Foods often connect us to our past, as when recollections of grandma’s apple strudel or dad’s vegetable soup make us remember the people we loved. When we inherit their cookbooks and handwritten recipes, we can recreate their special dishes.
Recipes aren’t common in the Bosnian culture, however. Rather, cooking skills are passed from mother to daughter in hands-on experiences. And for Bosnian refugees in St. Louis, specialty foods remain one of the few tangible connections to their lives before the war.
In America, young Bosnian girls don’t have the time or may not have extended family to teach them how to cook. Traditions such as making pitas, cooking sarma or pouring sweet syrup over baklava could be lost. A group of 11 Bosnian women in St. Louis decided to create a Bosnian cookbook, written in Bosnian and in English, to remedy the situation.
The women, once strangers, met in a therapeutic group at the Center for Survivors of Torture and War Trauma. The center helps refugee and immigrants who have survived torture and war move toward healing and self-empowerment.
Their therapist, Dr. Helen McGlynn, noticed that when the women shared positive memories, they often talked of traditions and people connected to food. They brought home-cooked foods to the weekly meetings.
“The women had extended families, nice lives, homes, vegetable and flower gardens before the war. They have cooked their whole lives,” Mc-Glynn says. “They cook by what looks and feels right, not by measurements. Handfuls. Cupfuls might be a small teacup. A ‘spoon’ may be poured in by sight or added in teaspoons.”
Things cook until they’re done. The pan should be big enough, but not too big. Temperatures on wood-burning stoves were gauged by how hot the fire looked and felt. Sometimes three or four women would bring in the same recipe, with wide variations. To standardize the recipes for a cookbook, the women needed help.
Students and faculty at Fontbonne University stepped forward, providing kitchen space and student assistants from the Human Environmental Services department. The students would take notes, measure ingredients and assist the cooks in preparing five dishes from the cookbook.
“That dinner was the high point of the project,” McGlynn says. “When we arrived at Fontbonne, the women were given hairnets and aprons. The ingredients for the dishes they had selected were on the counters. They walked confidently to the professional stoves and within 30 minutes, they had the meal underway.”
They stuffed yellow peppers with uncooked meat and rice for Punjene Paprike, then cooked them covered in a rich tomato broth on the stovetop. The women formed Hurmacise cookies into slim ovals, textured with a grater. They layered jufka dough with spinach and cheese and baked it to a golden brown color. Kvrgusa, a bread embedded with roasted chicken and baked with a cream top, took shape.
In a move away from the set menu for the evening’s feast, Amira Mutapcic rolled out a homemade pita dough thin as a sheet of vellum, big as a table. The other cooks helped her form the dough into spirals that were baked, then topped with sour cream.
Begzada Dardagan mixed and baked another surprise addition, quick-rise yeast bread rounds to accompany the feast.
At another recent gathering, Dardagan, Ajkuna Salihovic, Naza Sahanic and interpreter Drita Zuber-Hasanbasic arrived with their driver, Mohammad Akbari. In a flurry of happy hellos, fluttering hands and traditional cheek kissing they greeted McGlynn. Nisveta Kovacevic, who drove herself, arrived a short time later. The women settled themselves on soft couches.
Sahanic passed her phone around the room to show photos of her first grandchild, a girl. The newborn, swaddled, capped and warm, slept in her mother’s arms.
The women talked of their grown children, babies and grandchildren. At the edges of the conversations, anxieties began to surface. Words emerged; nervousness, isolation, migraines and pain.
In a quiet moment, one woman spoke of the birth of her first child, in Bosnia, during the war. She had fled into the woods to escape the Serbian soldiers. There, she delivered her child, alone. Another told of her escape to Germany with seven children; two of her own, five entrusted to her care by friends. A third spoke of wrapping her skirt around a friend’s newborn baby, which had been delivered in a railroad car. The woman’s husband cut the umbilical cord. One spoke of her hatred of loud noises.
“We see images from the war,” Zuber-Hasanbasic said as she translated the conversation. “Begzada says, ‘Sometimes, it feels like we will blow up.’ ”
McGlynn gently reminded them they were safe now. She re-focused the conversation on how much they’d accomplished through their work at the center, in their personal goals, and with the cookbook project. The rough moment passed.
The exchange did not surprise the center’s Executive Director, Kristin Bulin.
“Helen has a wonderful presence with these women,” Bulin says. “To work through their hellacious, nightmarish experiences, they put forth a courageous effort. They will never be who they were before the war, in mind or body, but Helen’s process warms the coldness. They are not walking ghosts. Through their work, they find hope within themselves. They are survivors.”