Proja (Serbian cornbread)

Paris past and present

Proja (Serbian cornbread)

Have you ever met the kind of person who says things were better “before” ? Before what ? Even though I feel passionate about the history of Paris, and especially eastern Paris, I’m not nostalgic by any means. Why is it that I keep running into people who say C’était mieux avant ?

According to Merriam Webster, nostalgia is “pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again.” If I had to make an (admittedly sweeping) generalization about the chefs that I’ve worked with in French restaurants here, nostalgic would be a good word to describe them.

A confusing place

Maybe the world was a less confusing place for chefs, way back before “foreign” ingredients started flooding the menus. I actually worked with a chef, albeit in the provinces (which basically means any place in France but Paris), who asked me one day what this funny thing was the new owner wanted to put on the menu. He began spelling the mysterious word : “M-O-Z-Z-A….”

Did he really mean mozzarella ? He did really mean it, because he’d never heard of it. I wondered if he’d heard of that new-fangled invention called sliced bread ? In any case, for him, I guess things really were better “before” because he didn’t have to pronounce foreign words.

Ebullient personality

A lot of Parisians say that Paris was better before, too, but I beg to differ. One person who agrees with me is illustrator, architect, and occasional tour guide Sonja. I met her last summer, and was instantly drawn to her ebullient personality and the bright, contemporary fabric-covered beads that hung around her neck.

Sonja comes from Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia. She studied architecture and urban renewal there and in Paris, and during her studies, she was always drawing. Even today, anything she wants to remember, she simply draws : maps, quotes, and especially recipes – drawing the steps is how she remembers how to make the recipe.

A nationwide pastime

One thing I like about Sonja is that she loves Paris for the city it is today. Whereas some Parisians like to grumble (it’s a citywide, or maybe even a nationwide, pastime), Sonja says she’s never grumpy about living in Paris – she accepts the city for what it is. As she explained to me, she’s a guest here, and has respect for the culture that is embracing her. Well said !

And anyway, was it really better before ? Sonja should know something about that, since she studied urban renewal in one of the most “renewed” cities on earth, right here in Paris. Starting in 1850, Georges Eugène Haussmann – better known as Baron Haussmann – began the city’s transformation from medieval to modern.

The upper sidewalk

It’s hard to imagine now, but before Haussmann’s intervention, Paris was a dark, smelly slum of a city that looked pretty much like it did in the Middle Ages. There was no sewer system, so people emptied their business straight out the windows. Have you ever walked next to an old-fashioned person who insisted that the lady walk on the “upper” sidewalk, closest to the shop windows ? This habit is a holdover from the tradition of the lady, or an important person in general, taking the haut du trottoir, so s/he wouldn’t get rained on by an indiscreet person emptying their pot de chambre above her.

So Parisians threw their waste and all kinds of trash into the streets. When I see the papers people throw on the ground nowadays, I have to wonder if things really have changed, but I bite my tongue instead of yelling “litterbug !” But maybe that’s just because there’s no word for litterbug in French.

Mr. Trash Can

But that’s nothing compared to back in the mid-19th century, when a lot of Parisians were ill with tuberculosis and cholera. Hygienist theories were the order of the day, and all sorts of people were working to make Parisians healthier. In 1883 Monsieur Poubelle passed a law that required trash removal, with 3 different types of cans for different materials – the first tri sélectif, or recycling ! Francophones will recognize that Poubelle gave his name to the French word for trash can.

Haussmann destroyed entire blocks of buildings in the central parts of the city to open it up and make way for the wide, tree-lined avenues you see all around Paris nowadays. Haussmann’s vision for a new Paris was so all-encompassing, he even demolished his own family’s home during the renovation ! But if you’ve ever taken advantage of the gorgeous parks in Paris, you have Haussmann to thank for most of that greenery, including the famous Buttes Chaumont park here in eastern Paris.

Fomenting revolution

Haussmann’s goal was to help Paris breathe, both literally and figuratively. He built the most famous dwellings in Paris, appropriately called Haussmann-era buildings, with their clean white stone and central courtyards, which would get plenty of air and light into apartments to promote better health for its residents.

Some historians have claimed that the renovation was also meant to chase out of Paris the working class, those same folks who were fomenting revolution and uprisings in 1830 and 1848 (after the famous 1789 French Revolution, of course). With 18,000 houses and buildings demolished between 1852 and 1868, you can bet that a lot of those working-class folks left central Paris for the edges of the city.

The city-museum

And that’s still going on : Parisians like to talk about la ville musée, about how Paris is being turned into a museum, while working-class people and immigrants are being pushed out. One immigrant population that settled in Paris in the 20th century ? The Serbs.

