Farmer Vera Videnovich is raising Balkan sisters the Native American way | Food & Drink Feature | Chicago Reader

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Farmer Vera Videnovich is raising Balkan sisters the Native American way

She’s bringing corn, beans, and squash back to where they came from.

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Baba Petra was getting old. She wanted to see her family in her village near Banja Luka again, so during the middle of the Bosnian War in the early 90s, she left her Chicago garden to go back home and say goodbye.

She came back with beans.

Baba (or "Grandma") Petra was a family friend of Vera Videnovich, whose Serbian father left his maintenance job in Chicago in 1962 and built a 25-acre farm in Berrien County in western Michigan, planting crops from seeds brought back from the old country.

"They started growing things they couldn't buy in the stores, raising sheep, or the type of peppers we like to eat," says Videnovich, who, along with her two brothers, still works the land and raises sheep (23 babies this spring). Up until three years ago, she was a reliable presence at Chicago farmer's markets, and she's since taken a job running horticulture programs for developmentally challenged adults. Until last season, her produce still made regular appearances on menus at restaurants such as Lula, Giant, and Café Marie-Jeanne.

Back in the day, Baba Petra and her daughter regularly helped out on the farm, so when she returned from Bosnia, she gave Videnovich a backup stash of black pole beans specific to the region that she smuggled back in a pair of socks. "It was just to keep the seeds going if she lost her stash," says Videnovich. "We cook them in a stew with garlic, tomatoes, and maybe some beef."

It's a good thing she shared them, because not long after her return, Baba Petra succumbed to a stroke. Videnovich, at the time a typesetter at the Reader, planted the beans and saved them every year to keep the supply going. But over time, her stash diminished—when mice invaded, an extra-damp winter set in, or she got too focused on other crops.

But she, like her father, is a seed saver. The beans remained on a shelf in a cardboard box, even as she befriended a monk from a monastery in Grayslake who gifted her a supply of seeds that produce the bundevara, a sweet, white-fleshed pumpkin typically made into a strudel across the Balkans. "He brought all these seeds in pill bottles," she says. "He had melons, squash, peppers, tomatoes, pepper, flowers, onions. This other priest saw us chatting and he's like, 'You're selling drugs.'"

Something came full circle two autumns ago when Videnovich traveled to Turin, Italy, as a delegate for the biennial Slow Food International Terra Madre conference. "Everybody was just like me," she says. "Three thousand delegates from every corner of the planet." Among them was a contingent from the Balkans that included a woman who tossed two handfuls of dried corn into Videnovich's purse, representing two light-colored varieties that had been bred for milling and incorporating into recipes little known outside of individual families (but most notably the polenta-like porridge known as kachamak).

Videnovich traveled on to Serbia and Macedonia on the same trip and visited family, farms, and green markets, the corn bouncing around the bottom of her bag along with her sunglasses and loose change.

In the Balkans, these corn varieties aren't typically eaten with beans or squash, nor are they grown together, something she realized was a practice adapted by Europeans after they brought them over from their indigenous habitat—America.

Native Americans knew centuries ago that if you grow corn, beans, and squash together in the same plot, the corn acts as a space-saving trellis for the beans to climb, while in return they fix nitrogen in the soil for the corn. Meanwhile, the prickly squash vines discourage raccoons from raiding the corn and shade out the weeds. This method of companion planting is known as the Three Sisters and originated in Mesoamerica before spreading all over North America, including to the Potawatomi land in western Michigan where the Videnovich farm now stands.

Corn, bean, and squash seeds - VERA VIDENOVICH
  • Vera Videnovich
  • Corn, bean, and squash seeds

"I thought, 'This is fantastic,'" she says. "This is New World corn. I'm in the New World. Let's see if we can adapt it back."

In recent years Videnovich scaled back her production on the farm due to her day job, but this season she carved out time to grow just for seed saving, including some 15 varieties of tomatoes, sweet Turkish peppers, Greek and Persian melons, and a few other types of Balkan beans and peppers. "It's like I'm pretending I'm traveling," she says. "I think that's why I do it. I want to travel but I can't, so I'm recreating what I imagine the food would be where I would go."

She's only growing a handful of each variety to see what comes up and to cook with them, and share with friends in exchange for feedback. Due to the pandemic and the drastically reduced restaurant market, she's growing about a quarter of what she normally would.

So she has lots of time to focus on the three sisters. In March, Slow Food West Michigan awarded her a $300 biodiversity microgrant meant to support small farmers cultivating heritage varieties and breeds, and she planted two 50-foot rows of Balkan beans, corn, and squash the Native American way. This season she'll let them all grow to maturity to build up her seed reserve, and if that goes next season, she thinks she can bring the produce to market while continuing to save seeds.

It is a bit of a gamble. The squash seeds and beans are a few years old, which isn't ideal, and could result in poor yields. But she'll be keeping careful records on how well the plants grow and how much they produce so that information could be passed on to someone else who wants to give it a go.

She says much of the grant money is meant to document and promote the work of saving these varieties, but the cooking demos she planned for each of the sisters won't be happening at harvest. Still, she'll be blogging about the project and documenting it on social media (she's on Twitter and Instagram), and hopes to produce enough seeds to distribute to home and community gardeners, Serbian churches, and to replenish her friend at the monastery's stash.

And maybe, in a bright and distant future, she'll get some of them on the menus of her old restaurant customers. But that'll have to wait. "I don't even want to contact my chefs right now," she says. "Everyone's in pain. I don't want to put any pressure on them. I have income from my day job. I can take a hit on my farm this year.

"I don't mind the labor it takes because I don't want to lose this. Histories are merging. I understand the land I farm had been part of a whole other culture, and it should be respected."   v

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