My Year of Cooking Ethnically: How It Began


It began in December of 2010, when I was doing some online holiday shopping and came across a classic mid-century ethnic cookbook called Woman's Glory: The Kitchen.  I decided to order it as a pre-Christmas gift for myself.

Woman's Glory was published in the early 1950's in Chicago, by the Slovenian Women's Union of America.  My well-used 1958 edition turned out to be an odd but charming mix of traditional Slovenian recipes, interspersed with dated American gems like jello molds, Texas Taters, and casseroles made with canned soup.  An amusing curiosity, I thought, and nothing more.  I stored it on a bookshelf. 

The following December, I decided to add two more vintage cookbooks to my collection. They were both products of the Slovenian community in Cleveland, my hometown. Our Favorite Recipes was published by the American Slovene Club in 1946, with multiple revisions and printings over the next decade. The Progressive Slovene Women of America issued Treasured Slovenian & International Recipes in the early 1950s.

I had been consumed with genealogy research for the past two years, and I had begun to feel a little bogged down with grim family histories and distant DNA cousins.  But that trio of vintage cookbooks suggested a new direction for my roots quest.

Maybe I could arrive at a deeper understanding of the Slovenian American experience—or at least my own family—if I tried to cook like my foremothers. 

In January of 2012, I made a New Year's resolution.  For the next year, I would commit to making one all-Slovenian dinner a week.  I would try to stick as closely as possible to recipes in those three cookbooks.

It would be my own ethnic version of Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously.  I had enjoyed reading that wildly successful memoir by Julie Powell, who set out to cook every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

But there were some major differences between us.  Powell wanted to invoke the spirit of the famed chef Julia Child, who lived a life of glamour and privilege, and who introduced the American public to French haute cuisine.
  
My goal was different.  I wanted to invoke the spirit of people like my grandmother Mary, a wonderful cook who never used recipes. And her mother. And all those other women, unsung and decidedly non-glamorous, who lived and cooked and struggled in America's working class and ethnic communities in the early part of the twentieth century.


My grandparents in Cleveland, 1930s



I had warm memories of watching my grandmother roll out potica and strudel and noodles in the kitchen of her little bungalow on Cleveland's East Side.  But there had to be more to Slovenian food than that.  I hoped so, at least.

Julie Powell dubbed her venture the Julie/Julia Project. Perhaps I should call mine the Jožefa/Josephine Project.  That was the first name, in Slovenian and in English, of my immigrant great-grandmother, who arrived in America in 1899.  She was a simple woman.  A peasant girl who never did learn to speak English.  I never knew her.
  
Maybe now I would.
My mother and her family in Cleveland, 1930s

























17 comments:

  1. I'm from Slovenia but grew up on Cleveland's east side and have been enjoying reading your blog (I was in search of obscure Slovenian recipes who's names I can't even remember correctly, let alone spell, when I found you...)

    What stuck me about this particular post was you stating that your great-grandmother never did learn to speak English.

    I remember very well how in our predominantly Slovenian neighborhood; the Waterloo, Lakeshore, 152nd area; there were many people who, after decades of living there, never learned to speak English, never learned to drive, NEVER EVER left the 6 or 7 blocks surrounding their houses and didn't trust "Americans" (any non-Slovenian) as far as they could throw them.

    Slovenians are a strange breed, fiercely independent and self sufficient while also being extremely community driven - although I can tell you for a fact that most of them don't trust other Slovenians much more than they trust the so-called "Americans" :+)

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  2. Also, I forgot to add...

    I have the two Cleveland based cookbooks in your photo but now desperately want the one in the middle!

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  3. Thanks so much for your comments! Where are you living now? Fascinating that you, having a much more recent immigration history in your family, report experiences not unlike what my mother recalls from the Slovenian community in Cleveland from the 1920s and 1930s.

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  4. Which one of the three would you say is the most authentic recipes? Thank you.

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  6. Trying again:-) It's a tough choice. They are all authentic expressions of the culture of Slovenian American women at mid-century. "Woman's Glory" is probably the best known, in part because it was published by the one organization that still exists: the Slovenian Women's Union of America, recently re-named the Slovenian Union of America. But my personal favorite is "Treasured Slovenian & International Recipes" by the much smaller (and now defunct) Progressive Slovene Women of America. I like their politics and humanitarian vision. I also think their cookbook is a little more authentic, because of the proper Slovenian recipe names, and the way they separate the the book into two sections, the first with Slovenian recipes and the second with other international (and plain old American) recipes.

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  7. I just came back from Slovenia. I spent three months in Ljubljana and I am so heartbroken to be back in New York. I'm so happy that I was able to find this blog!

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    1. Pozdravljeni, Glindys! Thank you for writing. I tracked down your blog and enjoyed it. So happy that you liked your summer in Slovenia. What led you to go there? I felt strangely homesick last summer, after returning to California from the second short visit to that lovely land of my ancestors. I look forward to going back. In the meantime, I have been taking Slovenian language classes--and cooking :-)

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  8. I too am searching for my Slovenian history. My great grandparents immigrated to the US from Slovenia in the early 1900s. My Dad was in the navy, so I never lived near any of my family, and my knowledge of my Slovenian heritage is limited to making potica. I decided to explore my heritage through writing a fictional novel “Longing for Home” with my great-grandmother’s story as the inspiration. I’m working on getting my novel published and I’d love to hear more input about Slovenian culture on my facebook: Lisa Wayman author, or on my website: Lisawayman.com

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    1. Thanks for writing, Lisa! I took a quick look at your blog. Many common themes in our family histories, I think. Reminds me of stories about my own family. Good luck with your novel!

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  9. Thanks Blair, I'll keep following your blog and try out some of the recipes

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  10. Hi Blair! Our family just recently moved to US and I was looking for some slovenian family events to take my children to, I came across your blog. I love your re-invention of recipes. I love cooking too, especially if I can merge authentic, healthy, practical and quick (my husbands favourite would be burek and kislo zelje in matevž).
    I'm looking forward to your next posts.
    Suzana

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    1. Thanks for writing, Suzana! You remind me that I need to post something new :-) Where are you living?

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  11. Hi there! My mother and grandmother came from Slovenia (a small town named Bovec). We live in Manitoba, Canada. I just wanted to say that I have enjoyed reading your blog. Our community has also gotten together and created a Slovenian Cookbook so that everyone would have traditional recipes. Hope you are well. Take care.

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    1. Thanks for writing! So glad you are enjoying the blog. I would love to see the cookbook your community put together--is it for sale anywhere?

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    2. Our City hosts a cultural event for two weeks every August called "Folklorama" There are approximately 42 different pavilions and Slovenia is one of them. We only sell the cookbook there at the souvenir stand. Other than than, we don't sell it anywhere else. I will see what I can do to get you a copy :)

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    3. That would be great--thanks!

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