October 13, 2008

Ajvar Revisited

Nationalism is a hard thing for an American to understand, and here's why: it seeks to define a nation--its customs and traditions, politics, religion, borders--through the lens of a single ethnicity. As nationalism tells it, everyone gets their own country; everyone else can just stay out. After all, you've got your own country, don't you? Ergo, Romanians live in Romania. Serbians live in Serbia. Macedonians live in Macedonia. Etc. Some obvious problems arise.

So you can see why this might be a difficult concept for an American to internalize. There's no such thing as an ethnic American. Sure, we have our own go-nowhere arguments about what is and what isn't patriotism, but there's a strong consensus in America that the ideas guiding our country are far stronger than any single ethnic identity. America is great because the Irish and Italians built New York, the Chinese built the Pacific railroad, the Mexicans built the California agricultural machine, the Germans built the industrial Midwest and so on. We embrace what various groups have given the country.

What is this--Dan's feeling a bit nostalgic this evening? Actually, no. But last weekend had me thinking about these things when Jillian and I stopped over at our landlord's home to help them with ajvar, that traditional Macedonian spread/paste/condiment prepared from peppers and other vegetables. It's that season (autumn) and you really can't go more than a hundred meters without catching that wonderful smell wafting from some backyard.

Mare stirs the pot


Macedonia officially recognized the sovereignty of Kosovo on Thursday and the small transistor radio in our landlord's garage told the tale of jam-packed talk radio discussing the subject. It's a touchy one, as it involves not only Serbia's historical claim to the region, but also Albanian claims in an otherwise Slavic area. So there's lots of nationalism involved.

But about this garage...it's not actually a garage, but an old Turkish house dating back over one hundred years. Now rotting and looking vaguely dangerous, it's crumbling ground floor is used by Todor and Mare as a storage area. It's absolutely great. First off is that Turkish thing I mentioned. A century ago the town (and most of Macedonia) was inhabited by Turks as part of Ottoman rule, so the only truly "old" buildings in town were built by them. This house I'm describing includes a single-person sauna that resembles a walk-in closet and beautiful hand-crafted dark wood ceilings and doors.

As we sat outside this house stirring ajvar, sampling ajvar, drinking rakia and talking about the perfect fall weather, I admired this makeshift garage. It looks like something out of a Rockwell painting, with every half-empty oil can, rusting bucket and wood beam in its right place. The floor is dirt and the window on the opposite wall is caked with grime.

Meanwhile, out in the sun, we stirred. The ajvar sat in a pot the size of an old-fashioned bathtub over a fire and it required continuous stirring lest it become scorched. Every fifteen minutes Mare would pull out a spoonful and check the consistency like a mad scientist (truth be told, she does have the same hair as Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future. One-point-twenty-one gigawatts!). Then she would add more sunflower oil. Any illusions Jillian and I had previously maintained about the potential healthiness of ajvar were shattered watching Mare pour 3.5 liters of oil into this concoction.

The sun moved a bit lower and it was time to jar the ajvar. Jillian stuck her blue plastic funnel into the first jar and began scooping, and all over Macedonia this exact process was under way on a warm Sunday. It truly was a Rockwell painting; sentimental, perhaps, but a glorious old tradition that has nothing to do with ethnicity and everything to do with autumn traditions in the Balkans.

Then came the scara, or barbeque. The remaining embers from the fire were transferred to a small grill and Todor ordered me with a flick of his hand to take over the grilling. A typical ending to any Macedonian chore: good food and great drink. The ajvar turned out delicious and we came away from with our own jar, though the reward was really in the privilege of helping to make it.


Filling those jars

Grilling up some lunch

1 comment:

Matt said...

Was that pot properly sterilized? I have my doubts.