Learning Potica — as originally published in “The Writer’s Workshop Review”

Recently, I think most of us were amused by one little line spoken between our new, Slovenian-born, United States First Lady and His Holiness, Pope Francis. Politics and historical precedence-setting aside, the whole meet-up was thrown into a spiral of media frenzy when Francis asked Melania with a grin, “Do you feed him poteezza?” Within seconds, the Google search rate soared for this mystery word—poteezza. What the media found and distilled was “nut roll, traditional to Slovenia.” Further uproar was caused when the recipe was viewed; this Slovene nut roll is no lightweight treat! Surely His Holiness was poking fun at Mr. Trump’s waistline!

Later reports noted that the Pope just really likes potica.

For me the following tale of our family’s love affair with potica pretty much describes my self-imposed martyrdom and pity wallowing induced by any and all food holidays. I’m betting you’ll recognize a bit of the typical potica debate behaviors among your own family:

Raisins—yes or no. If yes, soaked in wine, or whisky, or not at all? Rolled out thin enough to read the newspaper through or to a perfect eighth-inch thickness? Should it be loaf shaped, look like a huge donut or must a dishpan do double duty as bake ware?

 

Honey or sugar, lemon juice or zest, both or none?

The points of contention are endless!

Maybe Easter is just around the corner, or an important anniversary celebration—a reunion, a bridal shower, Thanksgiving or Christmas—no matter the occasion, my nerves reliably feel a bit jumpy. Upon any big family gathering, I will once again be challenged (expected, assumed, pressured) to bake the traditional Slovenian treat for our family…the potica. For those of you who married-in with no Balkan heritage…it’s “po-teets-zah.” For me, it’s a Panic Attack.

This is by no means the first time I’ve made the potica. It’s been my job now for several years since my grandma quit baking it. Apparently, the baton skips a generation as it is passed, so my aunts and mom just crowned me Princess Potica and before I knew it…I was in charge. So, I make it for each of the big family celebrations, and then, kind of like Jesus, I take a beating for it.

Let me clarify: I make the complicated yeast-and-nut delight and then sit back and listen to everyone else critique my offering as they wax poetic over the poticas (the real poticas) of days gone by.

How I haven’t spent a holiday in jail yet, I do not know.

Oh, I get it. I really do. I understand why I am the one who is saddled with the honor of carrying on an old-country tradition. I can bake and I am really good at it. I had my own coffee house for several years, and made everything that went out the door. But the problem with potica (and in your family it could be Aunt Nell’s potato salad) is that there is only one right way, one authentic recipe, and one correct presentation accepted and deigned perfect. Unfortunately, no one who went before me actually wrote the damn recipe down for “real potica.” You know, exactly as they made it “when it was perfect.”

Let’s revisit that last line: I want you to experience it as I hear it each time I offer up a sugary nut roll in all of its spiral-centered glory.

Say it for yourself aloud with your nose crinkled up, as if you are chewing an adult aspirin, and that repulsive pill is stuck to the back of your tongue with only scalding hot coffee available to wash it down.

Say the words, “Like the real potica. When it was perfect….” Is there a tear in the corner of your eye? Do you feel you’ve been deeply harmed, emotionally scarred and disappointed?

Good. You’re getting the general tone-of-voice and facial expression used for potica critiquing.

We can continue now.

When my oldest daughter was receiving First Communion, our parish held a ceremony a couple of days prior, the Blessing of the Loaves. Each family was to involve their children in baking a loaf of bread to bring to church with all their classmates and their classmates’ families for a special blessing. Since our parish is mostly made up of families with names like O’Brien, Donahue, and McNulty, I thought it would be more meaningful to our daughter if we skipped a plain loaf and made potica together.

Since this was a last-minute thing, I went to the internet and trolled for recipes. This was the first time I had actually seen the word spelled out. Luckily, I hit a site where the pronunciation was spelled phonetically, close to how I had “searched” (long before Google). I looked through until I found a recipe (in English) that sounded about right.

We sifted, kneaded, punched, rolled, filled and baked with delightful anticipation. The smell in the kitchen was heaven.

