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It's not often that I take the opportunity to reflect on, and I openly discuss the relationship that I have with Gjelina, my mother, and how it directly impacted the beginnings of Gjelina, the eponymous restaurant.
My mother showed endless love and support like all great mothers do. Her entire life, she happily cooked and baked, and otherwise provided for her family. But my Mom is actually a badass.
Gjelina Camaj spent her first 24 years farming in the mountains of Montenegro. Then she and my father immigrated to Detroit, and each worked 30 years on the assembly line. They saved all their money and, after my Dad's passing, she was 60 years old when she dared to mortgage her house to fund the opening of Gjelina.
Understandably, she was scared. She took a huge risk. Courage is choosing to do something frightening, when one can just as easily choose a safer path. In a very real sense, she became a first-time entrepreneur at the ripe age of 60.
The courage, the strength, and the love that the real Gjelina showed me and the Venice restaurant will always be our foundation. It's been fun to hear people say her name hundreds of times a day for nearly 14 years. But finally through Gjournals, we're proud to share the story of the peasant mountain girl named Gjelina who trusted her youngest child, and risked her life savings to fund an entrepreneurial restaurant dream in Venice.
Happy Mother's Day, mom, I love you. Fran
Can you share more about your childhood in Montenegro? What was it like growing up?
Gjelina: I’m the fifth of seven sisters — and our days were spent helping mom with the chores, going out to the fields to look after the sheep and cows, chopping wood and bringing it inside, and going to get water from the river to bring inside. Every day, my mom and sisters would all make lunch and dinner together.
Do you remember any specific parts or specific meals that your mom made?
In the winters, cabbage and smoked pork. In the warmer months, there was cheese, yogurt, eggs, and whatever produce we could gather from the field.
What was the first dish you remember making yourself?
I can't remember exactly, but I think it was probably bread.
How old were you when you moved from Montenegro to the U.S?
I moved when I was 24 to Detroit and started working as a dishwasher for six months before working in a factory where they repurposed discarded clothing into new things. After that, I worked as a press operator for Chrysler.
We’d love to hear more about what you did at Chrysler!
I started there in April 1976, working the same shift time as my husband, Pashko. I left the kids alone after school until we got home - I’m appalled now that I thought this was okay; Fran was only 7 years old.
I was a press operator at Sterling Stamping plant, stamping out metal parts from hoods to door knobs. Anything a car needed that was metal, we stamped out the parts.
It was a very hard job. Foremans often disrespected the foreigners, and there was a lot of favoritism. I had a different job almost everyday, and I always knew I would get the worst jobs as I didn’t know many people there, certainly none of the management or foremen. The only redeeming value for working there was the wage we were paid.
After a few years, I was laid off for almost five years. Luckily, I was reinstated before the 5 year mark, which would have allowed them to fire me indefinitely.
I got word about being reinstated while eating dinner on St John’s Day, our local village’s harvest festival. I was the happiest person around, as it meant a source of wealth that was otherwise nearly impossible to find. When I told Pashko that I got a call from Chrysler, he said it was someone playing a joke on me. We had given up hope after nearly five years.
For a year, I worked at 8 Mile and Sherwood, packaging parts. That was very easy work compared to the assembly line at the stamping plant. I was laid off from this plant after a year, so I went back to the stamping plant so I didn’t lose my seniority, even though it was much harder work.
I got carpal tunnel in my hands. The job took its toll on me physically and mentally in many ways. I stayed there until my son Gjon convinced me to retire early in 1997, but the real reason I retired is because the company offered an early pension because of my medical condition.
I am very thankful for everything Chysler offered me and my family. I didn’t know how to advocate for myself, and the rule back then was that foreigners never spoke up.
What are your most used kitchen items?
I think like everybody — pots and pans. And I like good knives.
What kind of ingredients do you use in the kitchen most, or that you can't live without?
Salt, black pepper, and red paprika. And garlic and onion all the time.
What food or dish reminds you most of home?
Lamb and rice.
Which Gjelina dishes are your favorite?
It's hard to say because I like everything — but the pizza, the desserts, and the coffee.
What thing can you tell us that would surprise us to learn about you?
