Whale swimming - photo by Guille Pozzi - photo by Guille Pozzi

Growing the Bosnian Kitchen: Sustainable Food Systems

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Dalila shows off her garden in Northwest Bosnia.

Dawn in rural Bosnia breaks slowly, as the sunlight peeks through hilltops and wisps of clouds settle in the valleys. We’re drinking coffee in a village two hours northwest of Sarajevo, where the morning still is broken by rooster crows and the muezzin’s call to prayer. This is only our second cup of coffee— and there will be several more over the course of the day, all ground by hand, boiled in a pot, carefully poured into cups, and served with homemade cookies and cakes. Through the window, we watch as a neighbor brings the local breed of brown and white cows to pasture, past the gardens and orchards that have sustained food traditions and ecological knowledge through the last century of upheaval in the Balkans.

Our host, Dalila, is listing the meals that she plans to teach us today: burek, Bosanski lonac, grah, sogan dolma. It’s enough to feed a small army, and there’s already bread baking in the oven. Even though we’re still full from the feast she prepared for us last night, our mouths start to water. And, after all, this our job as anthropologists and ethnobiologists: we’re here to learn how these communities are keeping traditions alive and inventing new ones in the wake of a devastating war that sent Bosnians around the world as refugees and settlers — and there’s no better way to the heart and soul of a culture than through its food.

In June 2017, we packed our bags to go and collect the stories of food, gardens and places in rural Bosnia. Twenty-five years ago, Bosnian Muslims in this village watched in horror as former neighbors turned on them, besieging cities like Sarajevo and regularly bombarding villages with artillery attacks and raids. “We had to become resourceful,” explains  Dalila’s husband Emir, using the Bosnian word snalažljiv, “because of the war.” “Those people who had white flour were rich!”

Despite this national trauma, Bosnians like Dalila and Emir look back on the war with a sense of humor and pride. Improbably, life went on during the war. Although houses and barns in their village suffered mortar attacks, they themselves were married at the ages of 17 and 20; they raised children and hosted parties, and Dalila laughs as she proudly shows us a photo of herself in her potato patch in the mid-1990s. In the photo, the potatoes are thriving and she tells us how she saves her favorite tubers as seeds each autumn, along with the seeds of beans, cabbage, lettuce, corn and other vegetables that sustain them. Snalažljiv explains why gardeners like Dalila continue to save all their own seeds from the garden, buying food only as a last resort. “We’re village people, so we make potatoes, have cows, have chickens, make our food. We do everything,” she explains.

Dalila stokes a fire in her kitchen stove - the fire makes the oven hot enough to cook  bread and pita to perfection.

We took Merjem home with Esma, Dunya’s daughter, and met Lamija,Merjem’s daughter.  Merjem has some wanderlust and has lived a bit in Austria and taught herself English. Merjem has cows, chickens, a wide variety of crops made from saved seeds, and describes how she exchanges food and seeds with her neighbors.

“Do you sell vegetables when you have too many,” I asked?

“No, I don’t want to do that,” she responded. “If I sell it, I’ll get 10, 20 marks, what’s the point of that? It doesn’t feel good. If I give it to my neighbors, to my relatives, I can feel good. It’s better.”

This is a confluence of Bosnian values, holdovers from Yugoslavian socialism and rural life, and it helps keep the local economy afloat. This sense of helpfulness builds on traditional gender roles, in the sense that it is the women who work at home and the men who work in cash jobs, but both women and men speak about cooking, gardening and childcare as a valued economic contribution, not an expected or innate extension of women’s lives. Women work at being good cooks and gardeners, and this work is a source of both pride and revenue.

When we ask if she buys seeds or vegetables from the store, Dalila shrugs. She explains that she will buy things if she is in a rush or missing something, but that she doesn’t like to do this if she can help it. “You don’t need to pay. You can make it all yourself . . .  we have chickens, they’ll give us eggs and meat. You don’t need to spend money on that.” Then she laughs, remembering how she juggled young children, cooking, growing most of her food and the anxieties of war where Bosnian Muslims like herself were systematically killed. “In those days, we were boiling fruits and vegetables. In fact,” she continues, reaching under her sink and pulling out an old Coca-Cola bottle filled with a viscous syrup, “we still make them. Here, try this.” Dalila fills a bowl with some of the syrup— an apple molasses — and adds a swirl of kajmak, a lightly fermented cream. The combination of sweet and salty on her freshly baked bread is one of the best things we have ever tasted. “Is it OK?” she asks, raising an eyebrow at our open jaws.

