All-Egg-Yolk-Fried-in-Crisco Madness: Or, A Recipe from My People

And then we got into a car and drove for a really long time.

Fifth 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.

Sometimes when we’re traveling, we’re baffled by menus. Jim is the king of this. He accidentally ordered fried minnows in Baska, Croatia. He’s been spooned all manner of guts and sinew on corn tortillas in Mexico. Once in Seattle, Jim spent all day in the hotel bathroom after ordering “whatever that old guy is having” in a Vietnamese dive. I felt so bad for him, yet at the same time admired this kind of culinary bravado.

It was both our faults the time we ordered 60 oysters in the south of France before spending five hours in the car. All that slime jostling around in your belly just doesn’t feel good when driving. (The oysters were really good, though. Definitely worth the hours-long reflux.)

And then we got into a car and drove for a really long time.

This is a strange recipe for a dish I think we accidently ordered in a restaurant in Dubrovnik. It looks to be kind of a wreck—but the recipe writer in the old book I have promises it’s wonderful. And you gotta give it some street cred. An all-yolk recipe fried in Crisco takes cajones, baby.

Does krpice sound familiar to any Croatian readers out there? What does it taste like? Is there an American equivalent?

I’m betting your family recipe box contains an insanity explosion that only you and your kind would dare to eat. Something odd that no one would believe tastes as great as it does.

Do tell.

KRPICE (BANATSKI JASTUCICI) by Mildred Blozevich

4 egg yolks, well beaten                                                8 oz. sour cream

Flour (about 3 cups)

Mix the sour cream well with the egg yolks. Slowly add flour—enough to be able to roll the dough out. Add as much flour as needed to avoid sticking to the rolling pin.

Cut rolled out dough in desired shape as thick or thin as you wish and deep fry in Crisco until golden brown on both sides.

Sprinkle with sugar and serve warm. Leftovers (allegedly) taste delicious re-warmed in a microwave.

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Ham Hock and the Family Vocabulary

Our little Ham Hock.

When Sam was a newborn, our friends Maria and Don came over to bring Jim and I a nice spaghetti and meatball dinner, and to hold the baby while we ate our portion. One of the biggest adjustments to becoming parents was not being able to sit through an entire meal (which we haven’t done much of since, now that I think of it).

So that night, I was talking to Maria about life with our new guy, Sam Hoff. Maria misheard me, and thought I was referring to my son as Ham Hock. Which, for a chubby little feller like Sam, was a great nickname. Every once in a while, Sam’s still Ham Hock to us.

Every family has it’s inside vocabulary. Because of two-year-old Zadie, we call hair clips “doties.” Also from Zadie, when we’re inappropriately disappointed in an outcome that shouldn’t have been too surprising, it’s “I can’t believe Paris isn’t pink.”

From Jim, shorthand for wanting to do something, but being prevented from actual participation, is: “I would like to go swimming with you,” a memory from when then-little nephew Tommy Hoff asked his big uncle in the dead of winter: “Hey Uncle Chum, wanna go swimmin’ wif me?”

I had a neighbor kid growing up who cat-called general lippiness with an “Ooo! Mowf!” So that’s from me and my sister, Stephanie.

What’s the insider terminology from your family?

Think on it, while you enjoy this little Ham Hock splendor, an insider recipe passed through the centuries by Croatian families.

HAM HOCKS WITH BARLEY AND POTATOES (Mary Micetich)

3-4 lbs. ham hocks, smoked                                                1 cup barley

4-5 medium-sized potatoes                                                  2 carrots, sliced

Peel and cube potatoes. Wash ham hocks in cold water. Put all ingredients in cooking pot and cover with cold water. Cook covered about two hours or until done. Meat should separate from bone. Season is not necessary, as hocks are salty. Barley can be substituted with cabbage or beans. Amount of ingredients can be adjusted to suit the amount of people you plan to serve.

 

iPad Typewriter Blows Iowa Woman’s Mind

As much as I love technology and TV, I also love the chickens in my backyard and the old family quilt.

When I see things like this, I know there’s room in this world for both. (Thanks to Kevin and NotCot.org for spotting it and making my day.)

Yes.

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.

Rick Steves is boss.

Last time I acted this giddy I was at a Prince concert.

When I talk to people about writing, a usual piece of advice is to read the crap out of writers whose work you admire. Study what they do. Emulate it, and add their chops to your own repertoire.

In addition to using his guides for my own travels, I admire Rick Steves for his work ethic. I heard him speak a few months ago, and he talked about being on the road constantly, updating his guidebooks and recommendations. He checks out everything he lists in his guides, keenly reviewing lodging, restaurants and attractions, and reporting on ways to travel better, cheaper, and more efficiently.

Not many travel journalists do this anymore (except for the food part … everybody’s a foodie now!). There are a number of reasons for this. The main one would be that magazines usually don’t pay trip expenses, newspapers never did, and freelance travel writers can’t go into the hole just to do their job, so many stories are just written from internet research.

