A Birthday Wish for My Daughter Turning Two

A bit of a departure from my usual focus, but something that was very much on my mind and in my heart. 

Dear Cookie,

Tomorrow you’ll turn two years old and the past few days I’ve found myself feeling nostalgic, remembering all of the little moments and delights you’ve brought to my life. I’ve been blessed with a front-row seat to your discoveries many of them based on physical milestones–walking, running, climbing, holding objects of different sizes, even turning the pages of a book–and your own personal marvel at all of the things your body can do. It’s been quite a journey. 

As I bathed and dressed you tonight I saw how long your thighs (of all things) have grown, but was tickled to see that they’re still soft and round with little pockets of pudge. Like cream puffs.  How I love them. And how much you’ve enjoyed them. Your thighs are responsible for so much you’ve seen and discovered over the past two years. Without your thighs, would you have been able to climb the rope ladders at the gym, chase our dog, trudge through the snow, swim in the pool? Would you be the same girl you are, you’re becoming without such experiences? And yet as I admired them it struck me that qualities such as pastry-like thighs are unfortunately, in our culture, only valued in the very young.  Ten years from now, will you want your mom (or anyone else for that matter) to notice your thighs, much less compliment them for being anything but thin? skinny? lean?  For your birthday my girl, I’ve decided to make my own wish. A wish for you and your thighs. 

My wish is that you will escape the disease that afflicts so many American women today–the turn from appreciating our bodies and the way they bring us through the world (and others miraculously into it) to the scrutiny, obsession and unnecessary shame over how our bodies look. That a woman who has always been thin is writing this to you demonstrates how sinister, deceptive and blinding this disease can be. For it wasn’t until I had you that I learned to appreciate what my body can do rather than how it looks. My wish is that you will not follow in these footsteps. 

My wish is that you will remember the light you felt when you took your first steps.

My wish is that you will not forget how your thighs allow you to run, jump, and climb. That should you find yourself years from now jogging in place on a treadmill at the gym it’s because such exercise makes you feel good and clears your mind, not because you enjoyed a slice (or four) of your own birthday cake the night before. The woman running on the treadmill next to you will be sweating to change the shape and size of her thighs oblivious to the fact that they are the reason she is able to run at all. May you be spared such an ironic fate.

May you never wrap a towel around your waist at the pool because you don’t want others to see you jiggle.

May you never circle your thigh or any other part of you with a tape measure.

May you never own a scale which, like so many other numbers, measures nothing.

May you always see food as one of the great joys of this world, one that brings people together; and may you never see food as an enemy–something to fear and feel shame over. May you recognize how lucky you are to have access to food at all.

May a mirror never make you cry. Or even make you shake your head.

May you realize that the people in this world worth your time, worth a place in your heart, are those who don’t care what size your thighs (or anyone else’s) are.

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This is my wish for you, my sweet girl with thighs like rum babas.

Love,

Mama

ps–Off to bake your birthday cupcakes.

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Bosanski Lonac–Beef & Cabbage Stew

It’s New Year’s Eve!–a big holiday in Bosnia where children get gifts, large meals are consumed, beer and spirits are drunk, and fireworks are set off in every neighborhood. As I’m writing this, 2013 has already begun in Bosnia. My sister-in-law Jasmina is no doubt putting her feet up after hosting friends and family with a multi-course feast.

On our corner of the globe we’re still recovering from Christmas and the weather has been bitter cold and windy.  I can think of few meals more comforting and belly-warming than a good stew. This is the first Bosnian meal I’ve ever had and the first meal Jas cooked for me when we were dating. It defies all the rules of good-stew making–  the meat is placed into the pot raw with vegetables, seasoning and water and it’s simmered until every sweet ingredient melts in your mouth. Have some bread on hand to mop up all the yummy broth and life is good.

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You want your veg to be a decent size so they don’t dissolve into the stew.

Start with the seasoned meat.

Start with the seasoned meat.

Layer with veg (we left the peppers out of this one).

Layer with veg (we left the peppers out of this one).

Layer cabbage and seasoning.

Layer cabbage and seasoning.

Continue layering ingredients until the pot is full, then submerge ingredients with boiling water.

Continue layering ingredients until the pot is full, then submerge ingredients with boiling water.

It's not the prettiest dish--but one taste and you won't care.

It’s not the prettiest dish–but one taste and you won’t care.

