Never Underestimate a Potato Masher (and Other Immigrant Secrets)

One of the super-cool things about being the daughter of immigrants is learning how to travel with copious amounts of food at all times.

For a long time, Ken used to make fun of me when he saw me jamming my bag full of food every time we went to the airport.

“You know there are restaurants at the airport, right?”

“Duh.  This is in case we run out of time and get there right as we’re boarding.”

“Then buy a snack on the plane.”

“And still be hungry after eating a bag of chips?” I said, putting a sandwich into my bag.  “No thanks.”  I tossed in some pretzels, just in case.  “Look.  I don’t do well when I’m hungry.  Plus, what if we get bumped or have to transfer planes or something?  I’ve been in airports when everything’s closed, and it sucks.”

All of which is true.  But the real reason behind my impassioned food packing is that my immigrant roots make it physically impossible for me to pack for any kind of extended travel without taking a giant bag of greasy, stinky food along for the ride.  Smoked sausages, loaves of bread, giant hunks of cheese–you name it.

In fact, way back when my brother got married, my mom and I boarded the flight to his wedding with two giant pans full of frozen pita (a savory dessert comprised of phyllo leaves stuffed with cheese).  Which wasn’t that shocking in the immigrant bastion of Chicago, where I’m from, but which was definitely weird out here in Colorado.

In my family, food is Its Own Category.  As in: There Must Always Be Enough.

Nico, learning the tricks of the trade. To get this picture, we were up at dawn. And had to walk three miles through the snow. I mean, fire. Or rain. Whatever.

And: It Must Be homemade.  Meaning: It Must Require Copious Amounts of Gulag-type Labor.

Poor Ken.  He didn’t know what he was in for.

After we became an item and started having dinners with my family, he learned this all first-hand.  Like when he watched my mom mash a giant heap of boiled potatoes with a fork.

So he offered her a potato masher.  And looked slightly shocked when she refused.

I shook my head.  “You don’t understand,” I said.  “That’s not how it’s done.”

“What?  Why?”

“Because that’s too easy.  No Serb worth their salt would use a potato masher.  It’s kind of like garlic.  It must always be peeled by hand, too, no matter how much of it you need.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You can’t use prepared garlic.  If you do, the Garlic Police will haul you away.  I’ve heard of people disappearing like this, never to be heard from again.”

“But you use prepared garlic!”

“Shh! Don’t blow my cover.”

But Ken still wasn’t deterred.  As each Thanksgiving came and went, he continued to offer my suffering mother his potato masher.

Until one day she took him up on his offer. 

Now, for those of you who know my mother, you know that it’s not easy to talk her into anything.  But Ken was a master.  That or she’d just fallen in love with him, like the rest of us.  Because there was no way in hell she would have used a potato masher for anyone else.

Now, if that’s not a romantic enough end to the story, let me tell you what happened next: Ken went out and bought my mother her very own potato masher.

Which she graciously and thankfully accepted.


Now, this is a level of intimacy I’ve never before seen, certainly not with any of my previous boyfriends.  Which is just another reason that I knew my honey-bunny was a keeper.


So this is where I should probably end the story, except we’re talking about immigrant secrets, which means we’re not done.  As in: I have so many goddamn immigrant secrets for you that we will never be done!  (Yes, that was a war cry.)  So let me at least try to wrap up this part of the story before the clock hits 3:00 a.m.

So.  Even though Ken was now experiencing all our hard-core Serbian weirdness first-hand, the man still thought I was crazy for packing gigantic amount of food every time we traveled.

Until we had Nico.  Then I really stepped up how much food I packed when we traveled.  Because as any mother will tell you, the last thing you want to deal with on the road is a tired and hungry kid.

And still the man mocked me.

“We’re going to be gone for two hours,” he’d say.  “Do we really need three different menu options for a 6-month-old baby?”

By this point, I’d started to ignore him.  Also, dear reader, I stopped packing food for him and just packed food for me and Nico instead.

Because, damn it, I wasn’t going to be hungry!  I was going to be ready.

And then we flew out to Hawaii for Ken’s parents’ 50th anniversary.  Nico was just about to turn one, and after the kid kicked ass on the two flights over to Hawaii (thanks to my endless supply of Cheerios), we got stuck at the car rental company for 4 hours.  With a one-year-old baby who was up about 8 hours past his bedtime.

Wait, did I say four hours?  Because it might have been days.  And damn if they were going to find my buzzard-eaten bones in the parking lot of a hellish car rental company in Hawaii.

So I pulled out the big guns: bags of buttered noodles and peas that I’d been saving, just in case.   While Ken watched, open-mouthed, my happy baby dug into bag after bag of sustenance, scattering peas and noodles as far as the eye could see.

I looked at Ken with pride.  I’m pretty sure I heard his stomach growl, but I didn’t say anything—I wasn’t going to rub it in.  Instead, I handed him the crushed-up, leftover bag of Cheerios.  Which he promptly dug into.

Take that, Mr. Non-Food-Packer.

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6 Responses to Never Underestimate a Potato Masher (and Other Immigrant Secrets)

  1. Kevin Ross July 11, 2012 at 9:27 pm #

    I still come across bags of food we used to cart around for the kids. We were just purging a few backpacks from the basement and there were 6-7 ziplock bags of stale snacks in there.

    I have to agree that those morsels got us out of so many binds.

    • tpajevic July 11, 2012 at 10:10 pm #

      No kidding, huh? I just came across an old bag with a snack that had turned moldy–talk about disgusting.

  2. Gail Storey July 12, 2012 at 3:19 am #

    Tanja, i can just picture your baby boy strewing buttered noodles and peas–I’m guessing that kept your wait at the car rental place down to four instead of eight hours!

  3. Life with Kaishon July 13, 2012 at 4:26 am #

    I loved this post : ) You write in such a great way. Your post at Jill’s was awesome. So nice to meet you tonight via the internet.

    • tpajevic July 13, 2012 at 3:09 pm #

      Thanks, Life with Kaishon–it’s so nice to meet you, too! And what a beautiful blog you have!

  4. growing tween July 14, 2012 at 2:53 am #

    How true this is. We often play a olfactory version of hide and seek in our van “find that smell!” in an effort to locate the apple cores that have rolled under the seat and honey baked ham that has glued itself to the bottom of the cup holder. I have been on the opposite side of this, unwilling to carry heavy packs on long flights but after getting stuck a time or two- I now pack extensively from the cereal and granola bar zone.

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