Thus, travel journalism gets a bad rap, much of it deserved, but Rick Steves is one of the few and the proud carrying the torch. He does it, simply, because he believes the more we travel, the better the world will be. (In addition to relentless travel reporting, Steves has also built a shelter for homeless women and children with his retirement money, advocates for pot legalization, and is an active and outspoken member for the Lutheran ELCA church.)

When I got an email saying Steves wanted to interview me about Running Away to Home for his radio show, I was so excited I couldn’t breathe right. That excitement continued until the first few seconds in the radio booth. But soon I relaxed into his intelligent and thoughtful questions. He’s such a pro.

Then I marveled at Rick Steves for a new thing: His mad interviewing skills.

Here’s the link to the interview. Enjoy! I know I did.

CLICK HERE ** RICK STEVES IS AWESOME ** CLICK HERE.

The memory of language

IMG_1445

So, the other night I was at the party of dear friends who helped us get ready for our journey to Croatia. In 2009, Alma and Dino fed us traditional Slavic food and schooled us on the common customs of eastern Europe. (I am so down with the “bring your slippers to the party” tradition … you just leave your shoes at the door then slip on the fluffies.)

I was happy to go to their house again, post-trip, for a visit. At the party, Alma and Dino had invited guests from Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia, along with our friends Mark and Kelly, who brought us all together to begin with. All around me, mixing with the English, were the languages that I’d come to know so well. At one point, I just drifted over to the bookshelf, where Alma’s favorite books were lined up in a row.

Joseph Conrad's "Tales of Land and Sea"

I just stood there, outside of any group, but listening to all of them, covering up my eavesdropping by browsing her titles. It felt in so many ways like a neighborhood gathering in Mrkopalj.

Alma is a quiet woman, thoughtful, dark-haired, slender. She has one of those glowing beauties that comes from way down deep somewhere. She pulled a few of her favorite titles and showed them to me. “I love books,” she said. “But I especially love these.”

I don’t know what it was that made me choke up when I saw the translated language of books I’d known myself, but I did.

I guess I miss Croatia in more ways than I know; like it’s lurking in my subconsciousness all the time and I don’t even know the depth of it. I miss that intimate time together between Jim and the kids and me. I miss the beauty of the village. I miss the language, that bucking beast I never could get a handle on. I miss our travels.

No idea. None at all.

During readings or book clubs, people often ask me: Will you go back? I know I will, we’re just not sure when. It takes time and money, and having those two things simultaneously is somewhat of a rarity.

But deep down, when I think of it, there are parts of us that never really left Mrkopalj. I mention the name of the village, and Zadie still lights up thinking of the Starcevic girls, who were like sisters to her. Jeem talks about Robert and the guys every day. Sam, well, Sam just wants to get out of school for a long time.

I’ll leave you with the poem that Alma says has been a favorite since she was very young. She didn’t know then that the poet, Sara Teasdale, was from St. Louis, just a few hours away from what would become Alma’s new home in the 1990s.

Enjoy the language.

Let It Be Forgotten

BY SARA TEASDALE

Let it be forgotten, as a flower is forgotten,
   Forgotten as a fire that once was singing gold,
Let it be forgotten for ever and ever,
   Time is a kind friend, he will make us old.
If anyone asks, say it was forgotten
   Long and long ago,
As a flower, as a fire, as a hushed footfall
   In a long forgotten snow.
Sara Teasdale, “Let It Be Forgotten” from Flame and Shadow (New York: Macmillan, 1924). Copyright 1924 by Sara Teasdale. Reprinted with the permission of the Office for Resources, Wellesley College. Taken from the Poetry Foundation website.

Sara Teasdale, "Let It Be Forgotten"

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.

Chickens Make Me Dirty

Because I’m a mother, and because I’ve worked on farms, I know that caring for creatures makes a mess. All that input, all that output, not to mention the emotional blow-outs along the way … You work with the end goal in mind: life, well-being, sustenance.

When Jim finally agreed to chickens, I knew it would be a mess. Taking care of living beings, as we’ve established, is not a tidy process. On that first day in August when the chickens moved in, I gazed in wonder at the perfectly tidy little coop in my yard. Teeny chickens who hadn’t even made teeny poops yet, in a nice cedar box on a green grassy zone in my yard. I knew it would not last.

Here it is:

Look how neat and clean that thing is. I think the chickens were mitten-sized, tops.

Ahh, isn’t that nice? It looked that way for maybe a few weeks.

The chickens are now giant beasts. I tacked a haphazard chicken run onto that nice little coop, because they gack up the yard so bad that the kids had to wear muck boots just to play on the swing. Because I suck at building things, it looks terrible and the chickens get out all the time. I think it’s the writing gods’ way of making me get up from my desk and stretch, all the chicken escapes I have to tend to. I haven’t clipped their wings, and they’re probably bored, so there are maybe 4 jailbreaks a day. They’ve even untied garden wire to get out of the coop. God knows how that happened. Sometimes all I can do is drag a spare window or piece of fencing out of the garage to block an escape hatch until I can figure out something better.

A few months ago, Jim moved the coop, because it made our yard look like a refugee camp (he said behind the garden was a better place for it, but I know the truth).

Due to all these mutations, plus insulating for winter, here is the coop now:

I think I've seen this same design under a bridge downtown.