Here’s the complete recipe:

Bosanski Lonac–Beef & Cabbage Stew

  • 1- 1.5 lbs beef chuck cut into cubes
  • 1 lg. carrot cut into large chunks
  • 5 potatoes cut into large chunks
  • 1/2 head of cabbage cut into chunks
  • 1/2 onion quartered
  • 2 tomatoes cut into chunks
  • 2 cubanel peppers cut into chunks (optional)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 Tbs. vegeta (spice blend) separated
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil (separated)
  • Boiling water to cover
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Drizzle some of your olive oil in the bottom of your stew pot/ dutch oven. Sprinkle all of the beef with 1 Tbs. vegeta and layer half of it in the bottom of pot. Top with a layer of onion, carrots, potatoes, peppers and tomatoes. Top with a layer of cabbage. Sprinkle the cabbage with vegeta and drizzle some though not all of the leftover oil on top. Repeat the layers until you have no more ingredients. Tuck the bay leaf into the pot and add salt and pepper to taste. Add your boiling water to cover all of the ingredients and bring the whole pot to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 2 hours. Check if the stew is done by forking a piece of beef–if it’s fork tender, you’re ready to eat. If not, continue simmering and check every 15 minutes.

Yields: 4 – 6 servings

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Christmas Breakfast Bosnian-Style–Palacinke

For years I’ve struggled to figure out how to inject a little Bosnia into our Christmas celebration. Before we started dating, Jas never celebrated Christmas and so the holiday has always been an onslaught of Italian-American tradition. I’ve asked Jas if he wanted to add an extra dish to either the Christmas Eve or Day menus, or if there are any other traditions he’d like to incorporate but again, as he’d never celebrated it before, such traditions did not exist. Until now.

One morning, a few months ago Jas announced he was in the mood for palacinke (pah-lah-cheen-kay) and began whipping up a batch. Palacinke are Bosnian-style pancakes similar to the French crepe though a bit sturdier and while the crepe is eaten both savory or sweet at varying times of the day, palacinke are always served sweet as a snack or dessert. They are filled with nutella, chocolate, ground walnuts, or jam (strawberry or plum). They are not breakfast food and yet that didn’t stop Jas from fulfilling his craving one morning. As I watched him whisk the batter, ladle it in large circles onto a hot griddle and then flip the pancake the air–it hit me. Why not bring Bosnia to Christmas breakfast?

Chocolate palacinke served with ice cream at a cafe in Bosnia.

Chocolate palacinke served with ice cream at a cafe in Bosnia.

Christmas breakfast has always been a mixed bag in my family. Some years my mom would make apple fritters dipped in beer batter and dusted with cinnamon-sugar–a heavenly concoction and one that I quickly abandoned after trying it myself one year. Deep frying on Christmas morning prior to preparing all of the other Christmas Day foods does not a happy girl make. Other years we’d have scrambled eggs with bacon, or almond olive oil cake with macerated oranges, while others we’d simply nibble on some Christmas cookies or dip into the platter of leftover struffoli (Italian cookie/pastry). This year we made Bosnian pancakes.

Or, Jas made Bosnian pancakes. On Christmas morning. In his pajamas. Hair askew. While he whisked, ladled and flipped (did I mention he flips them in the air? It’s one of the reasons I married him), I arranged the fillings on a serving tray. Again, traditionally palacinke are filled with Nutella, jam or ground walnuts. I added some French touches to the choices such as butter, powdered sugar, granulated sugar, cinnamon and orange zest. I stopped short of placing some cheese and ham on the tray for those who might be in a savory mood–it’s good to adapt but some changes fall into the realm of sacrilege.

Once the pancakes were ready we simply placed them out with the tray of fillings and let everyone help themselves. It’s true–palacinke are strictly a Bosnian dessert, but if you can’t eat dessert for Christmas breakfast, then what’s the point of it all?

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Cookie enjoying palacinke with Nutella.

Here’s the recipe:

Bosnian Pancakes (Palacinke)

  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/4 cup sparkling water or water
  • 1 Tbs. sugar
  • Pinch of salt

Whisk all ingredients together. Melt 4 Tbs. butter. Drizzle the butter into a hot 8 inch frying pan. Then pour in about 1/4 cup batter. Tip the pan until the batter fills the bottom (should look like a giant pancake). When the edges start to curl up, flip the pancake and cook for another 60 seconds. Flip into a large plate. Repeat until you have no more batter left.

Pass palacinke at the table with Nutella, jam, and/ or ground nuts. You can fold them into triangles as seen above, or roll them up.

Yields: about 12 pancakes

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Casting the First Ballot

On Election Day when that curtain shuts behind me it may as well shut out the rest of the world. To be given a moment to voice who I want to run our country is an incredible gift and I’m always filled with excitement and hope when I’ve exercised this right. This Election Day was particularly thrilling though as it was Jas’s very first chance to participate having been sworn in as a citizen of the United States in 2011.

