Because good food feels like home
For many newcomers, food may be one of the last links they have to the country they came from. Sitting around the table with a home-cooked meal may be the only thing that feels like home.
I spent my childhood in Bosnia, a country whose cuisine is like a map of its past.
Bosnia lies near the middle of the European continent and has changed hands many times throughout its history.
In 1451, it became a part of the Ottoman Empire and today’s cuisine reflects it; much of the food is what most people may identify as Turkish. Burek, a flaky pastry filled with meat, and cevapi, grilled sausages are eaten with bread and onions, are Bosnian’s most famous dishes and both originate from Ottoman times. Bosnia fell under Austro- Hungarian rule in 1878 and commonly eaten foods such as goulash and schnitzel can attest to the fact.
One thing that the majority of dishes have in common in Bosnia is that they are labor intensive and that many recipes are passed on from generation to generation. Rolling out the dough for burek is an impressive feat that many women in the younger generation do not master due to the amount of dexterity and patience one must display for the task.
Another commonality is that food is one of the ways Bosnians show love. And one does not find love at McDonald’s, a franchise that infiltrated the country just 4 years ago.
They find it at their aunt’s house, where the stew has been simmering for hours and one has to beg if they wish to stop having their plate refilled.
When the Bosnian was started in 1992, my brother and I were able to evacuate in the early days, while my father was forced to stay in Sarajevo for two and a half years. We lived with my amazing grandmother in Serbia and had very little money or belongings, due to the fact that we fled with nothing but two duffel bags. A lot of the food we ate came from UNICEF care packages, which we would wait hours for, even when we were shivering and covered in snow. We grew used to fried Spam, endless bowls of lentils, and powdered milk. It all tasted wonderful to us simply because we were children; we were growing and we were hungry.
On rare occasions, my grandmother would treat us by making delicious Bosnian meals.
We would sit around the table and she would make us giggle by making up stories about a fictional pet monkey. When we were done I would daydream about walking on the cobblestone streets of the old town with my dad, about eating sugar syrup soaked apples and roasted chestnuts while watching snowflakes blanket the city. We had little contact with missed him desperately, frequently sending him letters we hoped would reach him. But despite it all, we were happy. Our bellies were full, and we were safe and loved; far away from mortar shells and sniper fire.
My father was able to escape in early 1994. After a brief few months in Belgrade, he decided we needed to leave.
We applied for permission to move to Sweden and Canada but were rejected. Because my great-uncle lived in California, we were granted refuge and allowed to move to the United States, where I imagined I would be eating ice cream and playing with Barbies every day. But alas, Barbieland didn’t exist and adjusting to our new circumstances proved difficult.
My father, a successful journalist, had to work in construction due to his limited language skills. A diligent and able man, he immediately started learning English and would spend many evenings going to ESL classes. Despite this, he continued to make delicious Bosnian meals, made with wholesome ingredients and using century old techniques.
I, on the other hand, had found a new love; the cereal aisle. Plain cornflakes were the only option in Bosnia and I was bowled over by the vast amount of choices in the states. My greatest joy as a 10-year-old was opening cereal boxes and digging out the tiny free toys inside. Silly things I would quickly grow bored with but also would want more of immediately. The vast amount of processed, ready to eat, shiny and brightly colored amount of food we now had access to was astonishing. Quickly, my brother and I grew apathetic to the food we wanted my father was making. And he, completely exhausted from his non-stop schedule, grew tired of trying to make us eat it.
As an immigrant and new kid in school, I wanted to fit in desperately. I studied my classmates in school and copied what they did, from the color of the girl’s hairbands to the “cool” way everyone wore their gym socks. I also wanted to eat what they ate, and a lot of it was (in my current opinion) fairly disgusting. The cafeteria served microwave burritos, greasy pizza, jiggling Jello cups, and vegetables three shades lighter than nature intended. But, I gobbled it up with glee, happy to eat what my peers were eating because I was oh-so-ready to be “an American.”
We started buying microwave meals at home and consuming processed food like never before.
However, once in a while, my sweet dad would still make Bosnian favorites and we would sit around the table and chat, sharing foods that we had at our old home, now thousands of miles away. Even though we were still poor and now quite lost in our new surroundings, we were happy. The three of us were together, our stomachs were full, and we had all escaped unfathomable circumstances.
My dad, a Renaissance man, had always been an excellent cook. As the years progressed, he began making sausage, his own wine and liquor, and countless other delicacies. Unfortunately, as the years progressed, I lost the desire to relate to my own culture and its culinary past. When he would bring grape stuffed leaves to school potlucks, the other meat-loaf totting parents would be absolutely delighted and would complement him endlessly. I, however, had no interest in learning how to emulate his culinary conquests and neither did my brother. We stopped eating meals together and rather ate whenever one of us was hungry, the microwave being our most often used tool.
When I was 17, I went back to Bosnia for the first time.
At that point, the trip didn’t interest me and I forced my father to let me take a friend along. I saw childhood friends I barely recognized and tasted foods I had forgotten existed. It was lovely and although it did not provoke any significant change in me it was the start of a shift that would come years later. As an adult, I cannot get enough of Bosnian food. Although time commitments keep me from making traditional foods frequently, I daydream and lust for Bosnian cuisine. I try to find restaurants when I travel within the U.S. and beg my dad to make traditional dishes when I visit him. Eating them makes me think of home, a home I never wanted to leave and that I miss more now than when I was a teenager.
I now genuinely regret the times that we didn’t sit together and eat as a family. I think it would have helped us connect as we all navigated our separate new worlds. My brother has passed away since and I would give anything for the three of us to share a traditional meal again.
I imagine every refugee family has a difficult time in their first years in a new country.
Many refugee families have been pulled away from their homes unexpectedly. Shared mealtimes and food traditions from one’s homeland can be a huge comfort during this adjustment when everything seems challenging and different. Because good food feels like home. And it’s OK to build a new home using some pieces of the old.
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