Lunch During Wartime

Salads of Macedonia

The joke was interrupted by a sizable salad platter dressed with white slabs of oil-drizzled feta cheese, black olives, red onions, green peppers, ripe wedges of tomatoes, and cucumbers so green they looked as though they'd been dyed for St. Patrick's Day. There also were three "cream salads," puréed dips of garlic-imbued sour cream or sour milk (a cross between sour cream and buttermilk), to which a main flavor is added -- respectively, on this occasion, cucumber, roasted red peppers, and eggplant. A few of the dishes were accented with chopped parsley -- not surprising, as the nation is named after this herb, which is called makedon.

"So the consultant pulls out his laptop, takes a seat in the shade, and, after a couple hours of computing, comes up with a figure. “You've got 1154 sheep,' he tells the shepherd.

"“That's exactly right,' replies the surprised old man. “Go ahead and take one.'

"As the consultant places the animal in his jeep, the shepherd asks whether, just for the fairness of it, he could now make a deal with the consultant. “If I guess your occupation, you give me my animal back.' Why not? thought the consultant, so he told the shepherd to go ahead."

A giant plate of assorted grilled meats hit the table like a judge's gavel -- a loud bang followed by reverent silence. The platter was piled high with slices of calves' liver; lamb shish kebabs (shashleek); pork chops (kremenadli); breaded pork schnitzel (veshalici); small sausages made from beef, lamb, and pork (kebapchina); and the same sausage meat formed into a patty with onions (pleskavica). We topped things off with Macedonia's national bean dish, tavce gravce, a casserole of white beans cooked in meat bouillon with onions, red peppers, paprika, fresh beef, and smoked pork bones.

Goran and I had started off by drinking rakija, an intensely alcohol-fumed plum brandy customarily consumed during the salad course. We switched to beer for the meats. Ordering beer was one thing I felt comfortable doing in this country, partly because I'd picked up the subtle nuances between the two local brews (Skopsko, made in Skopje, and the newer Dab beer from Prespa) but mostly because they're both easy to pronounce.

"The shepherd takes barely a moment to guess the occupation: “You're an American consultant.'

"“Why that's right -- how'd you ever figure it out?'

"“You're just like all the others. You come to our land without being asked, you charge us for information we already know, and you don't have a clue as to what you're doing. Now can I have my dog back?'"

Perhaps it bears repeating that this lunch took place before the attacks on the United States. But I've thought of the joke since that time, and about how the laughs it elicits among those in the Balkans underscore the difficulty of defining our proper role in a turbulent and resentful world -- a task that might be more complicated than even the direst scenarios being dished by our dourest talking heads.

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