My first roommate here in Paris had a French mother and a Serbian father. In the late 1960s, nearly a million Yugoslavs left their country, now the six separate republics of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Montenegro. A lot of Serbs specifically settled in the 20th district, although one of their main cultural centers is the Saint Sava church in the Marais.

Social fabric

On Sundays, my roommate’s father, who lived nearby, would gather with his buddies at the local café. Just outside, in the rue Pelleport, they’d drink beer on the sidewalk and discuss the car being repaired in front of the café. Each one would take a look under the hood, make a comment, and the others would discuss – rather heatedly, if you ask me – in Serbo-Croatian. But what did I know ?

But…. Back to present-day Paris, which is alive as it was when I arrived in 1995. Was it different then ? Yes, definitely. Was it better ? Heck no ! Sonja is living proof. People have been immigrating in and out of Paris for centuries, and we are all part of the current “social fabric,” the one that urban renewal folks study when drawing up plans for any city with a past.

Carbonara for breakfast

So what does Sonja like about living in Paris in 2015 ? She loves the clash between cheap and expensive, poor and rich, this and that culture. Sonja is sometimes in a panic about how she’ll fit in the 7 different exhibits she wants to see, in between work and her other activities. Much of her inspiration comes from the street, her wanderings, maps, and food ; you can see her illustrations on Carbonara for Breakfast. But she also gleans plenty of inspiration from those exhibits.

So even though, like Sonja, I’m in love with Paris, and that includes the past, it wasn’t better “before.” The fascinating history of Paris, including its renovations, its immigrants, and the little-known parts of the city, which you can discover on my Walking tour of Belleville in eastern Paris, make up the vibrant present.

Proja (Serbian cornbread)

Proja (Serbian cornbread)

It just so happens that this Sunday is Serbia National Day. If you’re looking for something nourishing to make this weekend, this a meal-worthy cornbread, not your classic, bread-like cornbread served as a simple accompaniment. If this had corn kernels in it, I’d call it a cousin of corn pudding, or a savory polenta cake.

One of the great things about this recipe is that you don’t have to go out to a Balkan grocery to find any special ingredients : Sonja has cleverly substituted feta cheese for her local cheese, and quick-cooking polenta is available everywhere.

ingredients :
- 1 tablespoon (15g) butter
- ¾ cup (120g) + 1 teaspoon (for dusting) quick-cooking yellow cornmeal (polenta)
- scant ⅓ cup (30g) flour
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 3 eggs
- ½ cup (100ml) sunflower oil
- ¾ cup + 1½ tablespoons (200ml) sparkling water
- ¾ cup (190g) plain yogurt
- 4 ounces, or about 1 cup (110g) feta cheese, cut into thimble-sized cubes

how to make it :
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).
2. Butter a round cake pan, or an 8½-inch (22cm) diameter cast iron frying pan.
3. Sprinkle the 1 teaspoon of cornmeal into the bottom of the pan.
4. Whisk together the rest of the cornmeal with the flour and salt.
5. In another bowl, mix together the eggs, oil, and sparkling water.
6. Add these to the dry ingredients and stir.
7. Then add the yogurt, stirring well to combine.
8. Add the feta cubes, and stir again.
9. Turn the mixture into the pan, and bake in the oven for 50 minutes to 1 hour, or until the top of the bread is a lovely golden brown.
10. Serve warm with a bowl of vegetable soup or a salad, or with olives for a winter aperitif.

Tags : Paris , Parisians , cornbread , Haussmann


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Blair K 5 septembre 2015

I have made Serbian (and other Balkan-style) cornbreads before and they are always flavorful but dry. But this is the absolute best ! I used mostly kefir instead of yogurt and added a few flavoring additions. So moist—and reheats beautifully.

Allison Zinder 5 septembre 2015

Thank you for your comment, Blair. I will definitely try the kefir version, what a great idea ! I’m also curious about your flavoring additions.

Blair K 21 novembre 2015

Hello again, Allison. I have used your wonderful recipe as a foundation four times now. It is invariably moist and wonderful—even though I couldn’t get instant polenta until this most recent time. Some of my additions (parsley, corn kernels, black pepper) may take it out of the "proja" category, so on my blog I call it "Never-Fail Balkan Cornbread" and link to your original recipe as the starting point. I’ve even made a gluten-free, low FODMAP version and it was great. Thanks again for this amazing and forgiving recipe ! (Link below if you want to take a look.)

Allison Zinder 21 novembre 2015

Blair, I love your ideas for additions. I’ve been thinking about the addition of corn kernels, since someone recently mentioned adding them to "regular" cornbread for a Thanksgiving stuffing idea. I will definitely try that !
And thank you for your compliments, but really the credit goes to Sonja, illustrator — her web site is Carbonara for Breakfast.
Thanks for enclosing your link, and happy cooking !

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