Blessing of the Loaves day was probably a little traumatizing for my little baker and me. Most of my Mom-friends had chumped out (having never baked bread before) and had purchased the frozen, thaw-and-bake stuff. Their loaves were glorious mounds with buttery gold crusts. The Pillsbury Doughboy bakes up like a champ every time.

Now, I’m no idiot, and I knew potica baking was hard. To be safe, we’d made two so we could choose the best looking one to show off at church. Unfortunately, the better of the pair looked like a pile of hemorrhaging raisin bagels extruded through an angel food cake pan. Not stellar. I snugged up the pristine dishtowel over the pathetic thing and nestled it deeper into the fancy basket as we approached Father Jerry. After that “experience,” I started checking around within the family for the real recipe. Oddly, no one ever seemed to be able to put their hands on one. That was probably 20 years ago. Eventually, having learned my lesson, I gave up asking. Clearly, some family things are strictly on a “need to know basis.”

As the older women in my family line all began passing on to their reward, the potica-making pool got smaller and smaller. When Grandma Jean announced that she would be taking up residence in a rest home, suddenly, the baking baton was passed on to me.

Sans the recipe, of course!

My friend Karen mercifully gifted me with a well-worn and dearly loved cookbook that had belonged to her Aunt Udi. Udi had been the potica maker for her family. Karen naturally had no idea which of the more than two dozen recipes for the bread was Udi’s favorite, so I have been baking my way through the book holiday after holiday. Each version is met, of course, with all the generous feedback I can stand. Count yourself fortunate if you won’t be spending your next big Slovenian family event at my house!

****

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The Boone Books Explained

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Boone County, Images of American is from the very popular Arcadia Publishing. This “history in hand” book is loaded with more than 200 old photos, many from private collections–never published before. Inside you’ll also discover lots of facts and short stories behind the photos.(pub 8/15/2016)
The State of Boone from small press Knocking River is a compilation of stories, info, quips and idiosyncrasies found nowhere else but Boone County Indiana. Here you’ll read about Pioneer Doctors, The Near-Lynching on Court House Square, the moral standards wars from the times of brothels and wood alcohol poisonings, the Thorntown Gorilla scare, being cured by a petrified hairball (among other things) and several Who’s Who lists of Boone Queens, bygone schools, extinct towns, Extension Homemakers, Copperhead Confederates and Horse Thief Detectives. There’s even a little grave robbery and a couple other creepy tales along the way. This is the smorgasbord of Boone lore that just screamed for more than a small caption below a photo. (pub 9/15/2015)

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What’s Food Got to do With Family?

One table, 4 generations of skilled cooks
One table, 4 generations of skilled cooks

One of my favorite topics to write about when I’m doing a family remembrance, is Food.  Almost any significant life event that’s already occurred (or will eventually) within any sect of my family ends up revolving around the table.  We feast at weddings, on birthdays and anniversaries (of anyone or anything), even after funerals.

Holidays are a traditional food-centric “thing” for us. Picnics and barbecues are the celebration of eating–for the sake of celebrating eating.

Across my family, each generation, and each cook reigns supreme over one item or another. And, depending on the “current relations and temperaments” at any given time, some of these recipes will be passed down the generational line, others will be lifted only to the “Great Cookbook in the Sky” for retirement.

Some cooks are/were generous with the sharing of secret methods and gastronomical magic–others are down-right stingy. Why? I couldn’t tell you, I’d probably be poisoned at the next big “occasion.” Some of these recipe withholding food fights can smolder for years…slowly escalating to a boil…just like a perfect stew or trick for frying up a perfect batch of peppers and onions…

For years my Dad harped at my Mom about the way her “peppers and onions” tasted different from the peppers and onions that his Mom made.

Maybe this was because my Mother’s Mom never made “peppers and onions.” That faction of the fam didn’t really believe in those two vegetables as foods suitable for cooking.

“Call Mom and ask her before you cook these next time,” was the proclamation I recall hearing after every “peppers and onions” incident. In fairness, I think my mom did call her Mother-in-law, once, about “peppers and onions.” I also think she got the complete stonewall treatment. Because she (Grandma) wasn’t a huge fan of her (my Mom)–follow?

