What I Miss Today

Often what I miss about our year away is that closeness as a family.

Yes, it could get annoying to be surrounded by my people 24/7. Claustrophobic even. But after we came home, life swept us back into its current. Though we make an effort to stay tight, I think a certain degree of separation is inevitable over the years. I suppose it’s natural to let nostalgia color that time. “Remember when we were together so often that going to the bathroom seemed like a little vacation? Yeah, I miss that.”

These days, Sam is heading into the tween years. Jim and I are glimpsing a new teenager attitude in our smiley-faced boy. It’s not offensive so much as it is a sign: Someday he will leave us and go his own way. Same with Zadie. It’s the natural progression of life, I suppose. But it can sure make a mama melancholy every now and then.

These photos were taken on a family hike just outside the village. One of the weird and wonderful adventures in Mrkopalj that is on my mind today—and not just because we got lost and thought we might have to eat someone in our party.

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A Scoop of Sweet

Lots of savory dishes have made their way onto the recipe waterfall of this blog as we’ve gotten ready for the paperback version of Running Away to Home, released tomorrow on October 2, including both antique recipes and travel photos.

How time has flown! Just one year ago, I was anxiously wondering what would happen when this book that had been my life for so long would be released for others to see. I hoped people would be kind to this third baby of sorts. I was entirely unprepared for all the good will, family connections and outpouring of love from readers that Running Away to Home would bring back to me.

Way back in Draft One, in Rovinj … probably a little cup up super-crank hot coffee just outside the frame here. Note all the terra cotta tiles outside the window. And the little orange post-its that would turn into plot points someday.

I thank everyone for such glad returns. I would like to thank you today with something sweet.

It’s time for a dessert, something Croatians are particularly good at.

This recipe was Josephine Golick’s. Anyone know if that’s the same Golick from Mrkopalj, the family that ran the store across the street from my family on Novi Varos? I’d love to know.

Enjoy this funky little dish with hot coffee on a crisp fall morning as the leaves are turning. Here’s how you do it: Put Sterc in your favorite bowl and set in the middle of the table, scooping up spoonfuls and dipping in your coffee or milk.

Love to all of you!

CRUMBED COFFEE CAKE (STERC) by Josephine Golick and Delores Sisul

1 c sugar                                                                      1 ¼ c Crisco

3 eggs                                                                           1 c milk

½ t salt                                                                        1 t baking powder

3 1/2 -4 c flour                                                           1 t vanilla

 

Measure flour and baking powder. Set aside. Cream shortening and sugar, add vanilla and salt. Add eggs and beat until well blended. Add flour and milk alternately, beating well until dough forms a sticky ball and holds its shape.

In a medium hot pan, 10- or 12-in skillet, melt ½ c Crisco. Add dough and start chopping and turning at a steady pace until dough becomes of crumb consistency (your preference of fine or medium-sized crumbs). Watch dough carefully while constantly chopping or turning so it doesn’t get too brown. Lower heat if necessary. About 35-40 min.

Soon It Will Be the Season for Making Sausage.

Seventh in a series of antique family recipes—from myself and others—celebrating the paperback release of Running Away to Home on October 2, which will include recipes from the village and photos of our journey. 

Drazan’s smokehouse. He’s boiling head cheese in that kettle.

We ate some version of sausage or bacon at most meals in Mrkopalj. Drazan Horacek had his own smokehouse—Mario helped make it, and we wish they’d come to the States and build one for us—and he’d smoke hams and prosciutto and boil head cheese in there after the November pig slaughtering weekend. I had to ease off the meat for a while there, because on our tight budget I couldn’t afford new pants.

However, now that we’re home, and my YMCA membership is again up and running, I’m back on the meat train.

Here’s a recipe for making your own fresh kielbasa. It’s surprisingly easy. You can either get a sausage stuffing kit (which you can use for your spring zelodac, too) or cut a 2-liter bottle in half for a makeshift stuffer.

Any other tips from those who have made sausage out there?

