A Bosnian Serb son roasting lamb and pig near Sarajevo. Photograph: Dado Ruvic/ Reuters
Nothing was ever thrown away in our home. At any given time, at least half of the food in our fridge was leftovers, distributed into small pots and bowls and a rare plastic receptacle. The leftovers would never be served to guests; it was our duty to dispose of them as their own families, while the most resilient remnants were gonna be exterminated by Tata. For some reason, one of the fatherly obligations- and I fulfill it myself in my family, which is entirely oblivious to the theoretical foundations of my sacrifice- is to dispose of leftovers.” Cale[ Pop ],” Mother would say,” do finish that
sarma from two weeks ago ,” and he would duly oblige, falsely asserting that sarma( cabbage stuffed with meat) is actually better the older it gets.
This food hoarding- if that’s what it is- is not inevitably related to my mothers’ personal memories of hunger. Mama does not remember ever being hungry or worrying about food. Tata was only hungry after leaving his mothers’ home to go to the boarding school, where there never was enough food for an adolescent boy, but that lasted only until he got his first stipend. In another words, they never , not even during the wars they lived through, experienced systemic deprivation that would constitute an existential menace. Their food anxieties are rooted in a shared history in which subsistence could never be assured of, where living was always survival and where food abundance was ever temporary, at least by virtue of being seasonal, entirely dependent on hard work and weather and luck.
And even if my parents rose out of poverty to become socialist middle-class, they learned that the structure of comfort they had spent their own lives house offered no protection from history, which would, in the early 90 s, come crashing down on their heads. Whatever food anxieties may have mitigated with middle-class stability were doubly reactivated with the war, which totally validated the survivalist food ethics they had been so familiar with.
The value of leftovers is also rooted in a particular domestic economy and the gendered division of labour. Since time immemorial until, at best, my parents’ generation, women were the ones expected to manage food, in addition to rearing children and all the other domestic obligations. Grandma Mihaljina spent her life between the kitchen and attending to the livestock and various small children, first hers, then her children’s. Grandpa Ivan would work in the field, and then come to the house for a dinner- bread, borscht, pierogi,
steranka – that she would prepare from scratch. She would save everything that was not eaten- and this also before they had a fridge- to serve it again until it was all gone. Leftovers equalled hour and labour that she could put into other chores or, rarely, rest.
Grandma’s food was a conduit that transmitted love. Peasant girls worked too hard and too much to find time to cuddle and play with the kids; instead, they would make their favourite dishes. This is another source for the ethical value of food- it carried love. Back in the day, upon Tata’s return from some long journey of his, Mama would make a zucchini tart (
tikvenjaca ), thus expressing whatever happiness she might have felt for having him home. These days, when she comes to visit me, she has insisted on constructing something she believes I like and crave. Sadly, my diet and tastebuds have changed, so there is less and less of her convenience food that I long for. She gets hurt when I reject something she prepared for me, and I have to concede and allow her to actualise her love in the form of apples stuffed with walnuts and poached in honey. So for days after her deviation, as I devour tufahije , my caloric intake triples.
When my grandmother died, my father was working in Africa. He received the news while staying at the Kinshasa Intercontinental, and could not get back in time for her funeral. Alone and devastated, he spent nights pacing in his impersonal hotel room, obsessively recollecting something that happened in Bosnia some 20 or so years before: he dropped by his mothers’ because he was nearby for work; he surprised his mother and she was so happy to see him that she decided to build his favourite pie. At unbelievable velocity, she peeled and shredded the apples and induced the dough and stretched it thin and rolled it up with the apple, cinnamon and sugar concoction inside, put it in the oven to cook for 40 minutes or so. But he was young and impatient and could not wait and, even though she begged him to stay for the pie, he left before it was done. Twenty years later, in the Kinshasa hotel room, he beat his chest and ripped his hair out for not staying, longing hopelessly for that untasted apple pie, for that moment that could never be retrieved nor relived.
For my sister Kristina and me, “apple pie” has become a code term for a situation where our negligence toward our parents is likely to result in some devastating future sadnes.” I won’t be coming to see them for Christmas ,” I would say. She would only say, “apple pie”, and I would be coming to see them for Christmas.
few years ago, my father went to see a doctor, who diagnosed him with high blood pressure and informed him to cut red meat out of his diet. A week or so later, I called to see how things were going. Tata picked up the phone. What are you doing ?” I asked.” I’m eating bacon ,” he said with no compunction whatsoever. I immediately started yelling:” Didn’t the doctor tell you not to eat red meat, and now you’re A eating bacon ?”
” It’s not red, the bacon ,” he said.” It’s all white .”
For my mothers, one of the symptoms of my having become “American” is my new fussiness in relation to food- I seem to pay too much finicky attention to my diet. When I go to visit them, I berate them for eating bacon, force them to eat fish (” We’ll be hungry in an hour “), and steam veggies instead of roasting them. For some dubious future health benefit, I deny them- as I do myself- the food they have always eaten and enjoyed. To my intellect, I practise as much dietary recklessness as the next Bosnian, but what my parents see is not so much a radical change in nutritional content as a shift in attitude.