Well, followed or not, take my advice and stay clear of the middle

When my own husband experienced the famed and authentic “peppers and onions” at Grandma’s one day, he gave Grams a hug, a little peck on the cheek, and the next thing you know, he was cooking up those “peppers and onions” the same way my Dad remembered them as a kid.

In our family, it’s all about how you approach the Bear. Some people are just better about laying the honey on nice and thick when it counts

So throw whoever you can into that ring of wild beasts (the women who cook and tightly guard their “special secrets.”). See if they can schmooze a little and find a way to preserve the best ones. I still want Aunt Helen’s potato salad recipe, but at least I’m privy to the family sugar cookies.

They are to-die-for–especially if you let loose a single crumb of the secret recipe!

And check this out–My hubby actually turned over the peppers and onions secret!

Hmmm. Glad he wrote that down..

 

 

The Short-Lived Trade of Embalming Surgeons

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Embalming Surgeon at work in the field during the Civil War.

Most of the United States was still a wide open wilderness when the Great War between the states broke out. Young men who knew little about life beyond the borders of their own farm’s fence rail were suddenly far from home and doing what was previously unthinkable.  

While some boys came home with doctoring skills, others brought home the lucrative specialty title “Embalming Surgeon.” Those who were willing to abandon their post (and could stomach it) were hired away from the armies of both sides by the booming embalming service businesses.

Field embalming could be completed in about two hours, with a minimal investment in chemicals. These gruesome entrepreneurs followed behind active battles with their tents and supplies. They employed men as “pickers” to glean blood soaked fields in search of freshly dead and mostly intact men.

“Runners” were used to contact the agents whose territory included the deadmen’s hometown. With such a streamlined system in place, the embalmer’s agents often delivered the grievous news before the official Army telegrams were dispatched. No time was wasted in the rush to sell devastated loved ones services for preservation and shipping of their soldier’s remains.

By railroad rules, only embalmed corpses would be accepted for transport. No spoiled (foul smelling) cargo of any kind was allowed. At the beginning of the great conflict between the states, bodies were packed and crated in straw and ice. However, as the war continued, delays and detours became common, and iced corpses could putrefy beside other cargo before reaching home.

When Pickers ran out onto a new battlefield, officers’ remains were favored over enlisted men. Their families were likely to be wealthier. With fees around $50 for an officer, and $25 for an enlisted man ($2500 and $1250 in today’s money) there were fortunes to be made. The service’s price included packing the remains in crudely made wood transport coffins lined with zinc against leakage.

Of course there were some Agents who were just plain cheats. These swindlers set a price upon seeing the dead soldier’s home; sometimes demanding outrageous fees at large homes with the threat of discarding the body; effectively ransoming the corpse to loved ones.

After President Lincoln’s body made its fourteen day farewell tour by train, the public in all parts of the country embraced the previously rare practice of routine embalming. Still, the market for Embalming Surgeons quickly evaporated. Undertakers at home were already set up with profitable furniture and coffin making shops. They had digging crews and fancied-up funeral hacks called “hearses” to tote the departed in.

For hometown undertakers, adding this service was an easy moneymaker. Some Embalming Surgeons found work with established undertakers; most turned to farming or whatever trade they’d left off with before the war.

Can’t find an old photo of an event relevant to your Family History? Check out the Library of Congress Image Collection. You can search by collection, events, or key words. In most cases, usage availability is noted. A few will suggest a search before using the image for publication or display (like on a blog or publication). Their cache of available photos and other forms of imagery is incredible–make it a part of your writing and researching toolbox!

Tips for Visiting a Cemetery for Genealogists

Before you head out to visit a cemetery for some genealogy or family history seeking, be sure to read over Mom’s list. 

Here’s a little sample chapter of one of the two books that will be on shelves this month written by “Moi.” Since the summer days are long, the weekends are right for road trips, and maybe you have the kids captive and can load them up with a little family history education–I thought this would be a good preview to share. 

Kids love this stuff–right?

