How Food Helped Me Fall in Love with My Croatian Heritage Again
It all started in my grandmother's kitchen...
Being Croatian is something that I take an enormous amount of pride in. In fact, one of my all-time favorite things to write about is what it was like growing up in a Croatian-American household as a kid. If you don’t believe me, just give this roast lamb, fig or chocolate layer cake story a read; take it from me, you’re in for a sentimental ride. There are so many reasons I love being Croatian: I'm able to speak, read and write in an entirely different language; I travel to Croatia every summer and get to see the other half of my family. But another really large part of it has to do with the food I grew up eating, and the many meals I’ve shared with my parents and my twin sister at our kitchen table.
I haven’t always been aware of just how important food has been in shaping the love I have for my Croatian heritage, though. In fact, there was even a brief moment where I altogether shied away from Croatian food. My ears still sting when I think back to the day I was sent home from school with a handwritten letter from my first grade teacher. In it, she implored my parents to never again send me to school with a lunchbox full of sremska kobasica (otherwise known as cured pork sausage) because “the smell was too disruptive to my classmates' learning environment.” Yep...
Sremska kobasica had been one of my favorite things to eat at that time, and I still find myself smiling whenever I think back to how excited I used to get as I accompanied my dad all the way to Astoria, Queens to buy us a bag full of the spicy, briny links. My twin sister, Nicole, had never been much of a fan of the sausage, and my mom only ever ate a little bit of it at a time, so purchasing and eating it became a sort of bonding experience for my dad and me. I literally begged both my parents to let me take some of it to school that fateful day.
But after that experience, I refused to eat sremska kobasica for a really long time. With just one person’s opinion, my love for it completely vanished. I made my mom fill my lunchbox with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Lunchables and Go-Gurt sticks for the rest of that school year. I remember my seven-year-old self wanting nothing more than to fit in with my classmates. And though there was absolutely nothing wrong with those classic lunches (I could live off of peanut butter and jelly today if I needed to), I can see now how conforming to them also clouded how I saw other parts of my culture.
Though I continued to eat Croatian delicacies like strukli (cottage cheese-stuffed crepes), burek (phyllo dough spirals stuffed with meat, potatoes, salty cheese or sweet apples), cevapi (grilled meat made from minced pork, beef and lamb) and krostule (crispy dough knots), I did so only in the privacy of my own home with other Croatians around me, not wanting the “foreign” side of my “Croatian life” to mesh with what my teacher had deemed as my acceptable “American side.”
Suddenly all the enthusiasm I felt when talking about the unique traditions that made my Christmases and Easters different from everyone else’s, or recounting all the fun adventures I had chasing livestock on my grandmother’s farm in Croatia, became a secret. It was like I was living a double life; the identity I loved, and the identity others wanted me to embrace were on opposing sides. What followed was a few years of not adequately appreciating the beautiful gift that was my one-of-a-kind heritage.
Thankfully, this all began to change when I started making Croatian dishes from scratch with my grandmother as a teenager. There was something truly magical and transformative about watching my immigrant grandmother make traditional Croatian desserts with her very own hands. Her two signature dishes were fritule (raisin-filled dough fritters) and pogača (citrus-flavored Easter bread). I must have watched her make both dishes a thousand different times, yet with each occurrence I could feel my love for both Croatian food and my Croatian heritage reigniting with every roll, scrape and zest.
It was my grandmother walking me through these two delicious recipes, and watching her recount all the different times she, too, had made them with her own mother, that I realized my culture — and all the foods that are so intrinsic to it — was something I was truly lucky to have. Once, my grandmother literally had to barter a cow in exchange for eggs, so that she could make fritule for her younger sister’s birthday; surely, I could eat it without embarrassment in a roomful of school children.
Not only do these recipes and foods link me to so many people, memories and moments that have come before me, they make me absolutely unique from any other Michelle out there. Yes, my lunchbox was filled with things that were very different from what the other kids around me had in theirs. And yes, I had brought some smelly sausage to school one day for lunch. But none of that was a bad thing! Maybe it wasn’t my teacher’s or my classmates’ idea of a truly delicious meal, but it was mine.
Slowly but surely, sremska kobasica and other Croatian delicacies made their way back into my lunchbox — and most importantly — my heart. Today, I’m the one who's constantly begging my mom to open our Croatian cookbooks and try our hands at making some new and authentically Croatian dish. Though the lunchbox incident was a painful one, it allowed me to see that the differences between my “Croatian and American sides” shouldn’t be kept hidden. Rather, they should be celebrated and shown off as loudly, and as deliciously, as humanly possible.