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Monday, August 13, 2012

Clatite - Romanian pancakes with cottage cheese & fresh dill...and stories


I met Seana Stoia in spring of 1972, when I took a road trip from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Aberdeen, South Dakota with Mike, my then-fiancé. Mike was Seana's grandson. Over the next two-plus decades, until her death at age 94, I learned her life story from her - and I learned to make some of her favorite Romanian dishes.

My adapted recipe for clatite is at the end of an account of Seana's remarkable life. (Clatite is pronounced Cla-TEE-teh.) Clatite are Romanian pancakes. Seana made them savory, with cottage cheese and fresh dill, as I do. My version is a little more "healthy" than hers, avoiding deep-frying. I just spent a week eating clatite because fresh dill is available NOW.

Seana's story

Seana Stoia was born Seana Biliboca in Dragus (Dra-GOOSH) in the Transylvania mountains in Hungary - now Romania - in spring of 1900. (You pronounce Seana as "See-ANNA.") She was an ethnic Romanian who was never told her birth date; she picked May 9 as the day.

Parasciva (Para-SEE-va), Seana's mother, was the second wife of John Biliboca. The couple had buffalo for pulling the plow and for milk. Paraseva would run when John came home drunk. He beat her.

One day when Seana was nine, she and her mother were outside hanging clothes when suddenly they saw a certain bird (I think it was a blackbird; my husband thinks it was a stork). 

Parasciva started crying and asked Seana to forgive her; the bird was a sign to the mother that she would soon die. And it was true - Parasciva died within weeks. She was 50 when she suffered a stroke, on Seana's 10th birthday.

Seana was pulled out of grade school and went to live with her older brother, where she did the work of a grown woman for her brother's wife. She knew that if she stayed in Dragus, she would continue living the life of a slave. The tradition at that time was that any woman who married went to live in her husband's family home and became a servant to her husband's mother. That was not the life for Seana Biliboca.

On October 2, 1920, Seana was 20 years old, and she and her cousin left Dragus. They traveled by train from Romania to France. The two young women had tickets, but climbed to the top of the train car because they were afraid of being raped by the soldiers who filled the train. They lay on top of the car and held on, soot from the smokestack blowing into their faces. They ended their land journey at Le Havre, France, where they boarded the ship Niagara. It took nine days to sail to New York. Seana's brother, George Biliboca, had long settled in a Romanian neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio, and had sent Seana the ticket for her passage.


When the two cousins arrived at Ellis Island on November 12, 1920, they were required to write their names on a piece of paper. Seana's cousin scratched a big "X." She was immediately sent back to Europe by the American authorities. Seana never saw her cousin again.

Seana knew how to read and write. She could write her name but her immigration status was still in peril. If she had no one to vouch for her, she wouldn't be allowed to remain. She insisted to the authorities that her brother would pick her up, but she hadn't seen him for a long time; he was 12 years older. Lucky for her, she recognized him at Ellis Island and she was allowed to stay in the USA.

In Cleveland, Seana worked as a house cleaner for a Jewish family. From the lady of the home, Seana learned to bake a wonderful cheesecake (that's for another blog!). Seana's housework earned her room and board and a dollar a day.

Through her brother, she met another ethnic Romanian who was originally from their town. His name was John (Ian) Stoia (STOY-uh) and he had been a shepherd in the Transylvanian mountains of Dragus. She didn't like him at first; she had other boyfriends. She didn't like John's looks - he was short and bald. She didn't like his accent. She told him to go home to South Dakota, but he stayed and kept calling her. He proposed to her. She was reluctant; he was 15 years older than she was. Her brother George and his wife pressured her into the marriage. She finally accepted on four conditions: (1) They'd get married in a church, not at the justice of the peace; (2) John would never beat her; (3) he would buy her a house; and (4) she would never go back to Romania.

John agreed, and they were married in the Russian Orthodox church. John bought a house and never beat her.

