I discovered the Slovenian community in San Francisco almost by accident. It might not have happened at all, if I didn't play the Cajun accordion.
One night in February of 2005, my Cajun band was playing at a little club outside San Francisco. It was Mardi Gras season, so we were dressed up for the occasion, in masks and beads.
Some dancer friends told us about an event called a "Pust" at the Slovenian Hall in San Francisco the following weekend. It was Slovenian Mardi Gras, they'd heard. A festive dinner and a polka band. They suggested my fiddler husband and I might like to join them.
Slovenian Mardi Gras? That was complete news to me. I had noticed the Slovenian Hall, a solid square building with a big "for rent" sign clearly visible from the highway, whenever we drove into San Francisco. But I had no idea it was still in operation. I figured it was one of those abandoned ethnic clubs, now just a banquet hall for hire.
My husband and I agreed to meet our friends there. We were too late to get into the dinner, but they let us in for the polka dance. It was a yearly event, we learned, put on as a fundraiser by the Slovene National Benefit Society (SNPJ), one of those old-style ethnic insurance organizations.
We discovered quite a scene. A couple hundred people had just finished dinner and were waiting for the polka band to start playing in the big room with the stage. Our friends led us into a smaller room off to the side, where some accordionists were jamming. It looked like an old-style European tavern, with paintings of Alpine vistas and rural life on the wall. We ordered a drink and soaked it all in. Once the dance started, I even let my friend talk me into dancing a polka.
(Update: Here's a great video of a more recent Pust accordion jam at the bar.)
So we went back the next year—for the Pust dinner, as well as the dance. By now, I had learned more about the Slovenian-style Mardi Gras. It bore a striking resemblance to Mardi Gras celebrations in Louisiana. Not in New Orleans, with those big parades. But more like the country celebrations of the Cajuns and Creoles in the rural communities of Southwest Louisiana. Traditionally, Cajun Mardi Gras is a male scene. Masked men in costumes, heavily lubricated with alcohol, travel around on horseback or in trucks to the neighboring homes and farms. They sing, dance, play music, raise a ruckus, and beg for contributions to the communal gumbo pot.
In Slovenia, I learned, there are rowdy parades of folks dressed up as wild shaggy creatures called kurenti, who do much the same thing. It's Carnival, the one day in the year when everything is turned on its head and the usual rules don't apply. Just like in Louisiana, there seems to be an unsettling mix of menace and good times. These two rural cultures had much in common.
|Kurenti, from Wikipedia|
Here's a video of kurenti on parade in Slovenia, from the Slovenian Ethnographic Museum.
And one more, with whips and accordion music.
Now look at this clip of Cajun Mardi Gras, from a well known Louisiana documentary filmmaker.
They could be cousins!
I showed up for our first Pust dinner with high hopes. Maybe there would be wild revelry. But it didn't happen. Just a big, sit-down banquet dinner. Not even a slice of potica. And then a polka band. I wasn't even sure most of the people there were Slovenian.
But it takes time to explore a new community. We went back a few years later, for a wine festival, and discovered the cultural heart of the Slovenian Hall: The Educational and Dramatic Club Slovenia, who had organized the event. There were songs and priestly blessings, all in Slovenian. We met some delightful people, including many born in Slovenia. I was hooked.
We soon became regulars at the Slovenian Hall. And we attended many more events. We helped out in the kitchen. At one event, I was a server in the buffet line and learned a shocking truth: some Slovenians dislike sauerkraut!
As I started to notice the food at these events, I reached a few other conclusions: Festive meals were very heavy on meat, especially pork. Pork roast, barbecued ribs, Slovenian sausages, and sometimes chicken appeared often. Potatoes, cabbage, and sauerkraut were the usual side dishes. There was always a green salad, in a tart vinaigrette dressing. And there was always plenty of alcohol: Wine and mixed drinks for sale at the bar. Carafes of red and white wine at the long banquet tables.
Another shock: Dessert didn't always mean potica. Unless, of course, it was a potluck, when there would always be the chance to sample and compare different versions. Eventually, I found enough courage to bring my own potica to a potluck, and was greatly relieved when it passed muster.
This year's Pust Dinner included roast pork loin, beans, tasty fried potatoes, and sauerkraut, served family style at long buffet tables. But the centerpiece came a little later in the meal.
Blood sausage is a traditional dish at Pust. A small group of people at the Slovenian Hall get together every year to prepare it. At a recent event, an older man who heads up the operation told us that the tradition might be ending this year, because they couldn't find younger people to continue it. He tried to recruit my husband, who had to decline because the big sausage-making operation happens during the work week.
Blood sausage, I have to admit, holds little appeal for me. When it is offered, I will dutifully sample a piece. It is dark, starchy, and slightly sweet. f you look at recipes, you will discover why.
Here's the ingredient list for Krvave Klobase from the Progressive Slovene Women of America:
1 medium pork head
1 veal lung
4 T. salt
1 1/2 T pepper
1 t. cinnamon
2 T. marjoram
1/2 t. cloves
2 lbs. parboiled rice
1 quart pork blood
The best part of this year's Pust dinner came at the end. It was potica, with a particularly intriguing filling I had never tasted before. It included nuts, but the flavor and texture seemed different. It had a strong taste of lemon.
Later on, I met the young woman from Fontana whose family had catered the event. She seemed pleased when I complimented her on the potica. She recited a long list of ingredients, which included lemon and vanilla. So I had guessed right. Not quite like the traditional version of potica my family makes, but tasty just the same.