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Kathryn Miles is an award-winning writer, whose recent work has appeared in Best American Essays, Ecotone, Editor Unleashed, Terrain, and Reconstruction. She is also the author of Adventures with Ari: A Puppy, a Leash, and Our Year Outdoors (Skyhorse/W.W. Norton, 2009). Currently, Miles serves as director of the Environmental Writing program at Unity College and as editor of Hawk & Handsaw: The Journal of Creative Sustainability. Her website is www.kathryn-miles.com
I’m trying to be you, curse this clumsy tongue.
--Wole Oguntokun, “The Immigrant”
An immigrant’s experience is almost always a fragmentary one. All that is new about an adopted country—the language, the landscape, the culture—creates a kind of impediment few entirely shake. Instead, many immigrants exist in a state of constant limbo, with one foot in their homeland; the other in their new place. What results is a kind of fusion existence, particularly when it comes to the culinary world. Mangoes don’t grow in Britain. It’s hard to find guajillo peppers in Stockholm. Few Canadian butchers keep shark fins on hand. So immigrant cooks, both professional and familial, learn to substitute.
I am the descendent of one such cook. Her given name as we knew it was Frances, which was probably anglicized from the original Franciska. When she married, she took my great-grandfather’s surname, Vicic, which had been shortened from the original—perhaps Vicicivic or Vicicovich—by an overworked customs official on Ellis Island.
Despite this change in moniker, Frances maintained a good bit of her Croatian culture, particularly when it came to food: egg noodles, stewed pig’s feet, sauerkraut, breads stuffed with nuts and cocoa. When she couldn’t find the ingredients she needed, she improvised. When no one could pronounce the names of dishes in their original language, she created pidgin versions easy for an American tongue.
Peas in a potla is one such recipe. The word potla appears in no Croatian dictionary. Maybe it was a corruption of the word posuda, or pot. Or the English word pottage. Then again, maybe it was her fusion of two languages or just something that sounded right to her.
Just like any melting pot—figurative or literal—peas in a potla lends itself to infinite variation. It is adaptable to different ingredients and tastes and can be made just about anywhere. The smoky, slightly sweet tomato base can embrace a whole host of additions. When combined well, these results can surprise, delight and, perhaps most importantly, remind you of home.
Peas in a Potla
2 slices bacon
1 medium yellow onion
3 cups diced tomato (or one 28 oz can)
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup frozen green peas
1 Tbls sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
Chop bacon and sauté over medium heat until it begins to brown. Add onion and cook until translucent, stirring often. Add remaining ingredients. All to simmer for 10 minutes. Accompany with sliced hard cheese and crusty bread. Serves 3-4.