I was surprised a few days ago to find a story in The New York Times about the Bosnian stores and restaurants in St. Louis.
As a local reporter, who also happens to be Bosnian, it would have sucked if I had missed a story important enough to grace the pages of The Grey Lady. Why did they decide to write about these businesses now?
The places featured in the Tuesday article in the Dining & Wine section included some of my personal favorites. There was Grbic Restaurant, my go-to place for Cevapi; beef sausages served in a Bosnian-style ciabatta bread. Cevapi are not actually on the menu there, but trust me, they make them. The clientele at Grbic is mostly American, as is evident in the photo accompanying the article. While it’s not specified in the description of the photo, my ethnic profiling skills tell me most of those people are not Bosnian (It’s like a sixth sense).
Also in the story was Berix Restaurant, where I satisfy my occasional doner kebab cravings. Doner kebab is not a traditional Bosnian food but has been adopted much like French fries by Americans (Fun fact: they’re actually from Belgium).
Mr. X Pizza also made the article. One of the unique toppings there is suho meso, which is kind of like beef jerky but a lot better (Sorry, I’m biased on this one). But Mr. X Pizza also has a classic pizza margherita that is next best thing for “Eat Pray Love” fans who can’t make the pilgrimage to Naples ala Julia Roberts.
But the New York Times article wasn’t really about food. It was an examination of personal identity and adaptation to a new country and new culture for the roughly 60,000 Bosnians that now call St. Louis home.
You know, an immigrants-get-used-to-life-in-America story.
As the article teases out, many Bosnians, especially the younger generation, had a pretty easy time assimilating to life in America.
Many younger people I know prefer speaking English to their friends. And when they do revert to their native tongue, it usually comes with a helping of English words sprinkled in to fill the gaps.
I have Bosnian friends who can drone for hours about the pros and cons of football’s spread offense. Baseball statistics? They can’t shut up about them. Soccer? Ehh, not so much.
Other friends can quote Wu Tang Clan lyrics or Beatles songs with such accuracy that many a local DJ would be put to shame.
What I’m trying to get at is, we’re not really that hung up on relishing in our status of hard-working immigrants trying to make a life in a new country. We’d rather focus our attention on why the Rams can’t seem to find their way, why the weather always sucks or which route to work is the quickest. You know, normal stuff. Personally, I try to avoid Highway 40 as much as possible.
Granted, I’m speaking for the younger generation of Bosnians. Our parents, who came here in their 30s and 40s, are understandably more attached to the motherland.
But even older Bosnians have abandoned a lot of norms and traditions. A lot of them now drink what we call “American coffee,” defined as anything other than the traditional Turkish coffee that is brought to a boil three times in a copper pot and served in espresso cups. It doesn’t sound like a big change but you would be surprised how serious we are about our coffee.
But to answer my original question, I have no clue why The New York Times decided to cover the Bosnian businesses in St. Louis. My guess is, some writers can’t resist stories that allow them to discuss the clash of cultures and societal norms of different peoples. Refugees who integrate and start businesses in America are ripe targets for clichés and metaphors about a “nation of immigrants” and such things. Writers love that kind of stuff.
I’m glad to see these businesses featured in The New York Times, but I also hope someday people will write about them without the need to make it a study in anthropology. Business is business, and while Bosnians do cater to the immigrant community in St. Louis, I imagine many of them have ambitions that have nothing to do with the cultural significance of food and tradition. Selling ethnic food and introducing your culture to new people is great. But what’s even better is getting your products into retail locations and franchising your restaurants. You know, the American way.