Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday that all of us Americans know and love. But what if I were to tell you that here in the Republika Srpska and Serbia you can enjoy a massive holiday feast with your family and friends more than once a year?!
Introducing the Slava!
All Serbian Orthodox families have a patron saint that is passed down paternally through the generations. My host family has Saint Nikola as our patron which means that on December 18th my family and I traveled into the mountains to my host grandpa’s village to prepare to glorify Saint Nikola the next day on his official Slava. On Slava Eve (it’s not actually called that) we had huge feast. But not without a series of traditional ceremonies.
First a small bowl with hot embers and tamjan (frankincense) is passed around and each person must waft the smoke towards them three times following chemistry’s lab safety rules. You then must cross yourself Serbian style using only thumb, pointer and middle finger. Next comes a bowl of minced and boiled wheat. Again using only the three special fingers, one must pick up some wheat and eat it three times being extra careful to not drop any in fear of bad luck. Lastly everyone must cross the traditional bread called slavski kolač with a small glass of wine and say the mantra glorifying God and the slava. Everyone chuckled as I stumbled through, mispronouncing everything possible.
Saint Nikola’s slava falls in the middle of one of the main Serbian Orthodox fasts. Each family and individual observes the fast differently. Some do not drink, smoke or eat meat and animal products (fish is ok) for 40 days. Most people however, follow a scaled down version and only follow on special days or just eliminate only a few components of their life. My family for example only fasts on special holidays when we eat food that is posno (fast acceptable). This means that for our slava we ate all posno. A great many dishes were brought out and we sat around the table for hours on end keeping ourselves in a perpetual state of stuffed.
Most of the food is fairly simple but delicious. We started with a fish soup. Then came my favorite, the fish sarma. This is a rather labor heavy dish but I can attest it is 100% worth it.
Are you dying to know what, in gods name, is sarma? Convenient, as I am dying to talk about it. First, you take entire heads of cabbage and carve holes in the bottom. These holes are filled with a great amount of salt. Next you are going to take all of your salty cabbage in put it a giant barrel. Lastly, fill that whole barrel up with water and of course, more salt! Let that sit in your basement for a month or two.
Crack open your giant barrel a couple months later, and whew! A pungent odor of salty wet vegetable will smack you upside the head leaving you dazed and reeling. Recover, then peel the cabbage away and use it to wrap around some deliciously seasoned meat and rice. Typically it would be beef, but as it was posno o’clock, fish was used. These are then stewed on a cooktop for awhile and then served piping hot. Trust me, they are 1000 times better than they sound. After taking my first bite, I exclaimed, “Serbian Sushi!” landing my best joke of the weekend (a rough couple of days comedically).
Here are some pictures of my host mom and I preparing the cabbage.
Following the sarma we continued to stuff ourselves with fish fillets and more pickled vegetables. After multiple hours of conversation and gorging on food, we all retired into our respective food comas. The next morning, the official slava, we repeated the entire process over again. We did all of the rituals followed by another equally filling feast. At long last, afternoon came around and we were allowed to return home to try to burn off all of the 10,000 calorie lunch.
A great time with family! But here’s the kicker… You can also go to all the slavas of your friends! Over the winter, I probably attended upwards of five slavas at the homes of friends and relatives. I would be lying if I said it didn’t take a toll on my arteries.
This is Kelton, signing off.