Ellis Island

THE POTICA-SWEDISH-TEA-RING WAR

Mary Perse rolls potica

Will an Alzheimer’s victim remember this treat from the past.

My mother-in-law Rose (and every Slovenian woman in the neighborhood worth her salt) made wonderful holiday bread called potica.  Not “pot’ e ca” – the way it might be pronounced if one put the accent mark on the wrong syllable. Its proper pronunciation is po’ teet sa (po as in potential).

Holiday bread — that’s exactly what it was/is: Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, weddings and any other occasion where there was a celebration – particularly a religious celebration.  Many of the women, including Rose, baked the potica in a turkey roasting pan the day before the event. Best described you might look at it and think – “giant cinnamon roll”– only different: more of a bread filled with ground walnuts and honey than a sweet.  Lacking an oval-shaped roasting pan, the boa-like roll can be cut into loaf-pan pieces and baked individually.

When I met Ken he mentioned – no, mentioned is not a strong enough word – he bragged that he was 100 percent Yugoslavian.  His father, Nick, and Rose’s parents came to America from that part of the world.  His dad was just a boy of 15 traveling alone when he entered the U.S. through Ellis Island in 1906.  Both Ken and his sister Loretta were extraordinarily proud of their dad’s courageous journey to America and their so-called unique “pure” heritage.  I scoffed, telling him that with the world’s dark account of battles and conquest which constantly swept back and forth across the continent like the ebb and flow of endless tsunamis, no one could possibly be 100 percent anything; especially with all the plundering, ravaging and “whatever” which always accompanies the brutality of war. Yet, he persisted.

As our children grew my gene contribution of mixed Anglo-Saxon and Swedish ancestry became so insignificantly incidental I often wondered if my offspring could have been birthed by a surrogate Slovenian woman and I hung around to do the cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing.  Consequently, and to hang on to my own identity I declared war on making potica.  (My war was not to be confused with the potica war which raged quietly among the older generation of Slavic woman.  Rose used dark rains while her sister-in-law Mary insisted the number one potica recipe must contain only white raisins.)   In my effort to stand my ground and not make, or bake, the celebrated bread I became the unnoticed resistance.  The family’s attitude was, “Who cares if mom doesn’t do potica, we have plenty with Grandma and Auntie Mary baking it.”  I did have, though, a fabulous recipe for a Swedish tea ring which I made more often than Rose or Auntie Mary, who lived close by, made potica.

Our girls, as adults, coaxed the recipe from their grandmother or Mary, and when they married both of them dutifully made potica, portions of the bread they brought to their grateful father – and me. “Ah,” he would say, “potica — just like my mother bakes.  Her parents were from Yugoslavia, you know.”

Following WWI and the fall of the Austria-Hungary empire, more than 20 ethnic groups were thrown together to form Yugoslavia which loosely existed under Communism for many years.  Powerful Marshal Tito managed to extrapolate the country from Soviet-Stalin dominance in 1945, and continued to rule with his own iron Communist fist for another 35 years.  When Tito died in 1980, the Yugoslav government, of which he was the pivotal figure, began to crumble under conflicts and political upheavals.  Countries and regions involved wanted to be who they were before WWI.  Sadly, new and fierce conflicts ensued. Yugoslavia, as we had known it, faded from the map.

Meanwhile, we discovered that Nick was born in a little town in Austria, which had been obliterated by the Germans during WWII, and Rose’s parents emigrated from Croatia.  For a good portion of the century, they had obediently accepted the order of Yugoslavia even though, in their hearts, they knew better.  I teased Ken for a long while, as did my brother-in-law Douglas, about him now being a man without a country which he took, unruffled, in his stride.  After all, my husband is an American: first generation, but still an American.

As for potica, I did surrender after many years and made the delicious bread.  I suppose Rose, herself, might have driven me forward to give it a try when she stayed with us for a few nights after Nick died.  I had baked a Swedish tea ring, and in the morning I brewed her coffee and served a slice of my delicacy.  “Mmmmm,” she murmured, “Who made the potica.”

I suppose it doesn’t really matter whether it’s potica or tearing.  They are both delicious in their own right.  Nor does it matter whose ethnic background is 100 percent anything.  We are really one: part of God’s family.  Hopefully, someday we’ll all get along so we can enjoy potica and Swedish tearing at the same banquet in addition to ham, lamb, chicken, sheep heads, beef, squid, octopus eyes, bugs, headcheese, tripe, brains, worms, larva, sea creatures and whatever else is out there for mankind to consider a gourmet delight.

