5. If They Don't Have Bread, Let Them Eat Cake!

Milan Susak


War is a time when strong, strange things in life happen. Good stories, bad stories, sad and happy ones get made in wartime.

This is a war story. But this one is not a sad one. On the contrary.

In the deepest dark, a single spark of light seems the brightest. This is the story of how a simple apple cake became one of such sparks.

I don’t remember which year, which month or day it was. With the help of some history book I could probably find the exact date, but I don’t want that, I don’t care about that. It was a bad time, bad years, bad days, as bad as any day in war.

As a child, you look at the world with different eyes. Some things are inexplicably beautiful, something else is same way ugly. You are not thinking how and why, you just let your emotions overwhelm you, nice ones, bad ones. Without keeping your guard up, you let them into you, and spontaneously you let them get processed and go out of you to continue their way. Nevertheless some of them leave something in you. No matter how young you are, some things get engraved in the memory and permanently leave a mark in your mind and heart.

That’s how that day left a mark in my memory. It became a part of me.

I am not a fortune teller, but about this day I certainly know that I will always remember it.

It was a typical day of my childhood when the Yugoslav War of the early 1990s was underway. My granddad, who was one of the many refugees that fled from Croatia, then the official state of Yugoslavia, persistently harassed us with the TV set at the highest volume from which, all day, bad news filled the air. It wasn’t the first time that he kindly threw us out of the living room, saying that it was news time and not a play time.

How come it’s not play time? Why? How can you explain that to my sister and me?

Those were the days when my boyhood was falling apart and I was violently expelled from a world of innocence and youth into the crueler world of elders.


Let me be clear about one thing. No one was shooting at me, no one close to me was killed, and during the whole war I didn’t hear any gun shot. But then, every day I watched TV reports from war zones, lines of refugees, dead bodies, burned houses, music concerts of nationalists, music concerts of pacifists. Every day I was surrounded with strange faces on the streets, distorted, deformed in anger, grey in sadness, mortified by poverty.

When I would ask why, how, wherefore, my parents had no answer. Their faces would turn pale and their uncontrolled glances would be lost somewhere in the distance. Finally I learned not to ask questions, and began to accept war and its disgusting quotidian.

Though people, at some hours of drive away from us, were eating sachertorte and tiramisu, walking on the street, serene and blessed, there was a raging war set in the distressed hopelessness in my environment. The Yugoslav war scene was a typical one, but additionally seasoned with external interference. Especially with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 757, paragraphs b (prevent the sale of all products and commodities to Yugoslavia) and c (not make available any commercial, industrial, or public utility, funds or financial resources to Yugoslavia) affected everyday life the most. This resulted in empty shops, naked food racks, long lines of people who waited for milk and everyday fights over few loafs of bread. To put it bluntly, the UN used a well-known method employed in Iraq and Iran, that of imposing economic sanctions and embargo. In these cases divide et impera (divide and rule) can be read Esuriente et impera (make hungry and rule).

But like a small ray of light in a solitary confinement room or a small golden detail radiating in Rembrandts paintings, there were somethings to look forward to in my childhood amidst war. At that time, the smell of apple pie represented an ultimate happiness for me.

Anguish forces man to think and use his intellect. This was how the Embargo cake was born. Embargo is a dreaded word, but it wasn’t a hated sentiment for me. This strange word evokes only the most beautiful feelings in me, reminding me of nice things in hard times.

Ingredients that went into this war cake were the only available food components in almost all of Yugoslavian households during the war. A little bit of sugar, some oil, flour, apples and cinnamon. Mixed in a proper way basic things like this can make many faces smile. One of them was mine, that day when my mother put on the table this new delicacy.


Although my Mom tried hard to make this cake as appealing as possible using powdered sugar to make some flower, or geometric shapes on top of it, it was quite obvious that the Embargo cake could never be called the prettiest cake in the world.  But for me, it all seemed quite impressive at that time. More impressive was the taste of it. The lack of regular sweets such as chocolate, lollypops, etc. made this cake extraordinary for me. I can still remember the sensational taste of the apple-cinnamon mixture. Now, I know that it was the simplest thing, made with the cheapest ingredients. I have eaten prettier looking and tastier cakes in life, after those war years, but somehow, the Embargo cake remains the best. After the war ended mom made upgraded versions of the Embargo cake, enriched with nuts and raisins, or mixing different types of apples. Sometimes she would pour syrup glaze on top or even chocolate. The cakes tasted better but the basic one remained a staunch favourite.

It was perhaps because when the going gets tough, we end up looking for small things to help us survive hard times. The war became about small things. It became about trying to survive hard times with the help of small, ordinary things. Food is one of the small, ordinary things that can make you feel good, and that can bring you some normalcy when life doesn’t otherwise spare you.




Milan Susak is a curator based in Belgrade, Serbia. He can be reached at shoockey@gmail.com


[1] Photograph by Milan Susak

[2] Sunoj D, May22nd , 17cmx15cm , Coffee stain and graphite on paper, 2015. Sunoj is an artist living and working in Bengaluru, India. His works are available at http://sunojd.wordpress.com. He is the Art Editor at The Forager.

[3] Photograph by Milan Susak