Smuggled culture: Pan-Balkan narratives of belonging
Several years into my stay in the United States, I visited an old family friend from Bulgaria who had just relocated to Pittsburgh. Like many others who emigrate, she had smuggled a Bulgarian village grandma’s yoghurt culture in a small plastic bag at the bottom of her suitcase. We spent the weekend making and eating yoghurt in amounts that we like to think most would consider ridiculous. I got back to my college town in rural Pennsylvania, carrying my very own small plastic bag of yoghurt culture and spared from the need to recite lies to US Customs & Border Protection, unlike less lucky fellow transnational yoghurt culture smugglers. Soon, I started making yoghurt on our dorm's stove several times a week. After a long night working at the library, I would walk back home and heat the milk to right below its boiling point, set it aside until it was cool enough for my pinky finger to stay in for 15 seconds (‘the grandma way’, my family friend said, smirking at my suggestion to use a thermometer), mix in the culture, and go to bed. In the early morning, under a thick creamy layer would be jars of tangy, tart yoghurt. There was something both comical and exhilarating about the knowledge that my yoghurt’s fermenting bacteria had travelled all the way from a small stone house in the Rhodope Mountains to suburban Americana.
Yoghurt – making it, eating it, cooking with it, talking about it – has served simultaneously as a nod to a place I belong to and a way to own a subtle otherness from my American surroundings. I’ve relished in the strangeness of watching over the milk on the stovetop with a small cup of culture in a dorm kitchen sticky with vodka stains and infused by the oily smell of my peers’ microwaveable mac and cheese. Simple everyday complaints about the greek yoghurt offered in our cafeteria with a friend from Greece turned into a marker of difference vis-à-vis an American mainstream slowly getting on our nerves that only brought the two of us closer together. The tendency of white sorority sisters from Greenwich, Connecticut to consume yoghurt as a high-status breakfast item only made us more protective of a staple our parents and grandparents back home consider extraordinary only in its mundane ubiquity. Slightly reluctant, timid, and delighted, I came to accept Bulgarian yoghurt as a marker of my identity.
Beyond allowing me to own my label as a nonresident alien in the United States, making, eating, and talking about yoghurt has allowed me to conceptualise my homeland and an idea of belonging with which I feel comfortable identifying. While Bulgarian nationalism and its distinct brand of Balkan chauvinism takes itself too seriously and represents the country’s exclusionary disposition, a cheap, everyday staple sold in tacky half kilo plastic cans cannot possibly be taken too seriously. Yoghurt has served as an affirmation of an identity defined by culinary sentimentality, slightly ironic self-awareness, and transnational cultural commonality. Yoghurt’s pan-Balkan importance and ubiquity certainly counter the very etymological inspiration of the word Balkanisation – an idea adopted globally as a lens for the region, but whose domestic internalisation continues to animate interstate relations and attitudes. Bulgarian patriotism, including when conceived of from abroad, may often power itself through the national consciousness’s inability to disentangle itself from insular ancient greatness and toxic present-day exceptionalism; yoghurt, hedonistically consumed in copious amounts across and beyond Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey by many generations, reminds one of the regionally recognisable everyday warmth of a grandparents’ kitchen, the many jars eaten over one summer afternoon, and a faraway place where the Lactobacillus bulgaricus ferments the village cow’s milk overnight.
Yoghurt has come to bear various labels – Greek, assigned to signify yoghurt with a higher commodity value preferred by the West but confusing to Greeks, or Turkish, one to inflame Bulgarian patriots despite – or because of – the yoghurt being nearly indistinguishable from Bulgarians’ own kiselo mliako, literally sour milk. But the yoghurt I grew up with, the one my grandparents and great-grandparents let ferment under a damp cloth on warm summer nights, I call Bulgarian merely for the sake of simplicity. Its consistency and its sourness, its culinary flexibility – mixed with cucumbers, garlic, and walnuts, diluted with water and salt, mashed in roasted chilis and aubergines, and paired with thick pastries – is common across the Balkans and the Levant, across Macedonia and Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. It unites a region divided by ancient, recent, and ongoing quarrels; it exemplifies in the most straightforward manner fundamental commonalities within a region otherwise marred by unfulfilled aspirations of Europeanisation – Bulgaria’s own obsession with ‘civilised Europe’, Orientalist denialism of Ottoman influence – what Kapka Kassabova refers to as ‘the undigested weight of [Bulgaria’s] Orientalist complex’, and, as the common trope goes, a region that is neither East nor West.
In this sense, yoghurt has become a way to conceptualise my homeland in deliberate opposition to the pervading toxicity of Bulgarian and Balkan nationalisms. Articulated with the help of the yoghurt culture I carry abroad, my homeland is bigger, more tolerant, more open, more culturally inclusive and heterogeneous than the vision espoused by its mainstream nationalisms. When Bulgarian nationalism glorifies freedom fighters to justify anti-Turkism and Islamophobia, yoghurt proposes a transnational culinary culture of more similarities than differences. When ardent patriots bring up distorted obsessive claims about proto-Bulgarians to buttress a point on imagined racial distinctions, yoghurt proposes a common heritage that spans many contested borders and histories. Yoghurt making and yoghurt cultures have stayed true to a land where, at times, borders have moved over people more than people have moved over borders.
There is no use in romantic delusions about the persistence of xenophobia, insularity, and regional antagonism fueled by Balkan nationalisms. ‘Nations themselves are narrations’, suggested Edward Said, and a narration that politically exploits yoghurt for its pan-Balkanness is just one among many. Be that as it may, conceptualising my homeland through a yoghurt culture brought in a plastic bag from a land far away has allowed me to define where I come from in a way that can accommodate both my personal quest for belonging abroad and a larger narrative about the stories we tell ourselves about Bulgaria and the Balkans. Uprooted and rediscovered, the mundane becomes remarkably significant.
Alexander Bossakov is originally from Sofia, Bulgaria. A recent graduate in international studies, globalisation, and sustainability from Dickinson College, US, he has focused his studies and research on the sociological implications of international relations. Some of his interests include migration and mobility, identity, belonging, and othering, and diaspora and transnationalism.