Jas’s swearing in ceremony had immediately followed his citizenship test something neither of us was aware of, so Cookie and I weren’t with him and didn’t get to officially celebrate the end of all the applications for travel visas, passport delays at  international airports, and interviews on the legitimacy of our marriage at the office of Immigration & Citizenship Services. Becoming a citizen in Jas’s case was  a bit anticlimactic. And so Election Day became a family event.

As we drove to the West Orange Elks, I thought of the exchange we’d had the night before.

“Gotta get up early tomorrow. Big day,” Jas said.

“I know! Are you excited?” I asked.

“Totally.  Do you think they’ll have food there?”

“No (sigh).”

Arriving at the West Orange Elks.

Signing in.

 

 

Waiting in line.

Jas’s number.

Almost there.

Welcome.

Voting.

Wahoo!

I don’t know if you’re supposed to have a blast when voting, but we did. Cookie danced around the wood floor  and tried to figure out her mittens. Jas wondered aloud if he should join the Elks. After he cast his ballot, I stepped into the booth and had my own trying time figuring out the electronic board. In the past I’d always voted via the old-fashioned manual panels, so Jas had to step in and respond to my cries for help.

“Hey! I can’t figure this out!”

“I’m such a pro at this I had to show you how to vote” he laughed.

And despite my assurances to the contrary, it turned out that Jas did have a chance to pick up some food.

Nut loaves baked by the lovely wives of the Elks.

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Crows–The Sole Superstition

When it comes to superstitions I’ve always thought of Jas as a man without. I on the other hand, having grown up with a family that may have written the book on superstitions, follow more than I’d like to admit sometimes almost involuntarily. Jas smirks when I toss salt over my left shoulder after accidentally tipping the shaker, jumps when I screech not to put new shoes on the bed, and as for my refusal to take loved ones to the airport?–that he finds understandably annoying. Though the Bosnian culture is ripe with a myriad of superstitions on everything from coffee drinking to weather predicting, I’ve never heard him express or seen him act on one. Until we went shopping for Halloween.

When we arrived at Party City Jas shot towards the costumes and I headed towards the decorations. Almost immediately I came across an entire shelf lined with ravens and Poe sang in my mind. Perfect, I thought,  and plunked one into my basket as Jas rounded the corner wearing a blue afro and an eye-patch.

“What are you supposed to be?” I asked.

“I’m a disco dancer.”

“Well…what happened to your eye?”

“Someone poked it doing the hustle,” he replied while looking into the basket. “Wait,” he said lifting the eye patch, “what the hell is that?”

“Oh! A raven! Isn’t it great?” He looked at me blankly.

“You know, like Poe’s The Raven.”

No reaction.

“‘Once upon a midnight dreary….'”

Still nothing.

“‘Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore’?” I followed.

“It looks like a crow” he said.

“I guess you could call it that. Aren’t they different birds though?” I asked scrutinizing it.

“What’s it for?” Jas asked.

“What do you mean? It’s for Halloween. I’m going to put it on the mantle,” I said excitedly.

“I don’t like it,” he said frowning.

I took another look at it.

“This is the best one,” I said. “I checked all the others on the shelf. This one has the smoothest feathers and the best face.”

“No, no” he said shaking his head. “This…it’s…not a good thing.”

At this point I was totally perplexed. Holiday decorating usually falls under my purview, particularly Halloween as it’s a holiday Jas doesn’t have much use for.

Noting the confusion on my face he continued, “In Bosnia, crows are very bad luck. We can’t bring that into our house. Put it back.”

Later, I’d learn that crows are feared universally throughout the Bosnian hills. Believed to be harbingers of sickness and death, should one land on your house it’s only a matter of time before a loved one is struck down.

“Ok but it’s not a crow it’s a raven” I argued.

“Nice try. Put it back” he said.

“But…but Jas!” I cried. “What about Poe? Nevermore? Lenore!”

“Leave it Ducati” he said walking off, blue afro bouncing.

With much effort, I returned the bird to its perch. Not because I’m the type of woman who falls in line upon her husband’s demands and requests, but because if there’s anything life has taught me it’s that when someone you know walks under ladders, befriends black cats, and opens umbrellas indoors suddenly expresses a superstition, then you listen.

As for my dreams of a raven adorned Halloween mantle? Nevermore.

In the spirit of the season, if you know any superstitions, please post them.

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My Favorite Bosnian Word

Milton had it wrong. It wasn’t an apple that Eve plucked and ate at the serpent’s goading. The Tree of Knowledge? More like a vine rising into the sky, dripping with seductive red globes. Surely the serpent wasn’t that crafty. Tomatoes. Is any fruit more tempting? More paradisiacal?