This resourcefulness comes into the kitchen through the garden. Leaving aside the impressive array of medicinal and ornamental plants that includes roses, geraniums and lavender outside most homes, gardens overflow with fruits and vegetables, largely planted from a variety of saved seeds. Most houses also have several varieties of fruit trees and nut trees. One look around the village is enough to see that this is an old and well-maintained practice. “Who planted this pear tree?” I ask Dalila’s son Sol as we walk by the mosque in his village. “Nobody knows,” he shrugs. “That tree is at least a hundred years old.” Sol starts toward the tree, and then hesitates. “I know we just ate apples and we’re about to have breakfast, but these are really good. Do you want some?”

Dalila holds out heirloom beans fresh from the garden.

It takes us half an hour to stop at three houses, not because they’re far apart but because Sol warmly greets every person we see, drawn into conversations about children and work — and constant invitations for coffee. In this village, everyone has shared food with neighbors in need, cooked for sick people, given small loans, worked cutting hay, or harvested fruits and vegetables alongside the community. “I have to stop and talk with them,” Sol explains. “This is my komšiluk.” It’s a Bosnian idea that roughly translates to neighborhood or community, but, like snalažljiv, it speaks to a deeper set of cultural values. This is a community that has endured by caring for its members.

Bosnia has very little flat land and is comparatively ill-suited for agriculture. Driving through the countryside, one sees not large fields of corn or wheat, but narrow strips of gardens set against a patchwork of forest. And yet the hills are lush with food: fruit trees, vegetables, cows, chickens, meadows and forests sustain a vibrant food culture for those who know how to use them. In turn, Bosnian families sustain the ecological systems and traditional knowledge necessary to keep this biodiversity alive.

Dalila’s sister-in-law Merjem beckons us into her garden, which involves passing through a meadow of thyme, chamomile, yarrow and wildflowers. These plants feed her livestock and are used for medicinal teas and poultices. They also delight her young daughter, who hands us flower hair pieces. Like Dalila, Mejrem’s garden is also blooming from saved seeds, a time-intensive process that requires knowing which seeds will yield the best harvests and how to keep seeds safe from insects and rot.

In small, productive areas like this, food producers depend on good planning. Merjem’s garden, like others we see, uses companion planting, a method where several plants are grown together to provide mutual benefits. In one, climbing beans are planted alongside a corn that grows tall to support them; in another garden, tomato, squash, strawberry and raspberry all use different vertical space, allowing gardeners to grow the maximum amount of food on the minimum amount of land. These simple strategies also help minimize the damage caused by pest attacks and plant infections by diffusing plant risks — the same insect or virus that might attack tomato plants won’t necessary attack onions or raspberries. At the same time, the diversity of vegetable, fruit and ornamental flowers help attract a wide array of pollinators and birds that attack garden pests. Like many gardeners in the world, Bosnian food-growers place marigolds in their fields to deter pests and attract bug-eating predators.

Clouds roll through the valley, surrounding the village minaret.

Today was Eid, locally called Bajram, the end of Ramadan. Bajram begins at six, when the men return from the mosque, greet the family, and we eat pastries and drink coffee. Bajram requires an even more effusive sense of community and friendliness, so we visited the elderly woman across the street to wish her well, drinking more coffee. We are going to have serious coffee withdrawal at the end of this trip. We joined the extended family for a large lunch and then walked to the nearby garden, woods, meadow and stable that Merjem manages, her mother formerly managed and her daughters are learning to manage. Merjem and her two sisters kept getting distracted as they talked about seed saving, picking vegetables and handing them out to us. 