From the upcoming “The State of Boone,” companion to “Boone County” enjoy this little “How-To” for Visiting the Relatives…

 

My family tree has many branches, both living and dead… but all equally important. I cherish the memories that make its roots run deep.”  (Lynda I Fisher)

Any early marker, upset long ago by a native tree shows the symbol of "to Heaven"
Any early marker, upset long ago by a native tree shows the symbol of “to Heaven”

For me, visiting relatives usually means getting down and dirty. I think cemeteries are a tranquil, fascinating place. So many lives, so many stories untold–so much history we might otherwise miss! As a Family Historian, going relative hunting is one of my favorite adventures.

I’ve done this grave hunting thing all over the place. On vacations I’ve traipsed around above-ground crypts built inside below-sea-level cemeteries in the “Big Easy”– New Orleans. In old Louisville, I plopped down on the jutting-up exposed ends of vaults because it was the closest thing to a level spot around. Closer to home, I once spent a long snowy afternoon chatting with a gentle herd of cows while traversing acres of laid-over winter wheat. The cows were searching for leisurely snacks; I was seeking a lonely little plot.

There is little I love more than crisp autumn colors next to bleached-out marble. Except, maybe a majestic lawn of showy statuary at a big beautiful graveyard on a sunny day.

Nope, it doesn’t creep me out.

Yes, I guess that’s a little nutty.

The point is–I’ve done a lot of field-stalking for the graves of my forefathers, and I’ve learned some good tips and tricks. Sure there are lots more “do’s and don’ts” but this is my standard list of rules, go-to methods, and stuff to drag along.

Finding an old grave can be a challenge, but if you hang with it, you’re bound to make a discovery or two worth your while.

So here are my “rules” for visiting, and some handy-to-have stuff to take along. I hope you’ll take time to try some hunting yourself, and then let me know how it panned out for you and your kin!

RULES

  1. MANY cemeteries are on private property; especially the defunct ones. Some are even in people’s yards–very close to their house. Often, these properties are owned by seniors. No matter who lives there, be respectful.
  2. For visits on private property with no public right of way, drop a courtesy note in the mailbox of the occupant well in advance of your site visit. State your business, and ask for permission to come by at their convenience to take a look. Respect their wishes. Please describe your vehicle, ask before photographing, and give them all of your contact information.
  3. Do not stomp up next to someone’s home and start taking pictures of a little plot sectioned-off with some pretty iron fencing. Not cool.
  4. Take notes of your visits. Record the who, what, when, why, how and what I should do next time. Be sure to carry your notes at all times.

STUFF to TAKE — THINGS to DO

Here are my best tips for a successful trip to any cemetery for ancestor hunting. These can be especially important to heed if you’re setting off for a very old, defunct, or out-of-the-way location.

