Our relatives planned and prepared months in advance of our visit to their northwestern republic of Slovenia, Yugoslavia. We had been writing to each other for three years, a correspondence that began with a search for my family roots.
My father's cousin, Mira, and her husband, Stanko, run a small restaurant in Slovenia. When my husband and I finally arrived in my relatives' country, we were taken to the restaurant and led past the shaded outdoor caf'e and into the cheerful, sunny dining room.
The gostilna (restaurant) was closed to the public during our visit so the family could spend more time with us and take us to visit other relatives and the birthplaces of my father and grandparents.
Bright gold linens, with smaller white squares laid diamond-wise on top, covered each of the eight tables. A portrait of former President Tito was displayed prominently. Brilliant red flowers in window boxes added color to the room.
Yugoslavs, we soon found out, enjoy eating. Mealtimes are leisurely, a time when the family gets together to discuss the news and affairs of the day.
Our breakfasts with the family consisted of eggs, cheese, sausage, marmalade, and freshly baked bread purchased daily.
During our stay, I asked Vika why we saw only one brand of cold cereal -- a drab box of corn flakes -- in their little grocery shops.
``Almost no one here eats cold cereal,'' she said. ``I tried it once in England and I didn't like it one little bit!''
Lunches are the main meal of the day and always begin with bowls of clear soup with finely cut homemade noodles. No bread was served with the soup unless we asked for it.
Entrees were either chicken, beef, Wiener schnitzel, or trout, freshly caught at a nearby stream. Each was deep-fried with a light batter, yet not at all oily when served.
Various kinds of potato dishes, including French fries, accompanied the main course. Leaf lettuce and most other vegetables were served fresh from Mira's garden.
Salad dishes of thinly sliced tomatoes and onions, covered with a dressing of vinegar and a dark pumpkin seed oil, are popular in Slovenia, and delicious. A light sunflower seed oil is used for cooking.
We also had side dishes of pickled sweet yellow peppers -- or paprikas, as they call them -- and heaping salad bowls of coleslaw. Mushrooms the size of a small cauliflower were gathered from the nearby mountains, cut into thick, steak-size slices, then breaded and deep-fried.
And always there was a plate of potica (pronounced poe-TEETS-ah), the traditional dessert for festive occasions. It is made with pastry that is rolled, pulled, and stretched across the table until very, very thin, then spread with butter, honey, ground walnuts, and browned bread crumbs and carefully rolled up and baked.
One delectable variation of potica had many layers of the paper-thin pastry spread with sour cream and separated by slices of apples, chopped walnuts, and poppy seeds.
Lest we go hungry between Mira's more-than-generous portions at mealtimes, she brought out plates of sausage, cheese, and potica to be eaten in the afternoon beneath the walnut tree in the backyard.
Even though our hosts run the restaurant, there was one request Mira refused to fill: ``No sendviches!'' Meals were to be served as meals, not slapped together between slices of bread.
At the table, Yugoslavs use their cutlery in the European manner, keeping the fork in the left hand, knife in the right.
Napkins are kept handy beside the plate. More than once Mira looked across the table and, seeing no napkins at our places, jumped up to fetch some for us before learning we had them on our laps.
Finally Mira asked, ``Why do you put them on your laps?'' We couldn't come up with a logical reason except ``custom.''
Beverages with our meals included milk or an orange soft drink spelled ``kok-ta'' (COKE-tah). Unless specified differently, milk is served warm.
On the last Sunday of our visit, we took the family to a restaurant for an early dinner. But at the end of the evening, the rest of the relatives came to Stanko and Mira's home, and once again there was a groaning board of sausages, cheeses, potica, and breads.
This time there was also pohenja (poe-HEN-yah), a pastry similar to rosettes, but cut into strips and loosely tied before deep-frying until delicately browned, then dusted with powdered sugar.
After the meal, the family sang Slovene folk songs for us. During one song, ``Radi, radi,'' everyone linked arms over each other's shoulders and swayed side to side.
Stanko sang a humorous solo, to the delight of everyone. The families' voices harmonized and blended beautifully from years of practice, leaving in our memory the sounds of joy and love around a Yugoslav table. Croatian Sarma (Stuffed Cabbage) 1 tablespoon flour 1 tablespoon lard 1/2 clove garlic, minced 1/2 cup tomato juice 1 2-pound cabbage, fresh or soured 1 chopped onion 1 pound ground beef 1 pound ground pork 1/2 pound ground ham butt 1/2 cup partly cooked rice Salt and pepper to taste 1 egg 1 teaspoon paprika 1 pound smoked sausage, optional
Brown flour in shortening. Add garlic and tomato juice and simmer a few minutes, stirring until smooth. Put aside.
If using cabbage leaves, cut out core to start separation of leaves. Blanch leaves 2 minutes in boiling water, then plunge into cold water.
Mix onion with meats, rice, salt, pepper, egg, and paprika. Fill each cabbage leaf with mixture. Fold ends over, then roll. Place in kettle, fold down, and cover with water.
Place smoked sausage on stuffed leaves. Simmer 1 hour. Cover with tomato sauce and simmer until heated, about 5 minutes. Makes about 2 dozen cabbage rolls. (Recipe from Rose Vodnik, St. John Evangelist Church cookbook, Greenfield, Wis.) Sirovi Knedelni (Cottage Cheese Dumplings) 2 pounds dry cottage cheese, riced 6 eggs 2 teaspoons salt 5 tablespoons flour 2 tablespoons cream of wheat Extra flour for coating Browned, buttered bread crumbs for garnish
Mix all ingredients except extra flour and bread crumbs and let mixture rest 10 minutes.
Bring 4 quarts of water to boil.
With palms of hands, shape into a ball 1 tablespoon of mixture at a time.
Drop into boiling water. Cover and boil slowly 12 minutes.
Cut one ball in half to be sure it's done. Remove all dumplings from water.
Sprinkle generously with browned, buttered bread crumbs.
Makes about 18 dumplings. Leftovers can be fried in butter.