 

FRESH KIELBASI by Helen Bubenyak

4-5 lbs pork shoulder

1 T salt

1 ¼ t pepper

1 t marjoram

2 cloves garlic, chopped very fine

½ c water

Grind meat and add remaining ingredients. Blend well and put into casings. To cook, barely cover with water and simmer for 1 ½ hours.

 

Making blood sausage at Zjelko and Andjelka’s house.

 

Sausage making day in Mrkopalj. Always first weekend in November.

 

Drazan getting the prosciutto and ham ready.

 

Hooves!

Antique Recipes and Running Away to Home 2.0

Robert and Jeem messing around on the day of Robert’s potato harvest. They spent a lot of time taking pictures of the weird ones.

The Running Away to Home paperback comes out Oct. 2. To celebrate the new edition, with travel photos and antique recipes, I’m kicking off a blog series about foods passed down through the generations.

These first recipes were gathered by the good Croatian-Americans of Centerville, Iowa. For years, this former coal mining community gathered for Croatia Fest to celebrate Croatian history, food and song. (Incidentally, they also have a gorgeous library with a stained-glass domed ceiling that houses some great genealogy information).

When I wrote Running Away to Home, one theme stayed in my mind: When we forget our connections with the rest of the world, we lose what it means to be Americans in the first place.

For my family, the best way to keep those connections is through food. Centerville published Croatia Fest recipe books, which reader Patty Timmens shared. That’s where our first recipes will come from.

Here’s the first line of the first paragraph of the first book (firsts!):

It is believed that the first home of the Croatians may have been situated in present day Afghanistan, located in Turkey in 500 B.C.

Did you even know that? I didn’t. Always thought I was full-on European white girl, and here comes a revelation to blow that thought so much further east.

We’re all connected.

I hope you’ll consider contributing your family’s antique recipes, too, be they Croatian or Czech or French or Norwegian or African or Pakistani or Indian or Latin. We all need to eat, and we all love our home foods. To share a family recipe handed down through the generations, send it to me via email by clicking here and I’ll publish it on this blog or email the document to jen@jennifer-wilson.com.

It’s a common connection. And a tasty one, too. Let’s eat!

Mrkopalj knew how to plant a garden—great potatoes in particular. Here’s a recipe to use the fresh ones coming into season. Sprinkle on fresh herbs for extra tastiness. Or bacon! Bacon always works.

POTATO SOUP (JUHA OD KRUMPIRA) by Helen Bubenyak

2 T butter                                                            1 T chopped parsley

2 T chopped onions                                         ½ c chopped celery

2 ½ t salt                                                            2 c diced potatoes

1/8 t pepper                                                        2 c water

1 t flour                                                                3 c milk

Heat butter in one-quart saucepan, until lightly browned. Add onions and fry slowly until yellow and tender. Then add salt, pepper and flour. Blend well.

Add parsley, celery, potatoes and water. Mix thoroughly, cover, place over high heat (about 3 to 5 minutes). Reduce to low and cook 15 minutes, until potatoes are tender. Add milk. Heat thoroughly. Serves 6.

The Naming of a Chicken.

Coupla girls.

Annie Jones, the Bearded Lady of My Backyard! Thank you to Jen Hansen of Eden for the name suggestion. For those of you just tuning in, I name my chickens once they start laying. Annie earned her name last week, with the help of blog readers.

Though Annie’s eggs may be tiny, her heart is quite large, and she never gets crabby when we want to hold her. The other chickens seem to pick on Annie a little, maybe because she’s just a little bit smaller than the rest. Shy ones always get the brunt of it.

And to think that Annie nearly ended up in a stew pot because she just couldn’t seem to get those ovaries moving. (Even now, Fried Eggs Annie in my mind means fried eggs that are the circumference of golf balls.) But we’re so glad we did not eat her now.

I’ve got six laying hens in my yard.

Sometimes the thought of it still makes me laugh.

Annie's namesake.

Meet Beverly: A Tribute Chicken

What is this space machine you point in my general direction?

