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The making of rostule Photos by Deborah Yerkovich

Inside the Kitchen: Olga Rogers preserves the old ways of Slavic cooking

Everything Olga Rogers knows about traditional Slavic cooking, she learned from her grandmother as a child on a farm in what was formerly Yugoslavia. There, in a small, rural village called Boca Kotor, there was no shortage of livestock – they had ducks, cows, sheep, chickens, and goats abundant. Growing up alongside her grandmother, Rogers cooked everything fresh, from scratch. She remembers making noodles using a crochet noodle.

“There was nothing to buy in the stores. We didn’t have anything,” she recalls. “Everything was homemade.”  More than 50 years later, little has changed for Rogers when it comes to cooking – except she now calls Globe, not Boca Kotor, home.

She never longs for food from back home, though, because she recreates it here.

Rogers’ cooking is perhaps the most sought-after Slavic food in Globe-Miami. She makes stews and soups, and homemade breads and cheeses. She is crazy about making pastries and desserts. She makes things like priganitze, a Serbian pastry that she compares to a fried doughnut with raisins in it, or torta, a seven-layer pudding dessert. “I make the best pork roast,”  she adds with pride.Olga7 She’ll infuse it with rosemary and garlic, and serve it with thinly sliced fried cabbage, onions, and garlic. Her dishes are often livestock dependent. They call for cheese, polish sausage, lamb, fish, and poultry. What she can’t get in Globe, she gets at Haji Baba in Tempe. This includes things like seasonings, dried figs, olives, and plenty of olive oil. And, from time to time, her family ships her ingredients from back home.

Regardless, whatever she makes, she makes it just like she did with her grandmother back in Boca Kotor. “I cook the old-fashioned way,” she says simply. On the morning GMT pays a visit to her kitchen, Rogers promises Serbian macaroni and rostule (in English she calls them angel wings). “Nobody makes it anymore except me,” she says. Olga6

In addition to cabbage rolls, the angel wings, as well as her macaroni, are some of her most popular dishes. When we enter her kitchen, she has already been cooking chicken drumsticks on the stove over low heat for two hours. Inside a large pot, the drumsticks float in a soupy mixture of olive oil, onions, celery, garlic, and tomato sauce. Later, this will get mixed into the macaroni. The scent is robust and smells of spices. Just an arm’s reach away from the stove, she has an egg and a metal mixing bowl waiting on the kitchen table. These are for the angel wings, she informs us.

As we take a seat, she cracks the egg into the metal bowl. Then, wearing a mischievous grin, she pours in a secret ingredient. Supposedly it adds to the crispiness. “Don’t write it down, whatever you do,” she says in a low voice.

Next, she adds sugar and flour, little by little, to the bowl. The mixture soon turns into a dough. She pulls it out of the bowl and plops it onto the table. As she flattens it out with a rolling pin repeatedly in a steady rhythm, she tells the story of how she wound up in the states.

In the 1940s, Rogers’ father left the family for the war overseas. He joined the Merchant Marines. He decided to jump ship when he got to New York, and next thing he knew, the government was after him. He got lucky in San Diego, however, when he found a Yugoslavian-American bride from Claypool. They got married, and he was no longer on the run. Together, they traveled to Miami and started a new life. Meanwhile, Rogers was living a simple, happy existence in Boca Kotor. Her grandmother raised her with her two siblings there. “It was difficult growing up, but it was fun. I enjoyed it. I didn’t know any better,” she remembers. “I didn’t have a radio; I had never seen the radio or TV until I came to the United States. No telephone, no nothing.” But President Josip Tito’s rule over Yugoslavia was going strong, and when Rogers was 17, her grandmother decided to send her to the U.S. This way, she might not be pulled into the world of communism at age 18. Olga5 Olga4

“My grandmother wanted me to get out of this culture,” Rogers remembers. “I didn’t know one word of English. I had never left my grandmother or my sisters.” When Rogers arrived to New York, she came holding a handwritten note. It said, “My name is Olga Pima, I do not speak any English. The only language I know is Yugoslavian.”

That was in 1958. Rogers made it to Globe, where she was reunited with her father. Shortly thereafter, she was hired as a launderer at Copper Hills, and later worked in housekeeping. She worked there for ten years. Sometime later, she met her future husband Tommy, and they fell in love. They had two children, and she raised her kids and babysat. Then, in 1988, she picked up work at the school cafeterias, making lunches for students at Globe High School and now High Desert Middle School.

