Winter Issue 2020

Bosnian Coffee in Bowling Green

By Senida Husić and Virginia Siegel

Coffee holds primacy in many American’s lives, but for a significant portion of the population in Southcentral Kentucky, coffee takes on a deeper meaning. Bowling Green, the third most populous city in Kentucky at around 68,000, is home to an estimated 6,000+ Bosnian Americans (roughly ten percent of the population). For Bosnian Americans, coffee is more than a drink—it is a way of life. In the Bosnian language, there is a hard to translate concept for which there is no English equivalent: ćejf.  Similar to the Swedish term fika, ćejf implies activities that bring rest for the heart and soul. 

Ćejf would roughly translate into something of leisure, something of pleasure, something that you do for the feel of it, for…the inherited will and need for something….It’s like you do something because you enjoy it and it makes you feel good, and that’s essentially what coffee is for Bosnian people.
Interview with Senida Husić conducted by Virginia Siegel 2015

In short, while the term can include a variety of activities, drinking Bosnian coffee is the most common and frequently evoked example of ćejf in Bosnian daily life.

The making and serving of Bosnian coffee, or Bosanska kahva, can be understood as heritage, daily ritual, and community enactment for Bosnian Americans in Southcentral Kentucky. Distinct from American-style coffee, Bosnian coffee has a unique flavor and method of preparation, passed down through generations. A cornerstone of Bosnian social life, the context within which coffee is served, as well as the quality with which it is brewed, communicate Bosnian cultural expectations of hospitality, social and gender roles, and serves to form or establish boundaries within relationships.

To understand how Bosnian coffee came to stock the shelves of grocery stores in Kentucky, it is important to first understand how Bowling Green became home to one of the largest Bosnian communities in the United States. In the mid-to-late 1990s, many families began arriving in Bowling Green as a result of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and subsequent war in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992-1995. Fleeing genocide and systematic religious and ethnic persecution, Bosnian families, many of whom were Muslim, resettled in Kentucky through the federal refugee relocation program of the International Center of Kentucky, located in Bowling Green. While the history of the Bosnian war is beyond the scope of this piece, it is imperative to understand that many of Bowling Green’s residents were forced to flee their homes at a moment’s notice. Many did not have time to pack or prepare, and many were forced to leave behind their belongings and homes. In the absence of the material, Bosnian families cherish what they were able to bring: their memories, traditions, and culture, including, importantly, the practice of making and drinking Bosnian coffee.  

Photograph courtesy of Virginia Siegel

So what is Bosnian coffee, and what makes it unique? Bosnian coffee, similar to Turkish coffee, is a strong, rich coffee brewed from a very finely ground bean and served unfiltered. Whereas in Turkish coffee the water and grounds (and sometimes even the sugar) are brought to a boil together, Bosnians first boil the water separately and then pour the water over warmed grounds. Once the boiled water is added, the coffee pot (in Bosnian, the džezva) is placed back on the heat source and left for just a few moments; long enough for a foam (pjena) to form and the pressure to push a large bubble up to the top of the mixture. While families have different techniques, the desired product is the same: that layer of pjena at the top will be spooned into coffee cups first before pouring in the coffee. The foam is key to both the taste as well as the aesthetics, and time plays a role in the amount of foam produced. After the water is boiled, the whole process is quick, including the time between brewing and pouring coffee out into cups. Senida Husić advises, 

At least pour it right away and then people can wait…some people like it like hot, like burning your tongue off, [and] others like to have it cool down before they drink it, so it just really depends. But the key thing is to pour it into your coffee cup, as soon as possible, because if you wait a while that foam will start to disintegrate and then you’re going to lose the aesthetics of it, and I’m pretty sure also the flavor as well.

Many factors affect the quality of a brew. The amount of coffee grounds added, the length of time the grounds are warmed beforehand, and the length of time the coffee is brewed with water are all judged by eye, an art form and skill only acquired through observation and repeated practice. Husić contends

...making Bosnian coffee is something that you have to learn, and it’s an acquired skill…It’s like almost an apprenticeship that your mom or your parents put you through…

Most often, this “apprenticeship” is between mothers and daughters. While coffee is enjoyed by all, Bosnian coffee remains a gendered practice, and it is often women who make and serve it. Coffee is considered so crucial to the role of the matron of the house that it is a common joke that a Bosnian woman is not ready to marry until she can properly make Bosnian coffee. While commonly joked about, this is nevertheless reflected in how a new bride is expected to serve her in-laws coffee as part of the private, traditional component of Bosnian American weddings. 