Well hello! How’s this lukewarm winter treating everyone? Here, it’s a chance to do a little more tinkering with the chicken set-up and rake up those leaves we didn’t get to this fall, when Running Away to Home first came out and I was internally FREAKING OUT instead of raking leaves. All better now!

So we’ve tried to avoid naming the chickens, because there is still an outside chance we will eat them someday. I know, I know. I’ve wavered on this one. But if we’re going for the full farming experience, I can’t skip the hard part of the circle of life, right? Maybe. The jury is still out. Sam gets pale every time I mention that one of the Ameraucanas still isn’t laying, and she should eventually be useful in some way. Sam points out that Willa, our schnoodle, is also not very useful, but we don’t eat her.

We all know Muffy has a name, because she has shared her coop experience here on this blog. But recently, we’ve named another chicken, in honor of a powerhouse of a woman. The kind of woman who will change how you see things. Do you know someone like that?

Meet Beverly.

I first met this whirling dervish of activity (also known as my best friend Amy’s mom) on a small farm just outside of Colfax. I was a fourth grader.

Beverly had waist-length white hair, and she was a lawyer, a farmer, and a former social worker. Her idea of casualwear was (and is) Carhartt work pants. She was also a screamin’ feminist in a small town where such things weren’t so much appreciated. She pinned an ERA button onto my jean jacket, and away we went.

Beverly and I have been friends ever since. She’s always shown by example that a woman can do whatever she wants to do, as long as she doesn’t much care what others think. Bev also taught me that you can gain momentum as you age, also as long as you don’t much care what people think. Thus, I bought my first flock of chickens just as I’ve begun to sprout a few gray hairs. (Only a few. Like maybe ten so far.)

Bev went to law school in the 1970s when she was raising twin babies, largely alone. She ran her farm, which had goats that she occasionally kept indoors because she liked them very much. She also kept bees, harvested her own grapes to make preserves, and did not prohibit me from swearing in her presence, which was one of my favorite pastimes as a fourth-grader. She laughed at my Mr. Bill jokes, called me a writer from the time that we met, and, like the women in Mrkopalj, Bev taught me that herbal remedies and eating your own food (grown in your presence) are the first line of defense in living a healthy life.

And so, this fiesty and gorgeous Rhode Island Red, a layer so prolific and so efficient that she’s in and out of the laying box before most of the chickens have even gotten off the roost, is Beverly.

A poultry powerhouse. May she live up to her honorable name. Do you know someone who changed your perceptions of how things should be? Yes? You should tell them. You really should.

Love on the radio.


Nerdy! And proud. Photo by John Pemble.

It’s been pretty cool telling people about Running Away to Home over the course of the past few weeks. I’m really proud of my book. In it, I got a chance to tell a story the way I’ve always wanted to: As if I were speaking, relatively unedited, to a good friend. That’s some fortunate stuff for a writer.

During the publicity blitz, I got a chance to be on public radio. When I was in high school, I was a weekend disc jockey for local Big Band radio station, KCOB/KLVN Newton. I really loved that job, even though the kid got all the crappy hours, eating a Big Mac on Christmas Day in the control room, trying really hard not to feel sorry for myself as the Andrews Sisters sang in the background. I loved reading the news. I loved announcing the weather. I loved telling what little history I knew about the music — “Too Fat Polka” was my favorite song. Maybe a Croatian thing?

I loved working on the radio so much that I would clean the whole first floor of the station during my shift, just so they’d want to keep me there until I left for college.

So being on Iowa Public Radio was a return to this thing that I forgot how much I loved. Have you ever done that? Loved something when you were young, then just sort of forgot it as the years passed by? I loved that hot, close control room. I loved taking a real quick sip of coffee during breaks. (I stole the mug. Sorry IPR.) I didn’t feel awkward or self-conscious–which is always the sign that you’re doing something right. I’ve never succeeded in a job or a friendship or a relationship of any kind when I felt overly aware of my shortcomings.

Good friendships, good love, and good job fits always seem to have that sense of ease about them, even though you’re working your heart out underneath it all.

(Not) making moonshine.

