America officially became my home in August of 1986. I arrived on a one-way PanAm flight, Belgrade-New York-Detroit, dragging behind two suitcases overfilled with books and photo albums, my heart rent with sorrow from leaving my family and friends forever, and, at the same time, brimming with anticipation.
I felt like Alice in Wonderland as I walked through the door of a small, one-bedroom rental house in one of the less developed western suburbs of Detroit that my ex-husband shared with his sister and her boyfriend. The welcoming committee consisted of two smiling humans who hugged me, five exuberant canines who jumped around, squealing and yelping, and a very reserved, long-haired feline, who did not move an inch.
That night we went out to a BBQ restaurant. I was completely lost in a daze, jet-legged, and too disconnected from the physical world to pay too much attention to the food. I smiled and nodded a lot. Afterwards, we went to the movies. I should have known that the vertigo was not only the vestige of the trans-Atlantic flight. A couple of months previously, I recommended to my (now ex) husband the movie, Paris, Texas with Nastassja Kinski. In turn, he introduced me to my new life with Howard the Duck. How fitting!
Pretty soon, I stopped feeling like Alice, and entered the story of Gulliver, alternating between Liliputians and the giants. Used to the brick and mortar houses of Serbia, I shuddered every time a truck passed by and the whole wooden structure reverberated. European washing machines heat the water to near boiling. The American machine only seemed capable of lukewarm, and all my pristinely white whites became gray and beige. I could not stand the clutter and the mess, cat and dog hair all over my clothes and the furniture, the kibble strewn around the floor, the dirty dishes languishing for hours in the sink, getting crusty, and the towels thrown down after the shower and later trampled on by muddy boots (the washing machine had only lukewarm water, right).
The front door opened into our room, and Sisyphus only could relate to my efforts as I tried to keep it tidy. The room did not have a door, except to the yard (a perfect setup for a newlywed couple) and no closet. The clothes had to be hung high up above the piano so the dogs could not get to them. One day, as I walked through the door, I was greeted by a scene from Dante’s Inferno: A dog was lying in the middle of the floor casually chewing my brown suede Bali pumps, surrounded by the beans from my beanbag frog that I received from my friends at the airport. I broke down and cried for hours. That event symbolized the irreversible change I made when I light-heartedly decided to say goodbye to the world I knew.
After all, I did not need my heels in the new world. Even when I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, I was deemed overdressed, receiving non-approving glances from other women. The first New Year’s Eve in the U.S. I spent wrapped in an extra large winter jacket speckled with oil stains, huddled around a bonfire, looking wistfully toward a garbage dump turned ski slope next door, with lights illuminating little figures snaking their way down the hill. I felt so utterly alone, amidst dozens of people whose language I spoke, but did not understand, imagining my friends celebrating this holiday at our parents’ chalet on the mountain of Kopaonik, exhausted from skiing, cheeks flushed red by the crisp winter air, raising their glasses to toast me, wishing me well, and missing me.
Only one woman can be in charge of the household, and it was not me. My sister-in-law planned the activities, delegated chores, did the family finances, and on rare occasions even cooked. She was an extremely picky eater, and dinner choices were very limited and repetitious, albeit flavorful and well prepared: spaghetti with tomato sauce, tuna casserole, baked chicken, pot roast (this one was my favorite), steak (well done for her, medium rare for the rest of us), turkey for holidays and the inevitable turkey Divan the day after. I made iles flottantes one day, wanting to contribute with at least a dessert, but she refused to try it, saying that the combination of white and yellow grossed her out. Her boyfriend got paid in lamb one time, and I roasted a leg with yogurt and garlic. While everybody else enjoyed it, she would not touch it. My eagerness evaporated and I resigned myself to eating fast food and cheap take-out my new family preferred.
My loneliness deepened with every new day. I found solace in the books piled on the shelves in the mud room, left by many roommates who once lived there. I devoured the words, getting lost in imagined worlds, trying to escape mine. While everybody slept, I stayed up, reading until my eyes could not take it any more and I had to succumb, allowing the first rosy light on the horizon to wish me good-night.
I did not belong. I missed my friends and family. I missed the bed I shared with my sister, knowing that she sensed my absence. I longed for nights out on the town with music and wine. I felt wistful thinking of all the college nights spent in a smoky dorm room, discussing movies, books, and plays. I wrote long letters, my attention never far from the dimensional portal cleverly disguised as a common mail box. I lived for those moments when I would reach into it and find letters from home, blessedly as long as the ones I sent. I wrote a diary and cried every single day.
I craved the warmth of Mother’s kitchen with all the comforting smells that made me feel secure and loved. And the only way to bring that warmth across the ocean was to cook something that smelled and tasted like home, something I could enjoy by myself. It had to be cream of wheat: lightly sweetened, luscious, milky, warm, and filling. A simple dish to make for a cold Michigan breakfast, while the others were eating some sort of sugar frosted kibble poured from a box with a cheap plastic toy at the bottom. Mother made cream of wheat for us since we were babies. It was a favorite in the morning, and at night, just before bed.
I would heat a cup of milk and as soon as the the surface started to shiver, I would add three tablespoons of farina and one and a half tablespoons of sugar. Once in a while I would add a small handful of raisins. After a couple of minutes of stirring, I would pour it into a bowl and sit at the table with a smile on my face, inhaling with all my might the creamy, milky porridge that smelled like home, my childhood, and Mother. And for a moment I would forget where I was.
Since those days I always keep farina in my pantry. I made it for my daughters since they were babies. I make it for breakfast, sprinkled with chocolate chips, as Mother got them addicted to, with a cold glass of milk to cool the sticky heat. It has become a comfort food for them, too.
Our French Fridays with Dorie group is making four different recipes this month from the book Around My French Table. I have already made the Pumpkin Flan and Pommes Dauphinois. The other two are the Roasted Chicken for the Paresseux and the Semolina Cake. For some reason I did not know that semolina is the same thing as farina, or cream of wheat, until I read the comments from the bloggers that are participating in this event. But when I found out, I had to make the cake and invoke just a little magic from my past.
The process was extremely simple, and the instructions easy to follow, as usual. I had only a nine-inch pan and the cake came out somewhat thin. The caramel soaked into the semolina and did not ooze over the edges when I inverted the cake. I used regular raisins instead of golden ones, because I did not think ahead. But the dessert was satisfying, creamy, not too sweet, with a touch of bitterness from the caramel and a bit of fruitiness from the raisins. The Beasties approved, which is the ultimate sign of success. I curled up on the couch with a still warm slice, and let the memories take over.
The recipe for the Semolina Cake is on page 438 of Around My French Table. To get a peek at other posts about this month’s dishes, go to French Fridays with Dorie and enjoy. And for the recipes, get the book. It is really beautiful.