He and Seana lived and raised a family of four sons and three daughters in a small house at 713 So. 9th Street, Aberdeen, South Dakota. They joined a Roman Catholic church because there was no Russian Orthodox church in town. John worked seven nights a week, from 7 pm until 7 am, at the railroad. Seana had to keep seven children quiet during the days so her husband could sleep. John never learned English or how to drive. Seana had started learning to speak English in Cleveland; she continued to learn from her children, although she never learned to read the new language. She was the driver in the family. John died in 1967, and Grandma lived as a widow for the next 27 years.

When she was about 80 years old, she broke her own rule and traveled back to Dragus with some of her children. They visited Biliboca and Stoia relatives. The streets were mud and the relatives were proud if they had a bare light bulb to illuminate their one-room houses. When they ate, they pushed the bed against the wall to make room around the table for chairs.

They told Grandma that she looked like she was 50 years old. Remember, she was 80. Life had been hard in America, but it was clearly harder in Romania.

Grandma had great vitality. She had genes for longevity, but I think she stayed healthy from hard physical work. Her hands were big like a man's. She always kept a garden. There were two bathrooms in Grandma's house: one on the second floor, and one in the basement. Grandma was always doing steps. She ran them. In the cellar, she kept dozens of canning jars filled with tomatoes from her garden.

When she was about 82, Grandma hired a young man to help her work on the house. When he arrived, he couldn't find her. He hollered, "Mrs. Stoia! Mrs. Stoia!" Finally he heard her voice - from the roof, two and a half stories up. She was working on the shingles. Maybe dishes like clatite gave her some of her vitality.

Whenever Mike and I visited Aberdeen, Grandma made Romanian food for us. My favorite was clatite. Every culture has a pancake; this is the Romanian version. Like French crepes, clatite can be made sweet or savory. I prefer savory.

I watched Grandma Stoia make clatite. She took egg, flour and water and mixed them in a bowl in the sink. She used her hand for the final mixing. She added water "by feel" until she was satisfied with the consistency of the dough. Then she deep-fried it in a black pan on the stove top. When the dough was golden brown, she removed it from the oil and added cottage cheese and fresh dill. Last, she folded the clatite over the filling, omelet-style.

The whole time she cooked, she talked. Her English rolled with the cadence of Romanian, and I only picked up every three or four words in a row. But I "got" her. I loved her... and her wonderful food.

About 2006, I became friends with Bettina Binder, a beautiful young  Romanian woman from Sibiu, a larger town not far from Dragus. She lived with Mike and me for a short time while she worked in Wisconsin to support her sisters back home. She loves Romania, and describes it as a beautiful country that has modernized since Grandma Stoia visited in the 1980s. To my joy, Bettina made us some Romanian dishes... but not clatite. Bettina told me that at home in Romania, she typically cooks about 15 hours a week. She said Romanians in general are not fat, and that they eat almost all home cooking.

Bettina agreed with me that clatite is a delicious dish. I can't describe its surprising and heavenly taste combinations on the tongue - the savory dough with the mild cottage cheese and the fresh dill.

Gail's Healthier Version of Romanian Savory Clatite

Make a dough:
- I suggest any crepe recipe
- Or do like I do - Use Bisquick but add four eggs instead of one - I like the dough to be very eggy.

Cook the dough like a pancake on a griddle - best browning results come with coconut oil (and it's good for you!)

When bubbles appear on the top of the dough, flip it over to cook the other side. This is the time to add the cottage cheese and (chopped) dill. The cottage cheese layer should be think enough to become warm but not thick enough to slop all over when you fold the clatite. Load the dill on so that every bite will have some. Plenty of dill is the secret to the recipe. Dry dill might work, but I've never tried it.

When the clatite seems cooked all over and the cottage cheese is warm, fold the clatite over any way you feel like - in half or folded up like a tortilla.

Have fun eating! It's hard to stop! Every time I eat clatite, I remember Grandma Stoia and her amazing vitality.

Gail Grenier is the author of Calling All Horses, Dog Woman, Don't Worry Baby, and Dessert First, all available from Amazon.com.

