand the importance of this passing on. As I also understand the catastrophic affect upon the future of our humanity as each of these sacred family rituals dies a natural death across our globe. Our connectedness is lost. Our past is too far gone to taste, to know, to remember, recall and learn from.
Yet, today, the hand of the father with the hand of the son hold on.
Still, the father guides his grown son through the muscle and flesh of this sunka to reveal the treasure within and together join in the pleasure of the colour, taste, and aroma of their shared past.
There is no hurry. This moment, every year, is long awaited. Big brother looks on. All are gathered round.
“Ah. Look at the colour. How lean this piece is.” The fruits of his labour rest on the old cutting board while all approve.
Piece by piece is sliced for repackaging and enjoying, usually until Christmas, when the new pork is cured. Not this time.
I don’t eat meat, but I eat sunka. The light reveals my almost transparent slice just before it melts upon my tongue.
Oh, if we could only bring some home. This, we would never risk. It is too precious.
Maybe, next year, on this very table, there will be another leg of smoked pork from another family recipe. We can only hope that another family could use this home, the smoke house, the pig house, the shed, garden and land to the full extend this family has. We can only hope that another family will carry on the rituals of their ancient past into the future of their sons and daughters yet to come.
But, now is the time for another change. And the time to enjoy the sunka!
Jens Gerbitz says
Beautifully written, thanks Valerie. Even I found myself grieving a little for another impending lost connection to a timeless culinary tradition… especially when looking at that sunka!
Any chance you could provide some close-ups and detail shots of the smokehouse? I feel another farm project bubbling in the back of my mind…
Say hello to Vanja!
This is very emotional for me to read. I feel the connection and the loos of the tradition. I am so touched that you got to experience it with them. What a memory and moment. The circle of life and nature are very significant here and really well pictured and told. Xo
Valerie Lugonja says
Awww… so happy to hear I was actually able to convey what I was feeling.
Sasha Cvijetinovic says
OMG until I saw the picture of Pero Lugonja I didn’t realize who he was! My dad used to work with him in Lukavac some 40 years ago.
Greetings from Toronto and thank you for these lovely stories.
P.S. I love teta Pava’s snenokle, truly the best!
Valerie Lugonja says
Pero and Pava have passed. She 5 years ago, and he 1.5, now. What truly beautiful people they were. Did you live in Lukavac? My husband, Vanja, is Pero’s son. He also had a brother, Igor. I am thinking you must have all known each other growing up in such a small town?
Aleksandar Cvijetinovic says
I am just seeing this now 🙁
I was back here looking for teta Pava’s snenokle recipe. She made the best snenokle ever! Memory eternal and may they both rest in peace.
We lived in Tuzla. Lukavac is just 12 km away. My dad used to work with cika Pero in the Privredna Banka in Lukavac. They visited at our home. I don’t recall Igor ever visiting us. Vanja was there at one point (Late 80’s I think). We also visited Lugonja’s at their cottage in Petrovo. Teta Pava used to call out visits The Caravan of Friendship 🙂
Both of them were truly great and I am sad to hear they are gone.
Thank you for the wonderful photos.
Say hi to Igor for me. My parents are Nikola and Nada.
Valerie Lugonja says
YOu have me in tears, here. Pava and Igor were truly special. They never spoke English – I spoke rudimentary Serbo-Croation… like nouns and verbs. HAHA. But, we understood one another. Love oozed from their pores. They were a power team, no doubt about it. Maybe they lived a small life in their corner of the world, but that corner was Paradise, even after they lost everything and had to relocate to Bijeljina. They always made the best of what they had. Of course, I have been to Lukavac and visited their apt building, imagining the boys playing ball on the pavement outside and running like wild children up and down those stairs… and to the summer house, after the war, when what was left as a shell of a building, looted and bombed, weeds and grasses almost waist high – but Petar found his beloved plums, still thriving. Memories of sljiva making and sitting under the grapevines in the early morning sipping his coffee and sljiva with the birds chirping and Pava fussing about the yard doing her weed pulling before the sun was too hot. I was the lucky one to meet Vanja after he came to Canada, as a refugee. It was not easy for him, of course. None of it was easy. He would say, “My story is not special. There are thousands that have a sadder story than me.” But, how valiant, to leave such loving parents and forge a future in a foreign land. His parents were so proud of him. I met them first when we brought them here. They were so tiny. So small. I expected to meet giants as that’s how I had come to know them through their son… and how I came to understand their spirit through my own relationship with them over the years. Very tiny small people with such far-reaching presence. They impacted so many lives for the better and you can see the impact they had on me. I truly grew to love them both. Pava was feisty. No doubt about it. The youngest of five, so hardworking, such a survivor and a champion for children and the underdog. Petar was the quiet one, but the foundation of the fort, so to speak. Out feeding and patting his piggies every morning in Bijeljina, loving his stray kitties and smoking his meat to perfection. I would have never imagined such a life had I not been there so many summers. I would have never thought I would be cooking a meal in a “summer kitchen” smokehouse with a dirt floor sitting on an 18-inch high three-legged tool. But, they were not poor. They were industrious and rich with love and laughter and so many friends.
Thank you for re-connecting. I have passed your email and message to Vanja and he will pass it to Igor.
I hope they will both reach out to you.
BTW, I also grew to love her snenokle. For the first few years, there would always be a giant bowl of it on the window sill at every visit for Igor. It was his favourite, and no one else cared for it. He let me have a taste once, and I loved it. Pava found out a couple of years later, and after that, there were always TWO giant bowls of it on the sill when we came.SOOO many memories… and so little time we had together, really. It feels like more. 2001 we met (Vanja and I were together since 1998) and Petar passed in 2017, Pava in 2014. They are both buried in Novi-Kozarci. Part of me lives there, too… hard to believe and understand, but it is just a testament to the impact they have had on my life, too.
Hugs from Canada