CNN photojournalist John Bodnar is a second-generation Slavic-American whose grandparents emigrated from Eastern Slovakia, and his mother’s Carpatho-Rusyn ethnicity is the prominent influence for his cultural and family traditions. Here is an introduction to the comfort foods that he grew up on.
Cabbage, onions, potatoes and carrots are used in many ethnic dishes from Eastern Slovakia. Coincidentally, my grandparents settled in western Pennsylvania, which has a similar climate and growing season as their homeland, so maintaining the native cuisine was not at all difficult.
Most families and relatives that I knew growing up had a backyard vegetable garden, and these gardens produced quite a large variety of fresh rooted and vine-ripened staples. My father and uncles seemed to be especially proud of the hot peppers that they grew, and a friendly rivalry of whose was best was quite evident - though my uncle Mike usually won the unofficial competition.
The local backyard farmers were always generous with their harvests. Sharing with neighbors, or the elderly who couldn’t grow their own gardens, was a common practice. The produce that couldn’t be eaten immediately was soon canned and set aside for the winter months. My mother and grandmother usually took care of the canning, and the fresh aroma of the canning process is indelibly etched in my memory.
When these fresh vegetables and fruits are incorporated with breads, dumplings or noodles and a pork product, a substantial meal awaits. I’d like to introduce you to haluski. Quite simply, it’s a mixture of noodles, cabbage, onion and seasoning, and it takes about 30 minutes to make. It is best served hot, but many people like it served cold as well.
The smell of cabbage cooking on the stove is very common in the Slavic kitchens. I’ve been told that the smell is quite pungent and disagreeable, but to me and my Slavic - and non-Slavic for that matter - family, it is heaven to the senses, and initiates the Pavlovian response we are all so familiar with.