On Thanksgiving Day, our daughter Julie had dinner with Tim’s parents, but on the way, they dropped by with buttery sweet potatoes, sausage stuffing, and potica.  “I wonder if Dad will remember it,” she questioned, and as curious as I was I decided to wait until the next day when the time was quiet and he could concentrate on what he was eating rather than be distracted with so many other foods and a house filled with company.

All by itself on a plate with a little butter he picked up a piece of his heritage food and took a few bites.  “Mmmmm,” he said, and then he stuffed the rest of it into his mouth without another word or sign of recognition.  Perhaps, though, somewhere in the lost caverns of his diseased mind there may have been a tangled nerve cell groping to identify that little “something” which was so familiar.

FOR YOUR NEW YEAR’S BAKING PLEASURE

Potica

Soak raisins (dark or light) till puffy – about an hour:  11 or 15 oz. box depending on your raisin preference

Potica dough

2 envelopes dry yeast dissolved in ½ cup warm water. Set aside.

2 cups scalded milk.  Allow to cool to tepid.

2 tsp salt

¼ cup butter or margarine

½ cup sugar.

2 well-beaten eggs

7 – 8 cups flour

Add readied yeast to lukewarm milk.  Add next four ingredients.  Beat thoroughly.  Beat in some  flour and mix till you have to change to a spoon.  Mix in remaining flour as if it were bread dough but a little softer.  Place in greased bowl.

Cover with dish towel and allow rising till doubled in size.

Potica filling

1-1/2 pounds ground walnuts (7.5 cups shelled nuts – yes, lots).

1 cup honey

½ cup milk

2 eggs

½ cup sugar

1 Tb. Cinnamon

Sprinkle of salt

Stir together.  Makes a thick paste.

Cover a very large table (dining room table is good) with a clean flat sheet folded in quarters. Flour lightly.  Punch down dough and then roll out in rectangle of about ½” in thickness.  It’s big. Smooth paste over surface, sprinkle on raisins.  Roll entire piece of dough with filling into a giant jelly roll.  Best way is to turn the first edge then let the sheet do the rolling (see photo).  Cut into loaf-size pieces and place in greased loaf pans (or greased turkey roaster).  Cover with towel and allow doubling in bulk and then bake in 350 degree oven.  Remove, rest in pans 5 minutes. Turn out to cool.

Swedish Tea Ring

Soak about 1 cup raisins according to preference, till puffy. (Raisins optional)

Tea Ring dough

2 envelopes dry yeast dissolved in ¼ cup lukewarm water. Set aside.

Blend ½ cup sugar into ¼ cup shortening

1 tsp. salt

2 eggs beaten

1 tsp. grated lemon rind

1 cup milk, scalded and cooled to lukewarm

About 5 cups flour

Stir first five ingredients into cooled milk. Beat.  Add enough flour to make batter.  Beat well adding as much flour as possible and still be able to beat dough.  Stir in remaining flour to make a soft dough.  Turn out on lightly floured board and knead until satiny.  Place in greased bowl, cover and allow it to rise until doubled in bulk.

Tea Ring filling

Melted butter

Brown sugar

Cinnamon

Chopped nuts

Raisins or other dried fruit (optional)

Powdered sugar icing with just enough lemon juice to drizzle.  Chopped nuts

When dough is light, remove from bowl and punch down.  Place on lightly floured surface.  Knead just a bit.  Divide into two sections. Set aside 1 section for 2nd tea ring.  Roll 1st section into rectangle about 3/8 inch in thickness.  Brush surface with melted butter and sprinkle generously with brown sugar, cinnamon, raisins (optional) and nuts; amounts in preference.  Roll like jelly roll bringing ends together to form circle.  Tuck ends inside one to the other.  Place circle on greased baking sheet, or round pizza pan.  With scissors, cut circle at 1-inch intervals to near center.  Twist each section under and up. Allow to rise once again until doubled in bulk. Bake in moderate oven (375 degrees) 25 to 30 minutes.  While still warm, drizzle with icing made with powdered sugar diluted with lemon juice and milk.  Careful when adding liquid to powdered sugar; you want to drizzle onto the tea ring, but not have it run off.  Sprinkle with more chopped nuts. Assemble and bake 2nd tea ring.

Originally posted 2011-12-31 03:10:05.

THE GREAT ADVENTURE

My father in law, Nicholas Romick, immigrated to America when he was a fresh-faced boy of 15 arriving at Ellis Island in 1906. Coming into the harbor Nick stood at ship’s rail with other newcomers as the Statue of Liberty came into view, his young body filled with emotion: excitement — trepidation — he wasn’t sure.

 The awesome thing about his trip was that he came alone with only a pack on his back.  Fortified with a burning desire to “come to America,” he left Austria with blessings from his widower father and a loan of $50. to pay for the voyage which he promised to return. From the time he waved his last goodbye to family and friends on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and stepped onto the gangplank of an American-bound ship Nick was on his own.

