At a Kafana tucked away in blistering Belgrade, my mother finds Kajmak.
Kajmak is the frothy fat congealed on top of boiled milk on its way to a greater cheese substance. A midway between butter and cream cheese, the dregs of a pot with nothing to waste and no hand to hold. The cream of a country that does not have time or room or fostering because there are other things to do and not waste.
“They have Kajmak?!” Mama exclaimed as she clapped her hands together, reminding me of the times she would let out my birthday balloons through our fourth floor NYC apartment window to watch them ascend into the sky.
“You know about Kajmak?!” I said in English, pronouncing the word with a Russian accent.
“Nu, Kaneshna! Why, of course!” Mama answered in Russian about the quintessential Serbian cheese.
“Wow, it is Kajmak,” she sighed as if relenting.
She took a forkful of Kajmak that looked as if it was going to roll over itself, churned and whipped into submission.
I looked at her eyes water as the tangy and salty Kajmak melted into her tongue. Mid-swallow, she looked up at the ceiling.
“Bozhe moj, papa. May the earth around you be abundant!” she exclaimed, clasping her hands as her eyes tasted the milky East once again.
“Deda used to get Kajmak every Saturday morning at the bazaar in Tashkent”.
I imagine the image of deda before his gorging and gigantic hernia, before the glassy eyes.
A time when his argyle sweater vests fit perfectly over his button up shirt. His felt hats hung on the coat rack and we would go to Fort Tryon Park with peanuts to feed the squirrels. On our way back, we might stop to sit at the skverik, a general geriatric meeting place of all the relics of the Soviet Union in Washington Heights. It was a semicircle with benches engorged by large, scaling rocks leading up to the next avenue that seemed a million years above the Hudson.
In this Soviet enclave, deda would tell me stories of Uzbekistan. The blue and white ceramics against a backdrop of beige. The turquoise of the mosques, reds and yellows of the rugs, lamb fat dripping down wrists as men bite manti. Minced onion for shashlik and saffron colored plof dyed by carrots.
In the cross section of Belgrade, I imagine him in his youth in Uzbekistan. A slender and tall man, wearing his argyle vest in the blistering sun, walking down the aisles of the bazaar for a liter of frothy, unpasteurized Kajmak. An economist by trade, lawyer by profession and Jew by census. He moved to Uzbekistan from Ukraine avoiding the pogroms, relocated to New York City after the unspeakable collapse of the Soviet Union and left the earth and my mother with dreams of Kajmak.
At the Kafana, mama finishes the cheese butter on the mezze plate with a trail of cracklings, different consistencies of cow’s milk cheeses, filmy aspec to get lost in, dried sausages that spring and crack, fatty prosciutto and thick cuts of slanina, striped slices of bacon.
In blistering Belgrade, my mother finds Kajmak and I watch her taste the frothy dregs of swirling cyrillic.