Geopolitics of Sarma, Debunking an old Recipe

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Morscher's Pork Store- Photo: John Currie,

It all happened in America – this incredible place with no respect for tradition, in a state of constant movement and innovation. Not always for the best, of course. But I love what happened to me this New Year’s when I finally realized that sticking to Mom’s old recipes is nonsensical.

When I first came to New York and started cooking, I wanted to transplant Italian cuisine into my new home, and finding this to be difficult, I ranted and complained about everything. The pasta was good, but the water in New York City was too soft, which doubled the cooking time. Not to mention that an espresso, even the best quality, loses its gusto thanks to the water quality. Then there’s the meat – you can’t use for some special recipes because it’s not cut properly. Not to mention the quality: it’s awful! And, oh my god – will I ever be able to taste real parsley again? Americans hate it, so they just use it for decoration and do not care what it tastes like. As long as it’s green!

Things got even more dramatic when I used recipes from a smaller country like mine, Slovenia, where the choices of dishes to cook are narrower and the dogma of defending Mom’s recipes becomes stronger. In my case, it was actually my Grandma Kristina, an incredibly generous and hardworking woman who ran her own restaurant – a big family house, with animals in stables and occasionally even a deli store – before the family decided to give it away. All this in one big house in the countryside where we, the city kids, would come for family gatherings and vacations. There in the humid wine cellar of my grandparents’ house, I learned all about making “kislo zelje,” or sauerkraut, as it is now known in English. On that day in my early youth, there were a number of people preparing and chopping cabbage, putting layers of it into a huge wooden barrel with salt, pepper and bay leaves.  My older cousins had washed me and dressed me in white from top to bottom so that I could get into the barrel and march in circles, stamping the freshly chopped cabbage. It was a lot of fun, since I was growing higher with every new layer of cabbage in the barrel, and I finally became as tall as all the adults around me.

Then, filled with the cabbage, the barrel was covered and weighed down with heavy stones, so that the pressure on cabbage would continue. From that time on, my memory ordered me that the cabbage has to be made in the countryside and fermented and seasoned in a wooden barrel for months before it is good to be consumed, before the brine makes it crispy and tasty. This personal myth continued for many years, long after my grandmother passed away. It was repeated by my own mother, who never made her own krauts, but knew how to buy the right quality of kislo zelje in the food market – something that I learned how to do when I was living alone, though it was facilitated by the long lines of shoppers in front of the stand of the most famous sauerkraut producer at green market in Ljubljana. By the time I started to live abroad, I would have probably forgotten about sarma, or stuffed cabbage, had it not been for my dear friends and family in Slovenia. Especially in Ljubljana, New Year’s sarma during my long absence became trendy. So much so that I got curious, and two or three times bought some pickled cabbage heads that I brought with me to Rome, where I cooked them against all the rules of mediterranean diet and cooking. I was actually embarrassed when I first cooked sarma in Rome, and the smell of the sauerkraut suffocated the gentle smell of the jasmine plant in the courtyard. But my first sarma – which I cooked with the help of an old Slovenian cookbook – was a success.

New York, however, is different from Rome. The smells here are less delicate. But over the last couple of years, when I really started to look for the pickled cabbage leaves necessary to make sarma, I encountered similar problems. In the land of a thousand nations, I started asking around. I asked our little Slovenian community. I asked a Polish cleaning lady. I went roaming around food shops in the Bronx with an Albanian, always looking for the same thing – the pickled cabbage leaves to make sarma. Twice I came very close, but with my mind full of dogmas and taboos, I refused the offered products. Then, on December 26 of last year, while celebrating Boxing Day in Upstate New York, a friend’s daughter told me that she spotted a Slovenian butcher in Queens. Of all the places and all the people in the world, I learned of a Slovenian butcher in Queens from a friend’s daughter who I knew when she was a still a charming little girl back in Beijing. I asked her if the butcher sold krauts. If he is Slovenian, he’s got to, I thought. I got the address, I went online, and there it was: the story of Morscher’s Pork Store. I immediately recognized the cabbage head in brine that I was looking for.

