Where Fields of Poppies Grow
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.*
When I got off the plane in Belgrade recently and into my cousin Jaro’s waiting car, I was immediately drawn to the bright red wild poppies that lined the sides of the highways as we headed out of the city and towards Stara Pazova. Poppies were everywhere in Vojvodina, showy weeds providing a fringe of color to the endless flat fields of newly planted crops on the Pannonian Plains.
When I commented on the beauty of the poppies, Jaro explained to me that during the communist era, young girls would pick the poppies and rub the red flowers on their cheeks like blush, as cosmetics were nearly nonexistent in Yugoslavia at the time.
On a walk through the old part of town where the Slovaks live in Stara Pazova (“stara” means “old”), wild poppies were cropping up in ditches and alongside fences. I asked Jaro if we could pick the poppy heads and use the seeds for baking. “Wild poppies are poisonous,” he told me, as he picked one and popped it open for me to inspect.
“When the children of our stara mamas (grandmothers) couldn’t sleep at night, the stara mamas would boil the poppy heads and make a tea out of them (not out of the wild poppies). They would give the tea to the children, and it would put them to sleep,” said Jaro and Daniela. Pauline’s kids confirmed that she too, fed them this special tea. One of the most popular uses of poppy seed teas and oils are as cures for insomnia, I have recently learned.
The thick, concentrated, syrupy liquid extracted from the domesticated “opium” poppy heads is what is used to make heroin. Boiling opium poppy heads produces a milder form of the liquid, but still, I was a bit stunned that Grandma was feeding her children opium to help them sleep. Because of the opium and its effect on people, poppies also symbolize sleep.
When Pauline and her husband Jerry immigrated from Yugoslavia to Leamington, Ontario, one of the first crops they planted in the spring of 1939 on their new farm was opium poppies. Jerry had brought the treasured seeds from Pivnice to Ontario. A few months later the poppies were flourishing, and the Mounties came knocking at the door: the crop was soon plowed under. It turns out that growing opium poppies is under strict government control, and the average person can not grow them at home. So the next year, Jerry planted hemp. But that’s another story.
Back in Pivnice in the 1930’s, Jerry’s uncle Stefan Shuster, the practical joker in the family, used to feed the pigs poppy heads and then watched in amusement as the pigs stumbled around the sty, high on opium.
Poppy seeds have other medicinal uses as well, and are used to make morphine and codeine. A quarter of a teaspoon of toasted poppy seeds mixed with honey and eaten twice a day can cure dysentery, dehydration, tooth aches, ear aches and coughs. For dry itch, mix a bit of ground poppy seed with lime juice and rub it on.
Extracting poppy seeds from the opium poppy was once a time consuming effort and the laborious process was done by Slovak women like my grandmother in the past: first the seeds were scraped out, washed and then dried in the sun. One ounce contains a whopping 140,000 poppy seeds; a pound contains over a million. That’s a lot of picking and scraping of seeds. Some kids would refill the heads with kernels of corn, and use them as toy bombs, according to a fellow Slovak, Lidija, or make doll heads out of the poppy’s heads.
Poppy seeds are a key ingredient in Slovak cuisine. The seeds mature after the flower petals fade away, and are best dried and then toasted, to render the nutty, sweet and spicy taste; a special poppy seed grinder is used to mash them into a paste, or you can do it the hard way, with a mortar and pestle. You’ll find the dark blue seeds inside Slovak strudels, cakes, dumplings and other pastries; the white poppy seeds are typically found in India, Asia and the Middle East.
I have several favorite poppy seed dishes, including Popalki (others may call it Bobalki) which are little dough breads baked and then steamed, then covered in ground poppy seeds and honey. Of course one of the best is Štrúdľa, the handmade paper thin pastry filled with poppy seeds: coming soon to Pauline’s Cookbook.
When in Dolny Kubin recently I had Sul’ance od Babicky, “potato dumplings from grandma” – (recipe is here), stuffed with ground poppy seeds and served covered with melted butter, bread crumbs and sugar, alongside small, oval stewed plumbs you find in Slovakia. Divine.
*Perhaps the most famous Canadian reference to poppies is in the poem “In Flanders Fields”, by the Canadian surgeon and soldier, John McRae, written in 1915, the day after he witnessed the death of his 22 year old friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, in the second Battle of Ypres, in Belgium in WWI. I remember having to memorize this poem in school.