My family would say it’s that I like to shop a lot — buying inexpensive things and reselling them.
What kinds of things do you buy? How do you sell them?
I was introduced to thrift stores and resale shops in the last 1980s. Before this, it wasn’t something my circle of people did — our goal was to buy new things and show that the American Dream was working for this.
I became intrigued, however, when I saw one of my kids buying quality items at very low prices.
I figured out later that garage sales were a way of unloading items I no longer needed or wanted. And then I discovered estate sales, and that opened up a whole new level of options.
I now frequent garage and estate sales, resale and thrift stores looking for household items and clothes. I find good deals and then sell them at my own garage sales. I’ve had a few estate sales at my house, but my neighbors told me that it was misleading and makes them think I passed away.
I also discovered Craigslist, and then Facebook Marketplace, which opened up another channel to sell. I have to get the help of my daughter Shasha or grandkids to post the items and follow up with buyers. I recently learned to print postage labels, so sometimes I package up my sales.
I like to buy home items, like rugs, tables, pictures, mirrors and such. After using them for a year, I sell them, usually at a profit. I’ve learned to identify designer clothes that women like me would like. I buy these items and sell them either online or at a garage sale.
I think if I had been born in this country, or had come over with even minimal education (and no kids), I would be running a business for sure.
Pitë (Cheese filled rolled dough)
Flour, hard red wheat unbleached
Mix in the mixer until it becomes dough like, knead into a ball, add a coat of vegetable oil, let it rest for a couple hours. When it looks good, put a clean sheet down on a very large (4ft x 10ft) table, throw the ball down and start to flatten to about 2 foot diameter and quarter inch thick disk. Add more oil to the top. Let it rest again for 15-30 minutes.
Put your hand underneath using fingers, pull the dough to stretch it out slowly. It needs to become thin — be very patient. You want to get it as square as possible. This sometimes means cutting off edges that are too thick. Don't let anyone see you do this.
These extra pieces are gathered up and balled together. Flattened them up and fry them as a working snack... because who doesn't love fried dough.
Tub of ricotta cheese
Large tub of cottage cheese
Decent amount of crumbled-up hard Bulgarian feta cheese
Mix all together.
From two sides of the table drizzle the filling from edge to almost the middle.
Important: Spread the filling so it is somewhat even, but don't smear it. The lumps make it better.
You end up with the dough covered by filling except for a strip down the horizontal middle.
From each side, pull up on the edge of the sheet slowly to allow the dough to roll up on itself until it gets almost to the middle. Repeat on the other side. Cut down that middle and finish rolling each so you now have two long tubes of deliciousness.
In a large oiled round cooking tray, coil the tube around until it meets in the middle. Note the length and adjust for next time so it fits snugly. Every time this is made, there is a new chance to make it better.
Add oil to the top of one, cover with plastic and put away for later since you can only eat one at a time unless you have a lot of guests, then it’s a party.
Bake at 450°F for at least half an hour — check at twenty minutes, if it's getting too dark, turn down heat and leave it for a bit longer.
Sup (Soup, random whatever she had left over)
Leftover... either Roast or Lamb or Pork
Vegeta (no msg version)
Fry up some flour about 2 tbsp in olive oil, brown it for flavor.
Add 4 cups of water (number of cups = mouths to feed). If chicken stock is available, use that instead of water or half of it. If there is lots of leftover meat, then less stock is needed.
Peppers, fresh tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, dried basil, parsley.
Add leftover meat (already cooked).
Cook for about an hour or until it looks done.
Better after it sits for a while.
Serve with bread from the oven.
Thanks for sharing that lovely story of your mother
We are from Northern California, but after moving to Florida and Canada, made our way to Tennessee - we love Nashville, but miss the ocean terribly! Last summer, we discovered Gjelina - it was so amazing that we had to return several times -- we couldn't get enough. We ate at Gjusta and Valle and would have stopped at Gjelina & Take Away, but ran out of time. I bought some books, and picked up some extra baked goods to graze on during our drive back to San Francisco. I absolutely adore your newsletters and receiving your emails. We will return soon ... what a beautiful place you've made in the community of Venice. Abundant Blessings!