But there was more. “The [Morscher] family is originally from Austria,” the owner told Serious Eats. “It was the Austria-Hungarian Empire then, and then it was divided and become Yugoslavia. We lived in an area that is now Slovenia, called Kočevje [Gottschee in German]. We lived in the area for 600 years. My great grandfather had a restaurant, a hotel in the town where he was from, a gästehaus they called it.”

Gottschee is German for Kočevje, a city in south Slovenia, rich in forests, but also known as the homeland of the country’s German-speaking enclave for last 600 years. They speak their own dialect of German, called Gottscheerisch, named after the town that linked 177 peasant settlements when it was first founded. Gottscheers were forced to move into this remote, sparsely populated area of Slovenia as punishment for rebelling against Austrian landlords. They survived among the Slovenian-speaking majority in their new home partly because they lived in a remote, isolated place. In the mid-19th century, there were about 28,000 people living in Gottschee, but then they started to immigrate to America. By the end of the WWII, there were 12,500 Gottscheers left. And those few who remained were persecuted by the new regime. There are many undocumented stories of the revenge of the Yugoslavian army, massacring many of the Gottscheers. They were all expelled from Slovenia, and the area has since been populated by local Slovenians. There are only a few thousand Gottscheers around the world who speak their language today. I had never met a Gottscheer in my life, and a Gottscheer would sell me my grandma’s sarma? I got excited.

After I read the article, I phoned the shop, asking about the owners and, of course, about the krauts. The next day I drove across the Triboro Bridge into Queens. As soon as I got of the highway, I drove along a Queens trucking route lined by cemeteries, warehouses, a Coca-cola plant and a police station, all next to each other in a weird document of human chaos. I would have never found my way to Morscher’s Pork Store without my GPS, especially when the area became residential and the signage became completely insane.

But there it was, my little store, as described in the piece I’d read earlier. Even smaller. There’s space for four to five customers, and the rest of the store is filled with meats and sausages. And there was a Romanian customer ahead of me who insisted on getting blood sausages, the same kind that he bought last year. I started to buy my stuff, but then waited to talk to Herb Morscher, who was serving the Romanian man. When Herb got closer to me, I asked him if I could talk to him. I got scolded immediately, told not to disturb him while he was focused on another customer. I silently giggled, measuring the distance of years, when I was capable of similar reactions. But I also understood that Mr. Herb Morscher is a goddamn serious person, and that his products of good quality. I somehow survived the tension that I had accidently created in the shop, and had a little chat with Herb, who – after filling two heavy bags with my purchases – came out from behind of his counter, thanked me, wished me a happy New Year, and even gave me the shop’s calendar. I told him I would be back, while he told me about Gottscheer Hall, a bar and restaurant where they still speak the Gottscheerisch. I have no idea why Herb told me all this in Serbian. Perhaps because he was one of the Gottscheers, who for centuries refused to learn Slovenian. In the end, he had to learn Serbian just to sell more of his pork sausages, I guess. For a moment I experienced what it must feel like to be a Gottscheer. But perhaps this was simply because Herb is a good businessman. It was almost the end of the year, and people were rushing to get their shopping done. Herb wanted me to go out of his little shop. Time to do more business.

When I got  to Gottscheer Hall, I felt like a total foreigner. A dozen faces from deep in the 20th century scrutinized me while I was strategizing where to sit in order to start a conversation. There was no way I was going to make this happen. The line of defense was so tight that I had to have my good beer alone in a corner of the dark room. Folks around the bar were there for the last time in the old year. An important event for the people who have roots in my part of the world, I mused. Then there was a noise coming from the marble staircase. Everybody turned around and stared at the delivery man who brought the fresh keg of beer up the stairs on his small trolley.

“He is insane,” somebody said, and then everyone turned back to the bar and continued to chat in Gottscheerisch.  

Cooking my first sarma in New York ended with mixed results. While the quality of their raw material is good, Morscher’s abused the salt in an attempt to speed up production. That led me to some additional improvisations during cooking preparations. But the end result was good, and from now on, like my new “Slovenian” butcher, I may try to do my own krauts in the industrial way, fermented only for a few days. I doubt I will, because my desire for this kind of cooking is not as strong anymore. But just in case, I have already apologized to Grandma Kristina.

Also published on Medium.

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