Just about the time I started high school, the new house we recently moved in had to be renovated to serve the specific needs of the family. Our grandparents moved into a brand new, just built one-story house in the same yard, as their home had been marked for demolition to make room for an apartment building. Therefore, for over a year, a construction crew lived with us from sunrise, to pitch dark, and all seven of them, plus the contractor, eventually became family friends.
They would show up at daybreak, cracking jokes and teasing each other. They would work until 10:00 a.m. when they made a break for the first meal of the day. After an hour, they would slowly get up from the table, stretch, and continue hammering, welding, and laying bricks. They were loud, obnoxious, and crude. As teenagers, we loved listening to their lascivious banter while hiding inside and giggling until the tears were flowing down our cheeks. At 3:00 p.m., it was time for another meal and the yard would become unusually quiet. Only an occasional grunt or a burp could be heard amidst all the slurping.
In the U.S. such workers would mosey on down to Mickey D’s and indulge in some heavy duty junk food chased by a gallon of Coke. But in the Balkans in the 70s and 80s, the laborers were treated to two home-cooked dinners, usually served with beer. Mother was in charge of providing meals for them, and she took that task to heart. Twice a day she made a full-blown feast with an abundance of meat, side dishes, salads, desserts, lots of bread, and soup. She went to the market early in the morning, as soon as she would dispatch us to school, and started cooking as soon as she came back.
Having two substantial meals a day was a pretty sweet deal, but Mother was not just any housewife. While the other crews ate very well on roasted chicken or pork and potatoes, her kitchen produced miracles. She made a point not to repeat a meal in several months, and presented dishes that would be fit for a White House meal. Twice a day for a year she brought out plates and saucers and pots filled with dishes that exalted the senses. She did not only try to feed their bodies, she attempted to educate them through food, and in a way managed to enrich their souls.
As reluctant helpers, we thought her efforts were excessive, and resented every moment that we had to spend in the kitchen. We tried to reason with her, explaining that these burly, testosterone-ridden men craved only big hunks of meat, and that all of her finesse over the stove would be completely lost on them. We were just trying to spare Mother the unnecessary work, as she already had too much to do. But she would not listen, and continued to stretch her creativity to the limits by presenting a wide variety of meals.
They started out like any other construction crew, easily satisfied by flavorful, traditional roasts and piles of potatoes, not too much different then their counterparts in the U.S. But throughout their stay in our house, they experienced dishes that never entered their previous lives. In the beginning, they were somewhat leery of all the different ingredients and unusual methods of cooking, and they whispered and giggled, turning food around with their forks, making jokes in the attempt not to show reluctance to eat in front of their peers. They burped after tossing down a half bottle of beer and slapped each other on the shoulder, bravely hiding the fear of the unknown staring at them from their plates. But hunger works miracles and Mother does not disappoint.
She drew her inspiration from the cuisine of Central Europe that was a staple when she was growing up in Vojvodina, the northern part of Yugoslavia, which was under Austro-Hungarian yoke until WWI; from the deeply engraved culinary influences of Ottoman Turks who ruled the Balkans for several centuries; from the trips all over Europe she and Father took throughout the years; and from the movies she had seen and TV travel shows she had watched. In a few weeks their palates developed unwillingly and they eagerly anticipated every meal.
She offered them familiar food presented in a new way, and unknown ingredients cooked in a manner they were comfortable with. They knew only of paprika and parsley; she introduced them to dill, oregano, and curry. They accepted cabbage in the winter, but she got them hooked on Swiss chard, Savoy cabbage, and kale. They relished beef and pork stews, and she tantalized them with sweet breads, liver, kidneys, and other offal. They tolerated vegetables in a salad, but scorned them on the plate. She made them ask for more carrots, zucchini, peas or green beans.
We watched with wonderment as this developing culinary education continued, still resentful that we had to participate, but convinced that these men would be changed forever. They still cracked gross jokes and called each other names. They burped and farted, and they continued to slap each other on the shoulder. They were loud and obnoxious, as testosterone-ridden as on the day they showed up at the house for the first time. But they were touched by Mother’s magic and their lives stopped being the same.
Eventually, the work was done and they left. Through the years they visited as friends and we visited their families. They got married and had babies that Father delivered. And at every turn they would mention the year they worked on the house and the meals Mother prepared. They talked with typical male bravado, laughed and exaggerated, but they knew that while they had been working on our house, Mother had been working on them. They built houses. Mother built people.