13 comments:

  1. Great post! I have always loved the stories my mom brought back from her summer living with Grandma Stoia in Aberdeen when she was in college. I have heard many immigrant stories, but have yet to meet anyone with one as compelling as hers. Recently, I did some research on ancestry.com and was able to find the passenger manifest from the Niagara and it confirms her story about her cousin (I had always heard it was a friend) getting sent back because she couldn't write her name. Also, I wrote a paper for school once on Romanian superstitions, and I seem to remember that seeing an owl near your house meant someone was going to die. Perhaps that was the bird her mother saw.

    - Bobby Lepak

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    1. Bobby, I am SO thrilled to get your comment! People usually reply to my blog via Facebook, so there are seldom comments here on the blog itself. THANKS for the note re: the owl! I bet that was it because owls don't usually belong in view during the daytime. Do you know what Seana's cousin's name was? That story absolutely kills me.

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    2. I'll have to look at the manifest next time I am at my parents' house and report back. I printed it off and took it there last time I was home.

      -Bobby

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  2. Hey Gail!
    Love the post on Gramma! Gramma actually did learn to read some English- my Mom took her to classes when she was dating and first married to my Dad. Gramma wanted to learn to read so she would know what she was buying at the grocery store.
    Gramma told me that the family she cleaned for thought her brother George sold her to Grampa- and they called the police- but it was straightened out after they saw a judge! When I asked her when she fell in love with him- she told me she didn't really know she loved him until after Aunt Mary Jane was born. She married him because he had a good job- owned his house in Aberdeen and had $800 in the bank- and she did say that she told him she was never crossing the "water" again to go back to Romania.
    So that's my contribution! If I remember anything else I will be sure to share!!
    Annie Stoia-Henderson

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    1. Annie, this is GREAT! Romantic like in "Fiddler on the Roof." If I get a bunch of additions, I'll probably just add them to the body of the blog post. It's very easy to edit. Thanks for your input!

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  3. I remember Grandma telling me a story from Romania about blue flames appearing over the ground marking spots where people buried their valuables and treasures. She never saw one, but "knew people who knew people" who did see them. Knowing her reading was limited, imagine my surprise when I first read "Dracula" and there were references to the blue flames!!

    I just googled it and found out that legend is the blue flames appear on St. George's Eve, April 22 each year. (Now I know when to visit "The Old Country".)

    David Simundson

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    1. David, that's a story I never heard! Fabulous!

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    2. Gail, what an honore to be mentioned in your book! since 2006 thinks have changed a little in Romania and in my life- I don't have as much time to cook as I had then, but once in a month, on saturday morning, I make clatite :).

      I miss you and Mike very much. Leaving in your warm home was one of the maine blessings in my life. Multumesc!

      Va pup!

      Bettina

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    3. I love the story! it is so nice to read romanian names among english words :). you are a talented story writter, Gail!

      are you still having the roamanian dancing evenings?

      Bettina

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    4. Bettina, it is SO good to hear from you! I'm glad you approved of the story about Grandma Stoia. Mike & I don't do folk dancing so much anymore, but we're "hooked" on tango. We've met a lot of people from around the world in the tango life, especially people from Russia - amazing really! I'm glad you still make time to make clatite! Did you know my book is out, with the main character named after you and Mike's grandma? "Bettina Biliboca!" There's a link on this blog. Love you and miss you! Email me with your news! gsweet@wctc.edu

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    5. PS Bettina, do you deep-fry your clatite? Do you use cottage cheese & dill or fill them with something else?

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    6. I am sure all of you remember the doughnuts - a staple when I was growing up. I loved them along with the homemade cinnamon rolls and yeast rolls that she made every Sat. morning. I can still smell them ! Of course we had soup everyday - either the famous bean soup ,green bean soup (another one of my favorites),and of course chicken noodle. When I think of how hard my mom worked with the garden, canning etc. and of course on her knees beside her bed saying the rosary every single night I am in such admiration of what a strong woman she was. She could not read or write but she was one SMART lady!
      Mary Jane

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    7. Thanks for reminding me about the doughnuts and bean soups MJ!

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