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‘Bread is practically sacred’: how the taste of home sustained my refugee parents

My parents’ social life in Bosnia (and therefore their children’s) regularly featured a bunch of their friends getting together for a lot of food and drinking and singing and laughing. Nobody would ever call that endeavour “dinner” – the activity revolved around food, but could never be reduced to it. In Bosnian, the verb that describes such an activity is sjediti, which means to sit, as the whole operation consists of sitting around the table, eating, drinking and being together for the purposes of well-earned pleasure. If I want to invoke an image of my parents being unconditionally happy (not an easy task), I envision them with their friends at a table, roaring with laughter between bites of delicious fare and sips of slivovitz (damson or plum brandy) or grappa.

This would sometimes last for a whole weekend: sometimes we would go to Boračko jezero, a modest mountain-lake resort, to join my parents’ friends and their families for 1 May, the socialist Labour Day. The inextricable part of the fun and joy there was the presence of others, and the spirit of abandon reigned from morn to midnight and beyond. But the central, inescapable bonding ritual was spit-roasting a lamb that would then be shared by all. There, as everywhere we lived, food was meant to be shared, which is why it is never permissible to eat while someone else is watching and not eating. Food is other people. We hate eating alone, just as we hate being alone.

Aleksandar Hemon. Photograph: Geraint Lewis/Rex/Shutterstock

There are no records or memories of my parents ever going out on a dinner date, before or after they got married. There really was no restaurant culture in the Sarajevo of our previous life, even before the war. The restaurants were either expensive or not good, most commonly both. Not even in Canada, where they moved in 1993 as refugees, did my parents acquire a habit of going out for a meal. While Hamilton is not quite a culinary mecca, the primary reason for this reluctance is that visiting a restaurant means my parents would have to leave their zone of hard-won nutritional comfort to encounter a world of food unlikely to meet their strict requirements.

Spending money on a meal in an unknown gastronomic territory, and all that in English, while Mama’s cooking is axiomatically the best in the world and their several fridges are full of reliable food, including the already proven leftovers, would just be foolish and irresponsible. In my family, eating is not meant to be an exploration, nor an expansion of cultural experience. Part of the food pleasure is in meeting the set expectations, while its indelible utility is in providing energy for labour, and therefore for survival. Food is an existential necessity, an irreplaceable element in the structure of daily life, and it should never be fucked around with in some expensive place that also happens to be devoid of friends and family.

The only Hamilton place where the two of them might venture for a meal is the Mandarin, a Chinese restaurant featuring mounds of fried things and stewed stuff, plus very un-Chinese multilayered cake with industrial-strength frosting. The attraction to the Mandarin is largely a consequence of its all-you-can-eat wonder buffet, wherein the utopian concept of cheap and endless abundance, dreamed of by generations of Slavic peasantry, is finally fulfilled.

When my parents were growing up, there was little food, never mind bottomless buffets. As adults, they reached a level of comfort when they had enough; and then there was even more, so they took out a loan to buy a freezer in order to stock up. Their poor-people food ethos, where nothing should ever be wasted, aligned perfectly with the fact that unchecked consumption was prohibitive in socialism, everyone getting according to their ne and all that.

An aspect of ethical food management was thus always striving to avoid waste, which might be a problem when one is confronting a Chinese buffet, where all that is left uneaten might end up as garbage. I have seen my father at the Mandarin pile on so much food, then soak it with an ungodly combination of sauces on offer, that I would fear he might have a heart attack; he would eat all of it, then go for seconds and thirds. Moreover, a need to exploit the buffet and its low price to the max is a crucial part of enjoying it. There is also the pertinent fact that it is not certain, nor can it ever be, that a moment as abundant and enjoyable as this one – what with inexhaustible supplies of fried rice and spring rolls and dumplings and chicken wings – could be counted on to happen again. Eating more, beyond being full, means extending this safe and pleasurable moment, for the next one is never guaranteed; you eat now, for who knows what is around the bend? The food intake is proportional to the uncertainty of the future. This is, by the way, how I gained 40lbs after I arrived on a cultural exchange trip in the spring of 1992 and decided to stay as the threat of war was looming over my home.