Bosnians would agree with me. Or, at least their language does as the word for tomato is paradajz (pah-rah-dye-z).  It was one of the first words I picked up on my own while in Bosnia. Surrounded by family at the dinner table, my niece’s requests and the resulting slice of tomato speared and passed to her gave my heart a little trill. Of course, the tomato.

As the season ends I find myself scavenging the farmer’s markets for the last remnants of the crop.  Sliced and drizzled with olive oil then seasoned with salt, pepper and torn basil, the juices mopped with bread or even enjoyed round and naked, bitten into like an apple tomatoes in all of their incarnations, feed the soul.   Can you imagine a life without them? Their transmutable nature that simultaneously brings both sweet and savory to the plate? Close your eyes and try to imagine it. My childhood disappears as does the map of Italy.

Preparing dinner last night– a simple tomato sauce for spaghetti– I couldn’t help but marvel at the miracles of the modern world as I cranked the can opener and lifted the lid revealing the plum variety from San Marzano. I slipped them into a pan of sizzling garlic and crushed them with the back of a wooden spoon, grateful that none of us ever have to truly lose paradise.

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Our First Bajram

My sister-in-law Jasmina was my go-to source for how to bring Bajram into our home in America. She wrote about it so beautifully, there’s no way for me to improve on it. So here is the traditional description of how Bosnians celebrate Bajram as written by Jasmina:
***
“Ramadan is this whole month of fasting, that is Ramadan. My favorite holiday. I love the smell of it, it comes with food, traditional meals that are served every night for those who fast. I love the togetherness that comes with it. Special bread that bakeries make. I love everything about it, mostly, exchanging recipes and ideas with Dad….
The last day of Ramadan is one of our biggest religious holidays called Bajram. Bajram is on Sunday. It starts with the sunrise, men go to the Mosque for a special prayer, they meet up with friends and neighbors after for coffee,  and then they all go home where Bajram starts with their family in the house. Our parents usually started that with their coffee. Mom would have the TV on with the Bajram melodies and words of prayer from the Mosque. She would wait for Dad to come home from the prayer and they would have coffee. We would all say happy bajram to each other and than go to Grandma’s for the special Bajram lunch. The tradition is that you go to the eldest (parents) in the family first for lunch…. After…you visit the  the eldest neighbors.
At each house you would at least have coffee and Bajram cakes. The traditional Bajram cakes are baklava, later people expanded that repertoire of cakes. Baklava is something that every house will make. Dad made [baklava in the shape of] roses. Most people make Bajram lunch with various pies, roasted meat and potatoes, some typical stews…. Mainly, people make various traditional Bosnian dishes. Bajram is celebrated for three days, to allow time to visit everyone.
Children on that day all get Bajramluk (money) from everyone. It is a tradition to buy for immediate family members  something nice, mainly new clothing, so that everyone has something new to wear for Bajram, to look their best. This was a very old tale of Dad’s and everyone elderly. For Bajram grandpa would take Dad to the tailor to make him a new suit. Dad always new that for Bajram he would get new clothes whereas on any other day they were not able to afford new clothing. So, Dad and Mom use to buy us some nice clothing. Jas may not remember as he did not celebrate Bajram with us that often after the war. As he may not remember the dishes and tradition that follows. But Mom and Dad would get us something nice. After Mom died, Dad did not dare to buy clothes but he would buy us something nice for the house:) We would all dress up to look our best to celebrate Bajram.So, you can follow the tradition by buying some nice clothing for all of you guys. This Bajram… I will make the big lunch in our home for just the four of us. I guess I get to be the eldest generation now for my children.”
***
Our Bajram in America turned out to be much simpler. As Jas is not religious, he would not end his fast with a trip to the mosque. When I mentioned that buying clothes or something for the house was also part of tradition, he responded, “That’s what old [read religious] people do.”  And as far as spending time with family and friends, Jas preferred a much more solitary day with just the three of us.
While Jasmina made a seven-course feast for Bajram, we again kept it simple with stuffed tomatoes, spinach pitta (pie), and hurmasice (a traditional Bosnian cake). I made sure to dress the table in linens my mother-in-law had given to me. We drank rose juice and I told my favorite stories about Akif–times he made us laugh, places we visited, and foods he taught me to make. In the end, our celebration was more akin to a memorial.

Rice & turkey stuffed tomatoes with a sour cream and carrot sauce.

Cookie enjoying spinach pitta.

Hurmasice (walnut cakes).

After Cookie had gone to sleep I asked Jas if we would continue to celebrate Bajram in the years to come. “I don’t know” he said, and I also don’t have a sense of whether or not we’ll continue this tradition. I do know however, what Jasmina would do:
***
“Tradition is legacy and we should carry it on with love.” 

Jasmina

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