I've been told I laugh like my baba. I wouldn't know — when I was three years old, she had a stroke and never regained the ability to speak. My memories of her remain severed, limited to a space within a dark hospital room where she lay tethered to feeding tubes.
Instead of discovering my baba in my youth, I learned about her through the spiral-bound paperback pages of St. George Women's Auxiliary Cookbook. Devoid of images or punctuation, the 126-page cookbook was bound in 1987 and features recipes from members and friends of the Saint George Serbian Orthodox Church Women's Auxiliary of Oakland, of which my baba was a member.
Before she was Baba, Desanka Midzor arrived in the United States on October 20, 1931, from Buljarica, Yugoslavia (now Montenegro). She was eight years old and didn't speak a word of English.
It was clear, even in her youth, that she had ambitions. A newspaper clipping from June 1937 reveals a letter Daisy (a nickname Desanka picked up in grade school) wrote to police in which she described her uncle's robbery during a European business trip, which she had witnessed. "The men, after beating him severely," Miss Midzor wrote, "forced him to sign the traveler's checks, took other negotiable papers and then disappeared ..." In school, she participated in clubs like the Masquers, the school drama club, and she joined a sorority her freshman year at the University of Nevada, though she never graduated.
The Reno Evening Gazette announced the engagement of my baba and djedo, detailing the Riverside Hotel–hosted engagement celebration that featured pastel-colored figurines. They married in 1947.
Daisy ran the household. Despite having what some women today may consider a repressive role, she remained progressive in her ideals and decision-making. Once her children were grown, she set about finding a job outside the home and started working the phones at her friend's hair salon. She was thrilled to earn wages independent of her husband and used the money to fuel her fashion addiction, attend movies, and even hire a decorator.
When it came time to clear out my mother's childhood home, we discovered heaps of scrap paper filled with recipes in Baba's slanted, nearly illegible cursive. I kept only those that didn't crumble in my fingers.
There were always boundaries between daughter and mother ("She didn't know how to be a loving mother," says my mother), but it was more a product of my baba's own upbringing than anything else; my mother's cousins, raised just a few blocks away, were a tight-knit bunch — a bond, I think, my mother was always slightly jealous of (as a result, she took a very different approach and raised me just as much like a friend as like a daughter). Still, my baba always encouraged my mother to remain independent and think freely; though it wasn't discussed outright, it was expected that my mother would work.
My baba wasn't a celebrity or socialite, but in our small Serbian circle she had a reputation. "Her oven was always on," my mother says. When it came time to clear out my mother's childhood home, we discovered heaps of scrap paper filled with recipes in Baba's slanted, nearly illegible cursive. I kept only those that didn't crumble in my fingers; they are the remaining relics of my baba's years in the kitchen … in essence, her legacy. "Cooking was one of her highest priorities … her self-esteem and her pride," says Abbey Massie, who grew up next door and still serves my baba's almond torte every year at Christmas.
The recipe my baba shares in this Serbian cookbook captures the life she created, a life behind the stovetop feeding my djedo, mother, and uncle. On page 77 of St. George Women's Auxiliary Cookbook, Daisy Alexich's name appears alongside a recipe for sour cream coffee cake. Over the years, her name appeared in print a handful of times: everything from a New York passenger list chronicling her arrival to Ellis Island when she was eight, to her days volunteering with her sorority, Tri Delt. But it's her contribution to this cookbook that has given me just a small taste of the woman whose laugh I inherited.
Created as "a tribute to our Serbian heritage," St. George Women's Auxiliary Cookbook was compiled in the church's 60th year as a way to preserve traditional Serbian recipes like cevapcici (grilled sausages), rostule (fried, diamond-shaped pastry), and palachinki (dessert crepe), alongside more contemporary stuff. Dishes like a brza (fast) torte include just four ingredients, while the recipe for "rice and milk" is devoid of ingredients altogether; some dishes are more complicated, like Proja (Serbian corn bread), which includes the serving suggestion: "Yugoslavs serve this corn bread, made with cottage cheese and sour cream, as an accompaniment to the stuffed cabbage dish, Sarma." There's cevapcici, which make a perfect hors d'oeuvre, or even "potatoes baba used to make."
The cookbook includes everything from how best to use leftovers and remove stains from washables, to dates to remember (everything from Dr. King's birthday to Yom Kippur, Halloween, and Mother's Day), to a quick recap of the Nativity. It truly includes everything a modern woman might need to run her home.
Sour Cream Coffee Cake by Daisy Alexich
1 cube butter, room temperature
1 1/4 c. sugar
1 c. cake flour
2 eggs, well beaten
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 pt. sour cream
1/2 tsp. soda
Cream butter and sugar till light and fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla and beat till smooth. Mix in sour cream. Sift cake flour and measure; then sift again with baking powder, soda and salt. Stir in dry ingredients, mixing till smooth.
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 Tbsp. melted butter
1/2 c. walnuts, chopped
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
Mix above ingredients and sprinkle on top of cake. Bake at 350 for about 45 minutes. (I usually put this in an 8-inch square pan, buttered and floured, or you can use a 9-inch square pan.)
Some recipe notes: I haven't changed the recipe as it appears in the cookbook, though I'd suggest using a nine-inch pan and doubling the topping recipe. Cooking times may vary depending on ovens. In addition:
1 pt. sour cream = 16 oz. sour cream.
½ tsp. soda = ½ tsp. baking soda.
Can substitute walnuts for pecans, or another favorite nut.
Sift an additional ¼ cup cake flour to dust pan.
Meaghan Clark is a journalist based in San Francisco who loves to eat. Her work has appeared in Extra Crispy, Paste magazine, Good, Ozy, and Refinery29. Catch what she's eating on Twitter at @meaghanclark.