Food can never be enjoyed unto itself; it is never just a sensory experience, let alone a matter of sophisticated taste. Its meaning is always dependent on the outcomes of potentially catastrophic situations, its value always assigned in the context of particular lives and histories. Taste as such has no purchase, for it is impossible to divorce the experience of eating from the constant practice of survival. Even if one eats to enjoy life, one has to stay alive first, which requires far more than merely entertaining the senses. The restaurant critics who pretend that their expert epicurean taste entitles them to evaluate food are nothing but fools who think that something as basic as eating could be objectively appraised.

Once or twice I took my parents to a white-tablecloth restaurant within my financial reach, insisting that they must enjoy the experience. Instead, they were confused by the long, convoluted descriptions of the dishes, suspicious of the server’s solicitude and pessimistic about the nutritional value of the pretty arrangement. “We’ll be hungry in an hour,” Mama would pronounce, inescapably projecting into the unstable future. In a stable, leisure-oriented world, being hungry in an hour would mean that you would simply eat in an hour. But as far as my parents are concerned, no one knows what might happen in an hour. At the very least, they might be working on something that would not allow them to stop, since hunger would only impede them from getting it done.

Aleksandar Hemon’s mother peeling potatoes. Photograph: Courtesy of Aleksandar Hemon

The bizarre thing about the very concept of the restaurant, so obvious as to be invisible, is that it is a place where strangers serve strange food to strangers, knowing absolutely nothing about what they like, about what they think, about who they are, about what their life history is. Restaurant food is impersonal, uncommunal, consumed in the isolation of public space. In my parents’ culinary universe, pleasure and perfection are achieved by generations of fine-tuning, adjusting it all to the personal preferences. Mama cooks what has been cooked by all the other women in Bosnia; Tata asks her to make his favorite dishes in the way he likes them, and she does so. What restaurant can provide that kind of service? This creates mutual psychological collaboration between them, an addictive and symbiotic food-centered operation wherein Tata gathers (shopping) and produces (smoked meat, honey) the supplies for Mama to transform them into food.

In my family, food is part of a complex system of knowledge that has its own hierarchy of value, wherein meat and bread are at the top. Meat is appreciated in all its variations: cuts, smoked meat, sausage, spit-roasted. It has inherent value because, in the peasant past, it never came from a butcher or a supermarket, but from living creatures whose numbers measured wealth, who might have had names and spent winters in the house with the family.

The value of meat was also proportional to the work it took to put it on the table. This is why vegetables have always been considered inferior. Although tending the garden takes some work, vegetables just grow, and when you want to eat them you just cut them or add them to the meat – vegetables contained no drama, they could not be given names, nor could they ever become a measure of wealth and property. Vegetables are thus tolerated for being inherently a side dish, not quite real food. Although vegetarians might be respected (if ever encountered), they are hard to understand. The choice not to eat meat implies levels of comfort and privilege few of us have ever managed to reach. My family cannot quite fathom it. Why eat only broccoli when you can eat any meat you want?

Bread, on the other hand, is practically sacred. In Bosnian, there is an idiom applicable to a saintly good person: “As good as bread.” Although it does take land and hard work to produce wheat and grind it into flour that will become dough to be kneaded and baked into bread, its symbolic value has less to do with all the effort than with the fact that it is the poor people’s most basic staple – if you have bread, you have food, and if you have food, you live. Bread, in another words, equals life. My father’s favourite expression for work is “earning a crust of bread” while my mother (and everyone I know) harbours a deep respect for bread. She used to admonish us for not leaving it on its flat side but upside down, as that is somehow disrespectful. Nor is bread ever thrown away. My grandmother and aunts made a dish from old bread called popara: they steamed the stale bread and added lard to cover up the strong undertones of mould. I make French toast for my kids after I pick the mouldy bits off an old loaf.