So yeah, my coop is a mess. But those chickens are big, happy beastie girls and I like them. Though only one of them lays eggs (get on it, ladies!), they make me get dirty. I think getting dirty is a good thing.

I spend all day running words through my head. Not very tangible work, and a very clean pursuit. It can make a woman feel fairly batty. So when I get my hands nice and muddy with actual physical labor, it levels me out. I muck out the hay. I feed and water. I patch the chicken run (over and over and over). When the chickens waddle up to me, mooching for food, I pick them up and listen to their little harrumphs and clucks, and their chicken feet get my coat muddy. It can be a pain, but it’s a good balance to that clean, quiet desk. And in the end, I get to eat eggs because of them, which is one of my favorite things to do.

Life. Well-being. Sustenance.

If I wanted a clean version of chickens, suppose I’d just make them out of paper, like these totally cute desktop free-range chickens from the blog How About Orange, that my friend Kelly just sent me. I might make them anyway, just to have auxiliary chickens. As far as I can tell, they don’t get you dirty.

Then again, they don’t lay eggs either (GET ON IT, LADIES!).

I’m writing something new.

journey

So I’ve been trying something new. I’m working on another book, and it’s fiction.

I know, I know. People have been really loving Running Away to Home, and why couldn’t I just shoot out another one just like it? In fact, I might some day. Returning to Croatia, or giving Jim more air time trying to track down where exactly he’s from (we’re not 100 percent sure), sounds like a lot of fun.

But I don’t want to do that just yet. I write magazine stories by day, and that work is regular and ordinary. I love it even more, now that I’ve experienced the long and emotional trajectory of the writing and release of a book. But they’re two radically different endeavors.

So because my day job is a steady and predictable thing, I feel like the book projects should stay sacred and fresh. I love sitting down before dawn and mapping out a storyline that literally appears from the mist. As the sun gets ready to rise, my characters come out, and they tell me what is going to happen next. I’m like a Ouiji board pointer! It’s scary in some ways, because I have so little control over it, but for that very reason, I keep at it. It’s pretty exciting stuff.

If there’s anything I learned from living the experience of Running Away to Home, it’s that diving into giant and intimidating acts might very well crush you. Probably it will crush you. But the you that emerges at the other side of the experience is better for the risk.

I can’t tell you that this new book will be exactly like my last one. But I can tell you that you’ll have the same guide on the journey. And I guarantee it’ll be an interesting ride. Again.

In that spirit, here’s a quote that I’ve kept at my desk for about 10 years now, by that one guy, Gustave Flaubert:

Be regular and ordinary in your daily life, so that you may be violent and original in your work. 

I’ll be thinking of you at dawn, when I’m out there retrieving another story from the ether. (Kind of like a pack mule, but with a laptop.) Maybe this sounds weird, but knowing you’ll be on the receiving end of my early-morning missions gets me out of bed when it’s dark and cold and the quilt is just so warm.

So thank you for the daily inspiration. Can’t wait to share my next story with you.

Up for Air!

Baaaah! Big intake of air! … I’ve returned from the murky depths of trying to get the word out about Running Away to Home. It’s good to be back on the keyboard again. Once you write a book, it seems, all you do is talk about yourself and not write.

Talking about the book for interviews, and pitching to editors and producers, sort of reduces the whole beautiful endeavor to a few brief talking points. “It’s about how my family and I sold our stuff and went to the Croatian mountain village of my ancestors” … “We never did get that recipe for rakija, but you can figure it out if you watch YouTube and can speak Bulgarian” … or, my personal favorite, “Well, not everyone can have a cow on the first floor of their house.” That was Jim, on CNN American Morning hosted by Christine Romans.

Christine and I went to college together, and we helped run the Iowa State Daily when we were students. She was an enthusiastic interviewer, and made it easy for the two rubes on the couch with her. At one point, when we were in the green room (which is not green), I slipped out to hit the bathroom after my fourth cup of free coffee. When I returned, Jim was talking to Deepak Chopra about the morality of drone missiles. Of course, Jim had no idea who he was speaking with. Here’s an excerpt of the conversation:

Jim: “Aren’t you nervous?”

Chopra: “No. I do this every day.”

Jim: “Ha! Me, too.”

So that’s doing press for a book. I’ve posted the CNN interview on the press page for this site. Photos from the weekend in New York with my sweetheart are here. I’ve posted other various interviews, including Talk of Iowa and All Things Considered, also on the press page, in case you wonder where the hell I’ve been for the past few months.

What I like best is meeting actual readers face to face. I’ve done several book signings, and those rock. People ask questions and talk about what resonated for them. Some show me old pictures or books or family keepsakes from Mrkopalj. Some complain that the book is too expensive, and I agree with them. I bring (storebought) rakija and I share, whether they think the book is too expensive or not. Some just want to say thanks for writing it, and I swear those words travel back in time to sustain the sweaty midnight writer who was just putting the finishing touches on Running Away to Home one year ago right now.

It’s pretty special to meet your readers, and to know that this thing you did was truly appreciated. It fills up the tanks in a way I’ve never experienced before.

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