Trusting the Food Ways of Our Ancestors
by Nik Novak
I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time — being a kid and ego-centric by nature — but over the years I have come to realize the privileges of a food-based lifestyle. My mother, for whom there weren’t enough hours in the day, somehow always made sure my sister and I were fed. She cooked a lot of conventional Midwestern fare (hot dish!), and regularly ordered pizza, but she also worked full-time in UW-EC’s multicultural office, a situation which allowed her to experience the foodways of her very diverse students and co-workers. Mom’s enthusiasm for other cultures was surpassed only by an engrained sense of her own culinary history, imparted to her mainly by a kindly but dominant Serbian patriarch, Chubby Odonovich — my beloved grandfather.
Grandpa enjoyed food more than anybody I’ve ever known. He was old and stubborn and told stories detailed enough and dry enough to clear a room or annoy a cook, but I could listen all day long to his descriptions of how the old-timers kept a garden or managed their livestock, or how his mother baked bread and prepared sarma, the traditional Serbian cabbage rolls: fry the bacon and the pork sausage, mix with rice, tomatoes, onion and garlic, roll into cabbage leaves and slow cook with a smoked ham hock and sauerkraut. In the old country, a hog was roasted over an open fire and the neighbors were invited to eat it with šlivovica (plum brandy) and the bounties of harvest-time. Garrison Keillor had Lake Wobegon. I had the Iron Range of Northern Minnesota and an affinity for mountain villages in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
There is a lot of science (and an awful lot of bad science) to accommodate America’s modern gustatory practices. We are bombarded with faddish diets (South Beach, Atkins, Macrobiotics, etc.), pilloried by nutritionists purporting specific percentages of this and that, informed by the latest AMA fear-mongering (red meat might cause cancer!), taught in school to abide by the USDA’s high-grain/low-fat pyramid scheme, and generally held hostage to the whims of Oprah and Dr. Oz.
Perhaps this sort of information is not all baloney, but considering the poetic customs of my ancestors and the cultural food heritage of my mother’s community, I feel I would be remiss to trust what modern Americans put in their mouths, namely: corn syrup, vegetable oil, white bread, and industrial meats. More poignantly: those who ate traditional, place-based diets (whatever was available and in season) did not suffer from modern diseases (heart disease, diabetes, and cancer). They lived as hunter-gatherers or as small-scale agriculturalists in decentralized regions favored by biodiversity and unpolluted resources. Food didn’t come in boxes or vending machines or little colorful packages at eye level or on TV. It came, as it still does, from the earth — covered in dirt or filled with blood, bone, fat and flesh. Food was meant to be consumed in its whole state: raw, simmered, roasted or preserved simply. It is significant to me that bananas, tuna, and sugar cane do not grow in Wisconsin, but that carrots, cows, and maple trees do.
The world tastes good everywhere that traditional foodways are practiced, where geography and custom are held in higher regard than the perversion of instant gratification and fast-food cookery. There aren’t enough adjectives in the English language to denounce what modern culture has done to our human senses.
So, please, do as Grandpa Chubby did, and listen to the elders who encourage you to eat real food — food that is pasture-raised, seeded, foraged, and made from scratch, by hand — and you too will be palpably delighted with the results: butter, headcheese, fresh salads, fermented cabbage, sourdough bread, apples, unpasteurized beer, and tender savory morsels of lamb, veal, suckling pig and wild fish …
Živeli (Serbian for “to your health”).
Nik Novak is a stonemason, a teacher, and one of eleven owners of Just Local Food Cooperative.
Lamb Kabobs With Cucumber-Tomato-Feta Salad Ingredients:
1 # Lamb kabobs 2 Cucumbers 1 # Yellow potatoes 2 Tomatoes 1 Red onion ¼ # Feta cheese 1 Green pepper 1 Red pepper Olive oil ¼ # Crimini mushrooms Salt Pepper Garlic (mince 6 cloves) Ginger (shred one 2 oz. piece) Worcestershire sauce (optional) Olive oil Salt Pepper Meat skewers
Marinate lamb kabobs in a plastic bag with garlic, ginger, Worcestershire sauce, olive oil, salt and pepper for three hours. Shake bag every hour. Chop vegetables (excepting the mushrooms) into pieces that will fit onto a skewer. Sautee in olive oil or place in oiled roasting pan for 30 minutes at 400°. When vegetables are mostly cooked, fit them onto meat skewers (along with marinated kabobs) and grill until kabobs are cooked medium-rare.
Serve with chopped and tossed cucumber-tomato-feta cheese salad. Drizzle with olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste.
BUREK (Savory Serbian-style Pastry) Ingredients:
1 box of fillo dough (thawed) 1 bulb of garlic cloves (minced) 1 large onion (chopped) Fresh spinach (washed) Fresh mushrooms (sliced) Feta cheese (crumbled) 1 pound of ground meat (pork, lamb, or beef) 1 stick of butter
Melt two tablespoons of butter in a medium-hot skillet. Add garlic, onions, and ground meat. Cook until brown and set aside. (Do not pour off fat!) Melt two more tablespoons of butter in the same skillet, sauté mushrooms, and set aside. Roll out sheets of fillo dough (four per roll) and brush with melted butter. Cover bottom third of fillo dough with all ingredients and roll. Place burek in greased pan. Bake 30-35 minutes at 350? or until burek is golden brown and flaky.
Serve with raw sweet corn-on-the-cob.