In my parents’ ethical universe, a portion of which could always be found in their fridge, leftovers play an important role. To throw food away is a sin against the generations of poverty. This is also why a special value is ascribed to the last and smallest edible particles: to the meat around the joint bone, to the heel of bread or to the burnt potato sticking to the bottom of the roasting pan. I was brought up to believe that these were particularly tasty, only to undergo an epiphany a few years ago, realising in a single painful moment that it was all poor people’s bullshit, nothing but peasant propaganda, ensuring that even the tiniest, unpleasant morsels are eaten and nothing is ever thrown away.

Hence my parents’ fridge is always full: apart from what is needed daily (dairy, meat, wilted vegetables), there is the stuff that awaits its final consumption: half a sausage that may be weeks old; eggs scrambled once upon a time but presently nurturing their own little colonies of living organisms; the week-old soup in a little pot covered with a saucer which my mother will retrieve a moment before it goes bad to reheat it for my father. My parents can’t throw away food, just as I can’t kill a living thing – something deep inside us, some cellular moral law, prohibits such an act. Not so long ago, I undertook a heroic effort to clean my parents’ main fridge. Two swollen garbage bags later, the fridge still appeared full, as though possessed by some magic wherein the more you take out, the fuller it gets.

A Bosnian Serb boy roasting lamb and pig near Sarajevo. Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Nothing was ever thrown away in our house. 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 container. The leftovers would never be served to guests; it was our duty to dispose of them as a family, while the most resilient remnants were to be exterminated by Tata. For some reason, one of the fatherly duties – and I fulfill it myself in my family, which is entirely oblivious to the theoretical foundations of my sacrifice – is to dispose of leftovers. “Ćale [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 necessarily related to my parents’ personal memories of hunger. Mama does not remember ever being hungry or worrying about food. Tata was only hungry after leaving his parentshome 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 threat. Their food anxieties are rooted in a shared history in which subsistence could never be guaranteed, 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 lives building offered no protection from history, which would, in the early 90s, come crashing down on their heads. Whatever food anxieties may have lessened 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 duties. 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 meal – 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 time and labour that she could put into other chores or, rarely, rest.

Grandma’s food was a conduit that transmitted love. Peasant women 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 trip of his, Mama would make a zucchini pie (tikvenjača), thus expressing whatever happiness she might have felt for having him home. These days, when she comes to visit me, she insists on making something she believes I like and crave. Sadly, my diet and tastebuds have changed, so there is less and less of her comfort 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 departure, 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 parents’ because he was nearby for work; he surprised his mother and she was so happy to see him that she decided to make his favourite pie. At incredible speed, she peeled and shredded the apples and made the dough and stretched it thin and rolled it up with the apple, cinnamon and sugar mixture inside, put it in the oven to bake 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 regret. “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.

A few years ago, my father went to see a doctor, who diagnosed him with high blood pressure and instructed 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 eating bacon?”

“It’s not red, the bacon,” he said. “It’s all white.”

For my parents, 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 vegetables 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 mind, 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 see value in denying 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 choice 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 makes 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 joy 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. Only after I berated my parents 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.

The value and meaning of food is always necessarily 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 makes it essential for all nostalgic discourse. For years after their arrival, my mother would deliver analytical soliloquies 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 our life 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.

Aleksandar Hemon’s parents in Canada. Photograph: Courtesy of Aleksandar Hemon

Our food, in other words, stands 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 practices from the previous life be reconstructed in the new context. The food, if made 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 possibility that nothing could ever be the way it used to be is continuously present, like a big nose on a face.

This idea is best expressed in a story 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 call him Zaim – ends 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 way it is supposed to be done – stick a whole lamb on a spit and then slowly revolve it for hours over fire and embers, sipping beer and talking to people, until it is finished. Though piecemeal lamb is available, a whole one is not. Zaim finds 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 purchases 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 fire. Despite the heroic effort, it still doesn’t taste 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 eat 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 makes them appear of a different, exotic world. Their nutritional philosophy is not what connects them to their surroundings, but what sets them apart. They make their food to taste of home, but it inescapably ends up having the taste 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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