It takes time and hard work to manage all these complex gardens,  but experienced growers will hide secret food patches to make the work fun too.  It is nearly 90 degrees and just past noon when Merjem beckons us into the shade. “Do you see my mother?” she asks, pointing to an elderly woman gathering thyme in the meadow next to us. Merjem calls to her and the woman nods and traipses through the orchard above us. She returns a few moments later with wild strawberries. “She helps those strawberries up there stay healthy so that when she works in the garden she can have a few,” Merjem explains. “We have so much food here, there’s no need to go to the store. When we start to pick the harvest, we have to bring a really big basket,” she says, laughing. “Why must we go to the store and buy something? We have everything. This is all organic; there’s no need for chemicals or anything here.”

Merjem pauses, surveying the house that she built with the help of her family and neighbors after the war, the lush garden, her orchard, her meadow, the sheds that contain her sheep, cow, ducks, geese, chickens, and the adorable Tornjak herding dogs bred in Bosnia. Although the cost of living in Bosnia is low, wages and job opportunities are scarce. Bosnian resourcefulness has not disappeared in peacetime, and women’s work in gardens and kitchens are both points of pride and necessities. Her labor sustains her komšiluk while families around her emigrate or seek better-paying jobs in Croatia or Austria. “We look at this and we feel rich.” She looks at her mother and daughter, now picking thyme and chamomile for a tea. “We walk to the garden together, to the meadow together, drink coffee together, eat cake together. We love each other.” Later, as we explore the raspberries and grapes that Merjem cultivates near her house, I compliment her mother on the hard work she has put into keeping these fields so alive with food. “Kako mi radimo, mi mamo,” she explains in Bosnian, and smiles. That which we want, we have.

Dalila’s mother gathers wild thyme in the meadow next to her garden.

This work requires great cooks and hard work — usually, but not exclusively, done by women. After the harvest, the fresh fruits and vegetables are cooked, and milk and meat is gathered from the animals who graze in the meadows and forests surrounding the gardens. Preferably, when guests such as ourselves arrive, these foods are prepared in astounding abundance — we were often amazed that the tables didn’t simply collapse. “Of course. This is druželjubiv,” explained Dalila. After a few days we realized that we weren’t expected to eat everything put in front of us, but the Bosnian value of druželjubiv demands that hosts pour coffee and lay out an impressive spread for visitors, guests, family members and anyone else who happens to stop by. Like the communal underpinnings of komšiluk, druželjubiv— the hospitality of food and sharing — is an important rural interaction in wartime and in peace.

While emigrants did not always find the same hospitable and sharing-oriented communities they left in rural Bosnia, food has provided a more consistent link. Recipes and food traditions, such as the coffee customarily drunk during each meeting, sustain a sense of Bosnian-ness for Bosnians in American cities like St. Louis, which has the largest population of Bosnians outside of Sarajevo.

Bosnian snalažljiv was a great asset to refugees adapting to city life in America. Land is not widely available for farming, and communities lack a tight komšiluk to buffer the harsh realities of agricultural dependence. Without farming to provide food, households need two incomes, and this leaves precious few hours for the intensive cooking and processing of traditional foods. Food plants and meats can be purchased in America, and cucumbers, cabbage, peppers and other staples are common in American cuisine. However, we are regularly and politely told, the quality of meat and vegetables is just not as good as what is needed for these dishes, which are made to showcase the freshness and richness of each ingredient. “We’ve kept up gardening, even in our city yards, so that we can get the tomato and cucumber taste that just isn’t there in the stores,” explains one St. Louis settler.

Clouds roll in over a recently cut field in Northwest Bosnia.

Other Bosnians say they’ve found partners in quality from local Amish and Mennonite animal farmers. “They feed the animals well and raise them well. It’s the only meat we’ve found that tastes the same.” The processing they are accustomed to at home is a challenge to reproduce in US cities. Backyard smokehouses began cropping up throughout the city with the arrival of Bosnian refugees — and their new American neighbors weren’t used to smelling whole lambs being smoked on weekends. City officials got wind of this tension and ensured that backyard smokers would be protected as a “new tradition” in recognition that food practices are vital for new arrivals to cultivate a sense of home in their new communities. In the twenty years since refugee settlement, St. Louis has seen a settlement of Bosnian cuisine as well, including small-scale home processing that uses creative sourcing, and restaurants that cater to Bosnian clientele and do the work to make traditional foods accessible to people with less time and space than needed to make these dishes at home. And, of course, when visiting a Bosnian home in St. Louis, you will still be treated to druželjubiv, with the traditional Bosnian coffee setting as an overflowing centerpiece.

