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)

The Short-Lived Trade of Embalming Surgeons

 cwpb 01887 http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpb.01887
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!

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