We're using these to make apple vinegar. Or apple cake. Maybe applesauce.

There’s a passage in the book where I try desperately to get the village recipe for rakija, the clear-as-water Mrkopalj moonshine that, toward the end of our stay, kick-started my days with my neighbor ladies. (Don’t judge. It’s purely a digestive.)

No one would give me that recipe. And seriously? We talked about everything together. Everything–except for that recipe. I only knew that in Mrkopalj, it was made from apples. And it tasted like fruity paint thinner. And, as Baka Ana assured me, “Rakija helps a mother through the days.”

So, it’s been driving me nuts, during peak apple season here in Iowa, that I don’t have that rakija recipe.

But there sure is a lot of information on the Internet about making fruit brandy.

It’s really not all that hard.

Though, it being a federal offense at all, I would certainly not make it.

Still, it gets a woman wondering. And there sure are a lot of apples around here. …

I’ll be around.

the baka

 

Well, tomorrow is the big day. The book is finally out, and copies will be propped on bookstore shelves or sent in the mail.

Stephen King, in his awesome book On Writing, calls the reading of a book a particular form of magic. I mean, tomorrow if you get your copy, you will travel through time. You will return to October 2008 when Jim and I first started batting around this idea to walk away from everything we knew, and return to something we’d always known. You will then follow me around Mrkopalj, Croatia, without ever leaving your reading nook, or your lawnchair at soccer practice, or the confines of your bathroom. It really is a pretty amazing thing, when you think about it.

Hopefully, you’ll want to talk about the book when you finish it. Maybe tell your friends. Suggest it to your book club. Or maybe just shoot me a note, and ask me a question. I hope that you do any of these. And if you want to chat in person, I’ve got a few events coming up. You can take a look at my events calendar on this website to see when you can get a signed copy of Running Away to Home, or maybe just ask me that burning question: What did a sheep brain taste like? Because I will tell you that. Maybe you’ll even meet Jeem and the kids.

But starting tomorrow, you’ll definitely get to meet some of the best people ever. Robert, whom most early readers love the best so far. Stefanija, my steady guide and savvy friend. Pasha, the tough guy with the big heart. Marijan, the voice of gold. Jasminka and Mario, our first neighbors and parents of the hottest Olympian I know. Pavice and Manda and Viktor and Zeljko and Anjelka and all our family in the village.

Hold on, friends. And enjoy the trip!

And now I have chopped down a tree.

Okay, fine, to be totally honest, my buddy Inman did much of the chopping, and it was his chainsaw, too. But I couldn’t help clapping my hands in glee when that first dead birch tree came crashing down in my yard.

In Mrkopalj, you could tell a lot about people by how they stacked their wood, and wood was the sustaining force of the village. (Wood, and the hard-working women.) When my woodpile outside was getting low, Inman offered to help me take down some dead trees in the yard to re-fill it. And yes, we still have a real fireplace. No, I have no intentions of retiring it because it’s not supposed to be eco-friendly. I drive a Prius to justify that refusal.

I went wood-chopping with my dad when I was a kid, and I spent the majority of my winter nights in childhood lying on the stone hearth in front of our fire. The stone would warm up as the night went on, and I read “like a wolf eats,” to quote Gary Paulsen, author of Hatchet, which we just read to the kids, and which is also celebratory about fire and the making of it. (Best read-aloud ever, by the way.)

So I associate fire with happiness and warmth and reading myself into another world, and the way my dad could split wood like Paul Bunyan. I pride myself on once starting a fire with one match at Camp Buckskin in northern Minnesota (never happened again, by the way). Last winter, Jim and I liked to wear all our sweaters from the time we spent in Mrkopalj, and point out the burn marks from the wood burning stove there.

This winter, I will associate fire with the warm fall night Inman came over, and we made firewood that the kids hauled and stacked, with Zadie so pumped from the work of it that she asked when we were all finished and way sweaty: “Anything else you’d like me to do, Mom?”

She’ll remember last night the way I remember chopping wood with my Dad, I’m betting.

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