Serbians Honor Patron Saint in Kansas City

by Anne Brockhoff, the Kansas City Star, June 14, 2006

Traditional food remains an important part of religious celebration for Orthodox family

Holding special slava bread
Mijo and Sneza Colak, holding Slavski kolac bread

The gathering on Mijo and Sneza Colak’s deck at first looks like almost any suburban party. Family, friends and neighbors laugh, drinks are poured, plates of food devoured. This isn’t just any party, though. This is Krsna Slava, a celebration that’s as much about faith as it is feasting.

Slava is held each year on the feast day of the family’s patron saint. The particular saint and the date of the Slava are traditions passed from father to son, but the purpose is the same in every family: to reaffirm its belief in God by observing a centuries-old tradition that’s unique to the Serbian Orthodox Church.

"If there’s one thing that keeps the nation of Serbs together, it’s Slava," Mijo says.

The Colaks' Slava is May 22, when the relics of St. Nicholas were transferred to Bari, Italy, in 1087. But preparations begin more than a month ahead of time—selecting recipes, ordering ingredients from Chicago, pressing linens, making arrangements with the priest.

Slava candle
Slava candle with image of St. Nicholas
Photos: Rich Sugg, Kansas City Star Used by permission

By the day of the Slava, a dozen roses have been placed in front of an icon of St. Nicholas, a bar has been set up in the living room and uncles, aunts and cousins have arrived. Around 4 p.m., the doorbell starts ringing.

In Serbia, where much of the population is Orthodox, everyone knows when everyone else’s Slava is. No one has to be invited; they just come and stay into the night. It’s a different story in Kansas City, Mijo says.

The Colaks moved their Slava from the more traditional December to May to make it easier for far-flung relatives to attend. They started earlier than usual this year to accommodate the priest’s schedule. And they made a point to e-mail American, Spanish, Argentinean, French and Bosnian friends who might be unsure about coming without an invitation. They usually have about forty guests at their home, and Sneza is happy to share her Serbian culture with them.

"I appreciate Slava a lot more because we’re out of the country,” Sneza says. “It connects my childhood, my family, my husband and his past. We’re trying to present to the world who we are."

Mijo grew up in Belgrade, while Sneza is from Uzice, a smaller town southwest of the capital. They met in Belgrade and dated for a time, but then Sneza took a year-long job in Ghana. Sneza and Mijo had one dinner together after she returned; he left for Germany a few days later.

Work then took Sneza to Zambia for two years. She didn’t see Mijo again until she was vacationing in Chicago. Mijo, who was working in Kansas City, invited her for a visit. They were engaged four days later.

Mijo and Sneza married in 1995. Their first Slavas were in an apartment so small that they moved their bed out of the bedroom to make room for guests. It didn’t matter, though. They had the essentials—an icon of St. Nicholas that had belonged to Mijo’s grandfather; the bread, wheat, wine, candle and priest for the ceremony; and bottomless hospitality.

"Every family tries to do its best. No matter if you’re rich, poor—you use whatever you have that is the best," Sneza says.

Let the feast begin

Food is an essential part of Slava, for the ceremony and for the celebration that follows.

The blessing itself calls for Slavski kolac, which translates to "Slava cake," even though it is actually a wheat bread. It symbolizes Jesus Christ as the Bread of Life, and the dinner plate-sized loaf is decorated with birds, a braid, flowers, grapes, a wine cask and stamps that represent unity, good health and success.

There is also koljivo, a dish made with wheat, ground nuts and sugar that symbolizes the Resurrection and is served in memory of deceased family members; wine in a small silver cruet (the blood of Christ); and a tall beeswax-colored candle in an ornate silver candle holder (Christ as the Light of Life).

Slava table
Traditional Slava table
Priest and guests by slava table
Priest blessing bread

At about 4:30 p.m., incense fills the air as Father Aleksandar Bugarin, the priest at St. George Serbian Orthodox Church, begins his prayers in Serbian. He blesses the bread, each room in the house and those gathered. Blessing of the wheat follows; each person is then offered a bite.

Sneza disappears into the kitchen after the ceremony. Mijo circulates among his guests, offering soft drinks, wine or small glasses of Slivovitz, a plum brandy made in the Balkans, and inviting them to fill their plates.

Serbian cuisine reflects the republic’s proximity to (and sometimes domination by) countries such as Turkey, Hungary, Greece, Italy and Austria. Sneza uses many of the same recipes as her and Mijo’s mothers and grandmothers, plus others she has gathered from friends or found in her Serbian cookbook. Many of the dishes are time-consuming, and, if the Slava falls on a Wednesday or Friday, they cannot be made with meat, butter, cheese or other animal products.

A feeling of home

It’s hard work to put together a Slava, but Sneza doesn’t mind. She’s justifiably proud of her table, replete with meze (apetizers) including Bulgarian feta (richer and more deeply flavored than typical grocery store brands), prosciutto that a friend had custom-cured, a Bulgarian sheep’s milk cheese called kackavalj, pickles and other sausages.

There was also ajvar, a piquant red pepper spread; dolmas, grape leaves filled with a meat mixture; podvarak, a meltingly savory baked cabbage dish red with Hungarian paprika; a spiral-cut ham with horseradish cream in lieu of the more traditional roast suckling pig; Russian salad with tiny diced potatoes and carrots, peas and a mayonnaise dressing; gibanica, made with a pastry similar to but thicker than phyllo dough, layered with cheese and then baked; and rich, beefy goulash with rice.

Tray filled with cookies
Delicious cookies conclude the feast

Then come the cookies. That’s what Sneza calls them, but the word "cookies" hardly does them justice.

She and her mother-in-law, Mirjana Colak, who was visiting from Belgrade, began baking and freezing as many as fifteen varieties of the morsels a month in advance. There’s a tiny diamond-shaped, pink-frosted torte with nine layers that give slightly as you bite into them. There are baklava, chocolate balls (with and without nuts), bird’s nests, vanilla cookies and a crescent-shaped cookie with coconut and lemon. Then there are cookies with walnuts, cookies layered with nuts and pastry, cookies with Serbian names that don’t translate into English.

So many cookies, yet all Sneza has to say is: "We make lots of cookies. Everybody likes that."

The conversation, much of it in Serbian, continues on the back deck as the sun sets, cups of coffee are served and still more friends arrive. Mijo’s uncles discuss different types of rakija, or brandy, and which way of cooking cabbage tastes better. Someone urges a cousin to sing, and everyone smiles at two young girls playing.

They slow down, enjoy the loved ones who have gathered, and step back into the comfort of tradition.

Sneza Colak's Serbian Vanilla Cookies, plus recipes for Slava Kolach, and Koljibo

By Anne Brockhoff, Special to The Star, The Kansas City Star, June 14, 2006. Reproduced with permission of The Kansas City Star © Copyright 2006 The Kansas City Star. All rights reserved. Format differs from original publication. Not an endorsement.

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