‘Bread is practically sacred’: how the taste of home sustained my refugee parents

Nothing taught me more about my parents – and myself – than the food they cherished after fleeing wartorn Bosnia.

By Aleksandar Hemon

My parents’ social life in Bosnia (and therefore their children’s) regularly featured a bunch of their friends getting together for a lot of food and drinking and singing and laughing. Nobody would ever call that endeavour “dinner” – the activity revolved around food, but could never be reduced to it. In Bosnian, the verb that describes such an activity is sjediti, which means to sit, as the whole operation consists of sitting around the table, eating, drinking and being together for the purposes of well-earned pleasure. If I want to invoke an image of my parents being unconditionally happy (not an easy task), I envision them with their friends at a table, roaring with laughter between bites of delicious fare and sips of slivovitz (damson or plum brandy) or grappa.

This would sometimes last for a whole weekend: sometimes we would go to Boračko jezero, a modest mountain-lake resort, to join my parents’ friends and their families for 1 May, the socialist Labour Day. The inextricable part of the fun and joy there was the presence of others, and the spirit of abandon reigned from morn to midnight and beyond. But the central, inescapable bonding ritual was spit-roasting a lamb that would then be shared by all. There, as everywhere we lived, food was meant to be shared, which is why it is never permissible to eat while someone else is watching and not eating. Food is other people. We hate eating alone, just as we hate being alone.

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