Milk, flour, egg and salt: A Serbian recipe for more than rivel soup

Milk, flour, egg, salt. A simple mix, but that’s all it took to get me salivating. I sat in the dining room waiting, my eleven-year-old fingers grazing the lace tablecloth, my eyes wandering over the porcelain cherub figurines lining the shelves of the antique wood cabinet. I was ready for my rivel soup.

My beloved rivels

Finally Aunt Margaret emerged from the kitchen, holding a simmering pot of my favorite part of Sunday dinners at her house. I smiled in anticipation. Rivel soup wasn’t the only thing Aunt Margaret could make. Soft warm bread, steaming cabbage, bright bell peppers stuffed with tomatoes and ground beef, stew with chunks of lamb so tender they just fell apart in your mouth. They all made regular appearances at her house, but rivel soup was my favorite.

I never thought, in those years when Aunt Margaret could still cook, before age withered her fingers until they couldn’t knead the dough or support a saucepan anymore, about how she was one of the last members of my family who knew how to make those recipes. Her Serbian dinners were one of the last remaining links I had to a not-so-distant heritage that was fading along with the memories of those who knew the recipes, songs and stories of Yugoslavia, the old country.

When I was old enough to begin thinking of Aunt Margaret as a person rather than as just my churchgoing spinster aunt, I asked my mom what she had been like in her younger years.

“She’s spent her life taking care of people. She’s taken care of me, your Aunt Laurie and Uncle Mark, your grandpa and great-uncle, her parents. She lived with her parents until they died.”

“Why didn’t she ever have her own family?”

“She would have loved to. She was in love once, when she was young, after she’d come to America with her parents. She’d hoped to marry him.”

“Why didn’t she?”

“He wasn’t Apostolic. Her parents – my grandparents – didn’t approve. And Grandma Bechtler was a formidable woman.”

I thought about my dating history. It was hard to think of a single professed Christian boy among my romantic interests, much less anyone approaching the devoutness of the evangelical Apostolic Christian tradition my mom’s family follows. As the oldest girl in a traditional Apostolic Christian Serbian family, my great-aunt was expected to take on the mantle of caregiver. To look after her younger brothers. To tend to her aging parents. She’d devoted her life to caring for others.

In the context of her past, the rivels she’d made for us took on new meaning. They were symbolic of a fading heritage and of the responsibility on my great-aunt’s shoulders for so many years, of a traditional, family-first way of life that seems so alien to me, as independent, strong-willed and kitchen-shy as I am.

And so I’m going to learn to make rivels. Milk, flour, egg, salt – a simple mix, but a powerful one: one that connects me to a past worth remembering.

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