The US approach to eating is characterised by the fundamentally puritan notion of self-denial as a means of improvement. To be healthy, one has to eliminate tempting, enjoyable foods from one’s diet. The process complies with the basic puritan operation of rejecting- indeed transcending- pleasure in order to become a better person. Many people in the US insure value in deny the desire and controlling the body, which could earn them the reward of a better, healthier and, ultimately, more moral life. This explains a number of self-disciplining US
obsessions: meaningless knee-destroying marathons, gluten-free nutrition, 0% milk, kale, yoga etc. This is where the wretchedness of traditional US cuisine comes from, as does the overreaction of compulsive eating and obesity. The basic selection is between puritan discipline of self-denial and total, unchecked, addictive indulgence- in either direction, there is little but joylessness.
To my parents, seeking health by way of self-deprivation induces no sense whatsoever. Food has always equalled survival, which is to say that the more and the better food was available, the greater the chances of survival were. Throughout my childhood, my mother would insist that” health enters through the mouth “.
Moreover, food is joy. It is joy because it contains pleasures earned by work; it is joy because it can be shared with other people; it is joy because it is life and life is a really good and healthy thing, incomparably better than any spiritual endeavour contingent upon morally rewarding self-mortification. The systemic extermination of exhilaration in the US is not only unethical but also plain stupid. There is no reasonable argument that could be made against the pleasures of bacon, let alone the bacon my father cut and smoked himself. Merely after I berated my mothers a few times( and I might do it again) for their over-enjoyment of food did I realise that, compared to them, I did become American and thus, to some extent, puritan.
he value and meaning of food is always inevitably altered, just like everything else, by displacement. For one thing, “our” food is either unavailable or scarce in the new place, at least it was at the beginning. Therefore, it becomes a mark of loss, which builds it essential for all nostalgic discourse. For years after their arrival, my mother would deliver analytical monologues on, say, the ineffable yet substantial differences between ” our” sour cream and the Canadian (” their “) kind. The authenticity of “our” food exactly matches the authenticity of our life in the past. Conversely, the inauthenticity of “peoples lives” in displacement can be tasted in “their” food. In Mama’s discourse, our sour cream is a stable category, possessing unchanging qualities correlating to the unchanging, authentic principles that guided our previous life- the principles that were violated and, indeed, destroyed by the war and subsequent displacement. T
Aleksandar Hemon’s mothers in Canada. Photograph: Courtesy of Aleksandar Hemon
Our food, in other words, expressed support for the authentic life we used to live, which is no longer available except as a model for this new, elsewhere life. It is therefore important that the food-related practises from the previous life be reconstructed in the new context. The food, if stimulated properly, might be where authenticity is partially restored, despite the displacement. While that authenticity was available in the previous life, it requires tremendous effort to rebuild it in the new one, where the torturous potential that nothing was possible to be the route it used to be is continuously present, like a big nose on a face.
This idea is best expressed in a tale I heard in Sarajevo from someone who had heard it from someone else, who, in turn, knew the person who knew the person to whom all this happened. In short, the story is true as can be, even if I fact-checked none of it, because it accumulated relevant experiences and value while passing through other people.
So: a Bosnian refugee- let’s bellow him Zaim- objectives up in some small town in the US. Life is tough, there are few friends, the family is far away and the longing for Bosnia is painful. Zaim develops a craving for spit-roasted lamb, the most universally revered food in Bosnia. He wants to do it the style it is supposed to be done- stick a whole lamb on a spit and then slowly revolve it for hours over flame and embers, sipping brew and talking to people, until it is finished. Though piecemeal lamb is available, a whole one is not. Zaim discoveries himself in some town rife with malls and megamarkets. There is everything there, except, of course, a whole lamb. In his profound craving for spit-roasted lamb, Zaim buys all the pieces needed to assemble a whole lamb: the head, the neck, the breast, the shoulders, the chops, the ribs, the legs. When he collects all the necessary parts, he staples them together. So there it is: a monstrous lamb, which man and history rent asunder, but is now put back together by a determined Bosnian, who, beer in hand, proudly and slowly revolves it over the flame. Despite the heroic endeavour, it still doesn’t savor the same.
After more than 20 years in displacement, my parents have assembled a life, nutritional and otherwise, that aimed to be a restorative replica of the previous one, but is in fact a Frankensteinian assemblage of elements old and new. They feed everything they would have been eating if they had stayed in Bosnia, even if it can be hard work to get all the stuff. They depend on their ingenuity as well as on several stores catering to people from the former Yugoslavia. But the meaning of it all has changed in displacement. Whereas what they ate in Bosnia was typical, an important part of the totality of shared experience, in Canada it induces them seem of a different, exotic world. Their nutritional doctrine is not what connects them to their surroundings, but what situates them apart. They make their food to savor of home, but it inescapably aims up having the savor of displacement.
This is an edited extract from My Parents: An Introduction/ This Does Not Belong to You by Aleksandar Hemon, published by MCD
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