  • Make a list of who you are looking for, and where they are buried ahead of time. You can use the spaces next to cemetery names in this book to jot down some notes, or make your own dedicated notebook. Most places (remember to check for additional names when more than one is noted) can be found with the mapping or GPS feature online at Find A Grave. This is a free site and a great resource when searching.
  • Whenever possible, take a companion. This is good advice anytime you start an adventure.
  • Also take along a bag with a large towel or heavy blanket, a flashlight, your notebook and pen, any emergency medications you might need (inhaler, nitro tablets, Epi-pen etc), a spray bottle filled with distilled water, a few old toothbrushes, some sturdy gloves, a small roll of aluminum foil, some kitchen shears heavy enough to cut through vines. Oh, and personally I do love a super sturdy trash bag to put between me and nature as I sit and kneel in the mud, bugs, and weedy grass.
  • Always make a note of where your car is parked in your records during each trip (what entry point did you use?). No, I don’t think you’ll get lost, but it will be of use to you later when you are mapping sites and recording the position of certain graves.
  • Never step out of your car without taking along a fully charged cellphone. In case of emergency–and lots of emergencies can happen–this simple tool can really save you!
  • Have your camera on hand and ready. Carry spare batteries or be sure it is fully charged. If you will be using your cell phone’s camera, be sure you have it set for high performance with the automatic flash turned off. If you don’t know how to set up your phone to do its best picture taking, stop by a retailer and have a sales tech do it for you. Digital photos are the best tool for reading old stones.
  • When possible, take a large stick with you. Though you may not have to fight back bears, you may stumble upon a snake or other critter. I’d rather shoo away a curious groundhog with a long stick than my camera bag any day! Also, uneven ground is a given–especially in the graveyards with the oldest interments. Count on them to be riddled with animal burrows, large roots, broken off stones and sunken spots. All of these can easily cause a fall or a broken bone. Use your stick as a “leading leg” to test the ground before you. Although it may seem awkward at first, one you get the hang of it, you’ll wonder how you ever hiked around without one.
  • Be sure to keep your eyes and ears keen to your surroundings.  Be on the look-out for feisty Hobos or thieves. Be sure to lock your car.  Also, hornets, or ground bees, seem to adore living in old cemeteries. If you hear their hum, just steer clear of them and you will all have a better day.
  • Wear a hat if you’d like, but be sure to remove it, or turn it backward before taking photos. The shade of the brim or bill can affect the automatic light level detection on today’s cameras and cause a lesser quality image.
  • Long pants, boots or sturdy shoes, bug spray and long-sleeved shirts are a great defense against ticks and biting insects and poison ivy rashes.
  • Once you’ve found who you’re looking for (especially in large graveyards) make yourself a little map. Remember how you noted where you left the car? Now is the time to use that. Photograph the grave marker so the name and shape are clear. Then, stand at the grave with your back to your parked vehicle (make a habit of beginning from this position). At eye level, take a photo. Make a quarter turn, and do the same. Keep going until you have an image of what you see in all four directions when you are standing graveside. Digital photography rocks! This 4-way-shot of the site will help lead you easily back to your ancestor next time.
  • Visually inspect the stone/marker for signs of dangerous deterioration. Inspect each one closely before touching it. Watch for chipping, cracks, breaks, previous repairs, crumbling, or any open grainy or sandy looking spots. Be warned that even the thinnest upright markers can be very heavy and cause some serious damage if they “snap” while you’re nicely wiping moss away. Safety first!
  • If you encounter old, very faded stones that are not quite legible, then a companion’s extra set of hands will come in really handy. Using the blanket or large towel to shade the tombstone, prop your flashlight onto the bottom edge of the grave-marker. Without a flash, take a close photo while under the shade of the cloth. Then try shining the flashlight downward on the faint markings (while still keeping it and the camera shaded from sunlight). The results may not be immediately apparent, but at home with some simple editing features found on most cameras and phones, you might be amazed.
  • Do check (and photograph) the sides, back and top edge of each stone as well as the front. Often you will find a little surprise like a fraternal emblem or an ornamental symbol carved in the stone. Compare any findings like these to the exhaustive list available on the AGS website (address below). These may lead you to a previously unsuspected clue about your relative’s “earthly” interests.
  • If the surface is obscured by weeds or dirt, cut away the vegetation with your kitchen shears. Mud and dirt deposits, along with any grass overgrowth on flat stones should be peeled off by hand (use the gloves if you’d like). Lichens and moss often plague markers in shady areas. Use a dry toothbrush to scrub them away. If you need a little something more, spray the area with water and allow it to soften the crud before wiping it away with a towel or toothbrush.
  • Spritzing the face of a stone with water is another trick for reading barely-there etching. Be sure to try photographing the tough to read ones both wet and dry.
  • Occasionally, you can get a good result by laying aluminum foil (shiny side down works best) over the epitaph and lightly rubbing it to conform with your hands. Once you’ve done your best, photo the stone again while the foil is still in place, and then carefully set the sheet aside to reexamine at home.
  • Think you have a great idea for how to clean/read/repair a gravestone? Check in with the AGS website first (the Association for Gravestone Studies). These folks know their stuff and are up-to-date on what does and does not cause harm to these precious relics. Find their fascinating, info-rich website at https://gravestonestudies.org/
  • And, Indiana-Boone-Jones, if you think you’ve found a previously undocumented grave site, be sure to contact the county health department to inform them of your discovery.

You’ll probably make the papers! 

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