She’s been doing this now for 25 years. (Unfortunately for the students, she doesn’t make them Slavic food.) It’s been more than 50 years since Rogers came to the U.S., but her grandmother’s culinary ways remain in her memory intact. Whatever Rogers does in the kitchen is intuitive. Don’t ask her for recipes. Most every time she cooks something, she cooks it based on memory.

“It’s all in my head,” she says. Don’t ask what measurements she uses, either, or how long to keep something in the oven. She doesn’t know. “I do not measure anything, girls,” she insists in a loud voice. “We didn’t have measuring cups. We didn’t have a clock to say, it’s like an hour and half to make the thing. We would go see where the sun is.”

Whatever she makes is almost always cooked in a pot on the stove or in the oven. On top of all this, she usually has multiple dishes cooking at once. It might seem like a miracle that everything turns out perfectly, but, of course, she’s had years of practice. “I start 10 different things,” she laughs, throwing up her hands. “Then I finish it all.” After flipping and flattening the rostule dough time and time again, she picks up a pastry press and cuts it into strips. Then she slices a sliver down the middle of each strip, and tucks one end through the sliver. Now they are in the shape of angel wings. “They’re really not that hard to do,” she says nonchalantly, carefully cutting and folding each dough strip between her fingers. “It’s just a little time consuming.” She lays each pair of angel wings out on a paper towel. Now they are ready to fry. Each step, she completes with patience.

Her kitchen is cozy and pristine. It feels like a grandmother’s kitchen. She moves around it calmly, not like a panicked chef in a hurry. Throughout two hours of cooking almost nonstop, her honest jokes has the kitchen erupting with laughter. It’s not long before her chicken concoction is ready for sampling. She pauses, grabs a fork and and asks sweetly, “Why don’t you try this?” The chicken is savory and tender, falling apart with each chew. “It is delicious, huh?” she asks with a warm smile. “Have another bite.”Olga3

The next step, she says, will be to cook and drain the macaroni, and combine it with the chicken. Then she’ll top it with butter and parmesan cheese. After she fries the angel wings, she tosses them into a bowl, sets them on the table, and sprinkles them with sugar. “You guys have to try them!” she exclaims. “And you can’t just have one. You have to have more than one.” The rostule are crunchy yet very delicate, and not too sweet. On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, supposedly there are bowls of them dispersed throughout Rogers’ house. It is around Christmas time that she also makes her infamous cabbage rolls, stuffed with Polish sausage. Not surprisingly, she pickles her own cabbage, too. She’ll combine a whole head of cabbage with things like green tomatoes, green chiles, and spices, and then let it pickle for six to seven weeks outside. “After you do that, you get the best cabbage rolls,” she says with conviction. “Nobody makes those anymore.”

On Christmas Day, she has tables covered with Slavic foods, all prepared by her. Truly, it must be a blessing to be Rogers’ neighbor. On Christmas, she may have more than 30 people over for a sit-down dinner. Holidays or not, she often finds excuses to cook Slavic food and give it out to all of her neighbors and friends. She loves a good party, as long as it’s not a potluck.

“When I prepare, nobody brings anything,” she says firmly. And she prefers it this way.

Even if you go to the same meetings as her, you reap the rewards. Take, for instance, the Serbian cemetery meetings. “They are always at my house,” she says slyly. “You know why? They know they’re going to get rostule… When we have our meeting, they don’t have very much dinner before.” And this is how Rogers’ cooking has become so well-known in the community. Even her husband cannot resist. Olga1

“When I got back from Vietnam, I weighed 117 pounds,” Tommy chimes in. “We got married on the 24th, and I averaged 5 and a half pounds a month for six months.” The challenge in upcoming years, Rogers says, will be to find others in her family to carry on the Slavic way of cooking once she is gone. It’s not like she has this stuff written down.

Until then, though, she will simply carry on. “Sure, like anybody else, I get tired,” she says with a smile. “But I love to cook, period.”   *******************

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About Jenn Walker

Jenn Walker began writing for Globe Miami Times in 2012 and has been a contributor ever since. Her work has also appeared in Submerge Magazine, Sacramento Press, Sacramento News & Review and California Health Report. She currently teaches Honors English at High Desert Middle School and mentors Globe School District’s robotics team.

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