Through the long process of immigration with thousands of other Europeans who poured through the Island’s gates, Nick was pushed along with the crowd exiting from just one of the many ferry boats onto the docks of New York City.  His last name had already been Americanized from Romic’ to Romich, the first of two changes. Furthermore, his only knowledge of English was, “Mr. Man, Give me job.” Fortunately, a kind farmer from upstate New York answered his plea and offered the boy work. For the next few years the industrious youth repaid his benefactor with an honest day’s labor for an honest dollar. He studied, taught himself English, saved the dollars, and then struck out to explore the new immense land.

Nick rode the rails in boxcars, worked in Detroit as a sand-hog and in the mines of Montana and Bingham Canyon. Always moving on, he continually looked beyond the next horizon. It wasn’t by chance that he found himself in Pueblo, Colorado where there was work at the steel mill. Still loving his new country he also missed the old world; the people, the customs and his first language. During his wanderings Nick had heard of a large Slovenian community in Pueblo and at 22 he thought it time to settle down.

New man on the job at the mill, Nick was befriended by the Perse brothers who invited the lonely man to their home for dinner. Other than the two older brothers, the offspring of Pete and Mary Perse numbered 14 in all, seven boys and seven girls. Comfortable in their midst, Nick couldn’t help but notice pretty little Rosie, still a child at 10.

Yet, adventure called once again, and Nick left his new-found friends joining the U. S. Marines, where Romich became Romick. Knowingly, the choice took him away from Colorado, but through his enlistment Nick earned his citizenship, something he knew he must have.  The Marines also opened up a whole new world of discipline to him, not only in obedience and following the rules of the Corps to the exact letter, but he was introduced to a new level of personal hygiene, something unfamiliar to him as a boy and traveling the country as a rugged and ragged hobo.

Six years later he returned again to visit the Perse family after serving in Guam and China where the Corps guarded the American Legation. Rose, 16, was no longer pretty little Rosie, but beautiful Rose.  She and Nick developed “an understanding” while he was on leave.  Returning to China for an additional two years the couple corresponded until his discharge.  Nick returned to Pueblo where Rose, at 18, was waiting.

They married in spite of the 12-year-age difference with the family’s blessings — everyone believing that Nick would pick up where he had left off — working at the steel mill. “You’re not going back to the mill,” Rose told her new husband, “We’re going to California.” 

Two years later in a small East Bay apartment the couple welcomed their first child, a girl, whom they named Loretta.  Nick worked at several odd jobs eventually finding permanent employment with Block Tannery in Berkeley.   With steady income the couple purchased a small frame house on 10th street also in Berkeley so Nick could walk to his job.  Kenneth was born two years later.  Nick remained with Block until his retirement, never losing one day’s work throughout the depression.

When I met Ken I also met his family. I found Nick’s stories fascinating and agreed with Bob, their neighbor, who advised Ken and Loretta to write down, or  record them in some way.   “Your father is a remarkable man, having lived a truly adventurous life,” Bob reminded the two.  “His experiences could fill a book.”  Young and foolish, they dismissed the advice complaining they had listened to their father’s tales all of their lives and if they didn’t hear them ever again, it would be too soon.

Years later, the editor of the magazine section of our local newspaper assigned me to write about an immigrant who came to America with a pack on his back. Search though we did, we found none — other than my father in law. In spite of the nepotism, Jerry said, “Do it.” I knew that Nick was forgetting the present, but hoped he would recall enough of his early life to make a good article. Through the years I heard most of Nick’s stories myself. Sitting together, I began my interview.  He was pleased that someone wanted to listen and spoke freely about China and his father and of his ocean voyage.  However, when I asked detailed questions about his homeland, upstate New York, Detroit, Montana, Bingham Canyon, his answer was always the same. With furrowed brow, he would say, “I don’t remember.”   The brief article of Nick’s life which spanned the better part of a century was the perfect size for the Sunday magazine. For the readers it was a good read, but for family it was only a portion.  The rest of the story, like my mother’s recipe for dinner rolls was gone — held captive within the Alzheimer’s prison of Nick’s padlocked brain.

Somehow, we believe that memory will last, sharp and clear, as long as life itself, and by some kind of self-imposed denial we also believe that life too will continue day after day just as it is now; that there will always be time to sit and listen to the legends of those who came before; that Alzheimer’s and other devastating brain diseases are something that happens to other people, but none of  that is true.  Loved ones pass on, time for doing runs out and for so many, memory is stolen away like a thief in the night leaving all to wish and wonder about the past, our own roots and remembering the hundreds of curious questions which now can never be asked remaining forever without answers.

Originally posted 2009-06-28 20:38:38.

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