To better understand how these traditions live on in Bosnia, we undertake an intensive and delicious cooking regimen. Over the course of several days, we learn to make a dozen traditional Bosnian dishes alongside Dalila and her family: pita, a beef, cheese or spinach pastry made with phyllo dough; baklava, the walnut and honey dessert famous in Middle Eastern or Turkish-inspired cuisine; čevapi, beef and lamb sausage sandwiches served with raw onions; and Bosanski lonac, a colorful stew of beans, potatoes and meat. All are served along with coffee, desserts, and slices of cucumber and tomato.

Pita needs to be stretched just to the breaking point, a part of the recipe that can’t be explained or written down — it can only be felt through years of practice. Dalila explains, “I’ve been cooking for about 20 years, so I’ve gotten good at knowing what to do.” Later, as we write fieldnotes and compare photographs, we realize that we might say that we have been playing an instrument or working at a job for a long time to explain our talents, but that we rarely apply this logic to cooking. To us, it’s a recognition that cooking is a valuable craft, one that takes time and practice. In Bosnia, good cooks are made, not born.

A delicious Bosnian chicken and pepper stew with a swirl of white kajmak.

Each of these foods carries stories of improvisations made during wartime, and Skype calls to relatives when looking to get the recipe just right. Looking out the window, we see the garden that produced most of our breakfast, lunch and dinner, the community that filled in the gaps, and the sloping landscape of patchwork trees, animals and gardens that sustains it all.

Social and natural scientists have long recognized that food, community and the environment are tightly bound together. Food traditions rely as much on the knowledge and skill of cooks as on the community’s shared work and the gardener’s sweat. By eating at dinner tables, weeding in gardens, barbequing and cutting hay, we can build a sense of people and place while physically changing our environments. In fact, our ability to create these landscapes is one of the most promising and challenging aspects of modern life.

At the risk of stating the obvious: local food traditions cannot exist without local gardens, and local gardens cannot exist without food traditions. “How often do you eat this food?” we ask Marko and Sol, the young men helping us with translation and showing us around the village. We expected the normal answer of young adults raised with smartphones, YouTube and fast food: on holidays, once in awhile. “Oh, we eat things like this every day,” they answer. “Why would we eat pizza? We have čevapi. It’s, like, 1,000 times better.”

The most time-intensive foods, like burek and baklava, are too complicated and rich to eat every day. It’s the thick dark breads, light cheeses, cured meats and hearty vegetable soups that form the basis of the consistent and locally sourced diet. Younger children’s eyes light up when discussing stuffed peppers from the garden or the multi-colored Bosanski lonac. When we walk once again into Merjem’s meadow, her daughters join us, and the teenagers obsessing over their Instagram accounts set down their phones to patiently explain that they too know the best places to gather medicinal elderflower and linden flower for tea.

Empty coffee mugs are a common sight in Bosnian homes.

As researchers, we have conducted work in the United States, Peru and India. These experiences help us contextualize and compare the amazing stories that we have been privileged enough to collect. “There aren’t many places in the world like this,” we tell Merjem. She smiles sadly. “Yes, I know. People go to the city even for a year, they don’t want to cook, they don’t have gardens, they want to work just for money.” For Merjem and Dalila, who value komšiluk (community), snalažljiv (resourcefulness) and druželjubiv (hospitality), this is too high a price to pay for city life.

Global environmental change will have consequences for land and biodiversity and, in rural Bosnia and elsewhere, these changes will ripple through our cuisines, gardens and communities. The solutions to climate change will have to include multinational policy initiatives and innovative technology. And while these grand solutions are important, empowering and celebrating the communities that sustain biodiverse traditions around the world can be even more valuable. The front lines of climate change are our world’s farms, gardens, seed stores and kitchens. The families, and especially the women, who work every day to sustain biological and cultural diversity for the rest of us.

Photos are owned by Andrew Flachs and Ashley Glenn, and cannot be used or reproduced without permission.

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