One joy the world over is that of getting together with another family or two and sharing a meal together. Our recent furlough inspired me to think back to those early days of being formally invited to a meal here in Montenegro and discovering how something as simple as a meal invite could be both familiar and strangely different at the same time.
Here are just a few differences that stand out to me:
First off, coming as we do from Southern Cal with its laid-back, casual vibes, I expect to chat a bit and help a little in the kitchen upon arrival because there is often a myriad of last minute things to be done in preparation of a good meal whether chopping, dicing, tossing, or putting out dishes.
Not so here. There are typically no
last minute details to be seen to. All the food is cooked; Montenegrin meals (although delicious) are not about fussy final finesses. The table will already be covered with a beautiful tablecloth and set with dishes. On arrival, one is ushered straight to the table.
In those early days, I would be alarmed, furtively glancing at my watch to see if we were late. But no, we’d be right on time; they were just completely ready for us!
Something else I learned early on is that the table is set for as many people as will fit there, not as many as are actually there. It was quite a shock the first time we (a family of seven) went to have dinner at our neighbors (The Jovovics, a family of five) and realized that there were but 8 places set.
Our family took up six seats (Baby M didn’t need one), so we began to think there must be a kid’s table. But that was not the case. As the guests of honor, we would be served the entire meal and only the head of household and eldest son would eat with us. Mrs. J and her daughters stood by or sat on stools, ready to replenish empty serving bowls and fill up empty glasses. They would eat after we left. It was very strange to have the other family sitting and serving and waiting on us while we ate. Now it’s familiar, but I can’t say it is yet comfortable.
Over these past few months while on furlough, we enjoyed many a dinner invitation into homes all across the continent. We feasted on everything from a 4-course gourmet meal to a bountiful spread of home-smoked meats with five+ types of BBQ sauce to a potluck extravaganza, to a Mexican Fiesta to a quick grab of leftovers—each meal according to our hosts’ tastes and gifting and each an absolute delight.
That kind of variety isn’t the norm here in Nikšić. It took me a long time to glean that "A Proper Meal” menu even existed. What finally convinced me was being served this exact repast at a 10am wedding; I went expecting a brunch but soon realized my error.
What is this menu of which I speak? While some courses (like the mezze) may be skipped, the following is pretty typical:
The Mezze: smoked meats, sausages, young cheeses, pickles, and bread. This can be quite elaborate and in our ignorance in those early days, we thought this *was* the meal and ate accordingly, a mistake we oft regretted.
The Soup: typically a light broth made from simmering the meat which will then be roasted, served with bread. There might be a few thin noodles and diced vegetables added for interest. It most definitely will be seasoned with Vegeta, a ubiquitous salty seasoning chock-full of MSG.
The Main (Bountiful!) Spread: Cool-to-Cold Roasted Meats* (remember, everything is cooked ahead of time), Bread, Russian Salad (an Enhanced-Potato-with-Veggies Salad), Potatoes and/or Cabbage (in some form), and possibly seasonal salads like lettuce, tomato, or cucumber in the appropriate months. *If the dinner invite falls on a day of fasting (according to the Orthodox calendar) and the family observes such days (which happens even with people who never go to church), fish will be served in place of meat, much to Stan's chagrin.
The Dessert: or more accurately, Desserts, as just one is never served. Dessert will include 2-5+ small servings of different sweet treats: amazing tortes, bombica (small cookie balls), oblande (wafer desserts with homemade filling), and more, lots more.
Now a final, friendly hint for those of you who may have an opportunity to visit: An invite to coffee may involve more than a cup of coffee; it might just be the prelude to A Proper Meal. You are forewarned!