The Comfort Food Diaries: Dreaming of a Serbian Staple

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[Illustration: Zac Overman]

Editor's Note: Welcome to The Comfort Food Diaries, a month-long series that will run each weekday throughout the month of January. Here, the Serious Eats staff, along with some of our favorite writers from the food world, will reflect on the dishes, delicacies, and, yes, guilty pleasures that have sustained us through good times and bad.

The best thing I have ever eaten—a Serbian dish called palachinke—was made by my grandmother. It's pure simplicity: flour, sugar, salt, eggs, milk. A little shortening, of course, to keep things from sticking to the pan. It has the sweetness of a pancake but behaves more like a crepe, and I can now picture my grandmother making them, in the workmanlike way of someone who has cracked those eggs and dumped that flour a thousand times before. She throws eggshells in the sink. She wipes her hands on her pants and scratches her forehead with the meat of her thumb. She gives a little crooked smile when everything is mixed. And I see her at the stove—some stove, somewhere, in some house—dropping Crisco in a hot skillet. She pours batter into one side and tips it carefully so that the batter slides down into a thin coating, and then she turns her back on the stove completely and stands with her arms crossed, looking pleased, listening to the sputtering and pops behind her. When the palachinka is ready, she teases it out with a spatula and slaps it down on a plate. Fwap.

Palachinke is the perfect meal for a kid—I thought so as a kid, and I still believe it now. It's self-contained. There are no crumbs, nothing that can spill, besides maybe your plastic cup that's half full with milk. My brothers and I smeared jelly on them and rolled them up like comically sized cigars, and then we ate them and ate them and ate them. We were unstoppable. We were like lumberjacks. We ate them until we started to sweat, and then we ate two or three more after that, our grandmother all the while standing in the kitchen with her fists on her hips, staring dreamily, thinking maybe about her own grandmother making these for her in some distant, make-believe version of Serbia or Croatia or Hungary or any other possible place, or thinking maybe about her own mother passing the recipe down, or probably just disappearing into a wisp because none of this is real.

My grandmother made plenty of palachinke in her time, though she never once made them for me. She never once made them for my brothers. She died when my mom was only 16 years old, which means I never got to watch her make a palachinka, which means I never got to see her do anything at all because we never got the chance to meet. I cannot picture her making palachinke; I cannot picture her doing anything.

"I guess I'm not much of a keeper," my mom said to me recently. We were talking about Star Wars and the action figures my brother and I had collected over the years that she had unceremoniously thrown away. Little remains besides Luke's landspeeder and sad old Admiral Ackbar. "It's a trap," I wish I could have whispered to him way back when. "She'll toss you when I leave for college."

In general, though, the sentiment rings true: She's not much of a keeper. She doesn't hang on to things. And this much can be said of her Serbian heritage: The language eludes her—the only three words she ever knew in Serbian were those for shit, ass, and fart. Two of these she taught to me and my brothers, and one of these (I won't say which) I have gleefully passed along to my own daughter, who is four. The religion, she let drift away. There are no customs left to observe.

Palachinke, though, she kept.

It was her mother who taught her how to make them, which she learned to do at a young age. My mom remembers making palachinke for her dad after her mother had died, a thought that wrecks me just a little. And, of course, my mom made them for us. Made them for me, made them for my brothers. She made them for my friends in the mornings after sleepovers. She made them on snow days, made them during holidays. Made them for no good reason, no special occasion. She made them because it was easy, and because she knew we'd eat them and she knew we'd like them. Which we did. Which we do still. I cannot picture my grandmother making palachinke, but I can easily picture my mom making them, and in every kitchen of every house we ever lived in. I can taste them right now as I type this, and it's the taste of contentment and nostalgia—my favorite possible version of what my family could be.

I have not yet made palachinke for my daughter, who eats only four foods, with little deviation: buttered noodles, buttered rice, buttered toast, and butter. But I will make them. And I like to imagine that when she takes that first bite into her body, and the ingredients dissolve like stardust and are absorbed into her bloodstream, something deep in the atomic bubbles of her DNA will awaken, and for some immeasurable fraction of a second, my grandmother's breath will fill the cells of my daughter's lungs, will wet the surface of her Serbian eyes. It's sentimental nonsense, to be sure. Nevertheless, the thought of it brings me comfort.