A Roll That Knows No Borders

I’ve received a few really fun emails from readers saying things like: “I’m Irish but my grandmother made potica. I had no idea it was Slovenian!” Just another reminder that good ideas — especially when they’re based on butter and ground nuts — spread quickly from culture to culture. I mentioned below that you can find versions of potica all through Central Europe. The reason for this is because Slovenia was once part of Austria. What interest did Austria have in Slovenia? It’s fairly obvious if you look at a map. Landlocked Austria was the seat of an empire, one which needed access to the sea (it’s right there at the tip top of the Adriatic, next to Italy). Slovenia was that access. And since empires assimilate cultures as much as they do geographies and economies, potica became part of the imperial baking repertoire. So a lot of Central European immigrants to America knew how to make potica before the ever got here.

The Irish not so much. However Irish people in American learned about potica starting around the turn of the last century, when large waves of Slovenian immigrants (some of which were Austrian or Hungarian according to their passports, but Slovenian by ethnicity) arrived on our shores. Like most immigrants they were desperately poor country folk, who quickly gravitated to industrial cities and mining towns, where unskilled labor was always in demand. As a result you can find plenty of Slovenians in the American “rust belt”, especially Ohio. In mining areas like Pennsylvania and northern Minnesota they also abound. And so of course does potica. Often it’s served right alongside another food that’s the darling of miners in America: Cornish pasties. Is this a great country or what?

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13 Responses to A Roll That Knows No Borders

  1. I think it’s fair to say that Potica is not Slovenian, it’s Austro-Hungarian. The Austro-Hungarian Empire covered the whole of central Europe, including Austria, Slovenia, parts of Hungary, Croatia, other Balcanic countries and North-East Italy. That’s where I’m from, can you see that little corner of Italy sandwiched across the Slovenian border in the map? Well there we regularly eat Putizza (p-ooh-tee-tsa) and Gubana (g-ooh-bah-nah) for the major festivities, especially Christmas. One is generally made with thin pastry and one with leavened egg dough, both with a very similar filling. However, people constantly confuse which one is which. I am never sure myself which is which! Both, I have to say, are utterly delicious!

  2. Bronwyn says:

    Funny how Americans still call themselves “Irish” or “Swedish” or “Italian” even after many generations of living in America. Apparently they do it in Australia too. Here we are just Kiwi – even though some of us do really have foreign passports in addition to the NZ ones.

    • joepastry says:

      Interesting point, Bronwyn! It’s a big melting pot, but some of our immigrant groups like to keep a lot of their Old World traditions, even after a few generations. This is true of some groups more than others, I think. Where I grew up in the Chicago area, the fiercest defenders of their ethnic (as opposed to religious) traditions were the Greeks and the Italians. Irish were next after that. Interestingly I don’t remember hearing much about ancestry from people I knew who didn’t belong to one of those groups.

      Of course when you’re talking food everyone talks about family history. Ah! I love strudel! My German grandmother made it all the time! It’s a natural foray into talking about ethnicity, I think.

      - Joe

      • Bronwyn says:

        I have an Irish passport, and am legally a dual NZ and Irish citizen and can vote there. Would never dream of doing it though, and don’t feel at all Irish. I actually feel more Shetland than Irish, mainly I think because I know more of my Shetland family history (although it is just from one Gt Grandmother) than anywhere else. The Shetland food, however, is something I don’t know much about. Mainly consists of preserved mutton, I think! And scones of one sort or another.

    • Heather in Oz says:

      Things have changed a lot in Australia over the past fifty years. Then it was the norm for people to identify as their original nationality and their children born here tended to do the same. Now it is rare for people to identify as their original nationality for any great length of time after arrival and their children, whether born here or not, would identify as Australian without hesitation. I came to Australia with my parents over fifty years ago and it did not take long for my family (apart from my mother) to call themselves Australian. The American custom seems strange to me too.

  3. I love these little stories!

  4. Frankly says:

    Spent some time on Minnesota’s Iron Range. While I saw them I never hear of them refereed to as ‘potica”. I think a lot of grandmas renamed them & took credit for the old country.

    Pasties on the other hand . . . somehow they always got credited to the Cornish. I loved both of them. My mom used to make the best pasties although I never had a bad one unless someone put gravey on them!

  5. Silviu says:

    Seriously, doesn’t just every people that has access to nuts have some kind of nut roll?
    I mean the basic ingredients in baking are not so many after all… Everybody has to use them and I guess you don’t have to be Italian to be thinking about throwing some candied fruit in a rich dough, or Slovenian, Austro-Hungarian or whatever people some this Potica is attributed to, to warp some nut filling in a simple leavened dough. In the country where I live we have a very traditional thing very similar to this. It’s just we call it “cozonac”. But I have the felling that when I’m tasting some Potica I sure won’t notice such a great difference. If I did notice one, it probably because we Romanians too often use margarine instead of butter. Shame on us…
    I kinda have a peeve with people insisting some dessert it’s so (insert name)… But maybe that’s just me.

    P.S. But I don’t mean to strip any ethnic group from any kitchen feat they happen to have achieved.

    • joepastry says:

      Hello Silviu!

      There’s no question that nut rolls are a regional delicacy. As to where they originally came from or how old they are, I don’t think that can be definitively established. A lot of classic foods are like that. From the American vantage point, Slovenians have a particular passion for them and their claim to have invented them seems as likely as not. It is worth noting that German language cookbooks dating to the mid-1800′s did claim that nuts rolls came from there originally. Of course regardless of where they came from, many, many different cultures and ethnic groups own them now.

      By the way I love your country. I’ve been to Cluj, Bucharest and Timisoara, and met lovely people everywhere I went.

      - Joe

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