Photograph courtesy of Virginia Siegel

Beyond the brew, the aesthetics of Bosnian coffee extends to presentation, especially when serving coffee for guests. Traditionally, Bosnian coffee would be brewed in copper džezva and enjoyed in small handle-less porcelain cups called fildžani. The copper džezva and fildžani would be brought to guests on a decorative, embossed copper tray. The porcelain cups would also sit in decorative copper holders, allowing the drinker to handle the cups with hot liquid inside. A copper sugar bowl would often complete this setting. Today, it is common that the coffee is brewed in an enamel džezva and served in small coffee or espresso cups—whatever is practical for everyday use. However, no Bosnian in Bowling Green would make a home without a traditional Bosnian coffee set. Most copper sets originate from the same place: the Turkish Quarter of Sarajevo, a neighborhood in Bosnian’s capital renowned for its handmade metalworking. Increasingly, many families in Bowling Green have three sets: a copper set brought from Bosnia for display; an espresso set with matching saucers, commonly bought at international grocery stores, reserved for company; and coffee cups typical of those used by other Americans for drinking coffee casually with family or alone. 

Photograph courtesy of Virginia Siegel

It should be noted that while Bosnian coffee in the United States is typically purchased pre-ground, it was common just two decades ago to roast one’s own beans and hand-grind them. Today, coffee bean grinders are no longer needed but are commonly kept as decoration in the Bosnian home alongside copper coffee sets. A common story shared by participants for the Kentucky Folklife Program’s recent Bowling Green Bosnia Oral History Project included memories of grinding beans before making coffee. Participants often reflected on the amount of arm strength it took to grind enough for just one strong brew, noting that making coffee several times a day meant you had to do a lot of grinding. 

To fully understand coffee as ritual and community enactment, it is necessary to understand the role coffee plays in the daily lives of Bosnian Americans, in addition to the larger context of hospitality and neighborliness in Bosnian culture. Bosnian coffee is commonly enjoyed  multiple times a day. For the average Bosnian American, this could include, at minimum, morning coffee, midday coffee, and evening coffee. Coffee is so intrinsic to daily life, there is even a tradition of serving children milk in coffee cups so they can participate as well. Sometimes families will add a drop of coffee to help children feel included, allowing more and more coffee in the cup as children grow older. Regardless of the time of day, it is expected that one sits with the coffee for a long time, an hour at least, even for a small cup. This is the process of ćejf. In fact, it is said that some cafes in Sarajevo will not allow you to return if you drink the coffee too quickly, a sure sign that the coffee, and ćejf, is neither understood nor respected.

Photograph courtesy of Virginia Siegel

Coffee may be enjoyed alone or within the family, but it is also a central activity when entertaining guests. A common sentiment shared by participants of the Bowling Green Bosnia Oral History Project was the centrality of neighborhood relations back in Bosnia before the war. It was often your neighbors and the folks you saw every day that were most important to you, more so than extended family. It is this sentiment that made the Bosnian War particularly horrific for communities across Bosnia, where neighbors of different ethnic groups seemingly turned against one another overnight. Despite this trauma, Bosnian Americans in Bowling Green still take pride in this aspect of Bosnian culture, and the primacy of hospitality is immediately apparent to any visitor in a Bosnian home. 

Making coffee well is key to Bosnian life and hospitality—the quality of the coffee sends a message to one’s guests. Too thin and it is assumed that the host is being stingy, and perhaps hinting that the guest is not as welcome as words say. Too thick and the maker may appear to be generous, but unpracticed in the art of coffee. There are even different words in the Bosnian language for different types of coffee shared with guests, from the coffee you give to someone out of neighborly obligation to the coffee you share with a friend with whom you intend to spend hours chatting. The mode of coffee is the same, but the message and the type of relationship signaled is quite different. Food, too, is part of this neighborly reciprocity. Guests are expected to bring a small gift, often biscuits or some other light sweet, and hosts are expected to serve both coffee and snacks, a reciprocal ritual that means many Bosnian families keep a stocked pantry in preparation for both visitors and visits. Because many families are already well-prepared for guests, it can also often mean that the same package of biscuits is gifted back and forth between families over the course of multiple visits. 

Photograph courtesy of Virginia Siegel

Much more can be said of Bosnian coffee—this article is but a brief introduction to an important food tradition. While this tradition has its roots in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is now an important part of Kentucky’s cultural fabric. If you have the chance to visit one of Bowling Green’s Bosnian restaurants, make sure to order Bosnian coffee. Take your time with your coffee. Enjoy the moment. Experience ćejf. Understand that for Bosnian Americans in Kentucky, a cup of coffee is more than the dietary nourishment and energy it provides; it is food for the soul and a link to one’s heritage and community. For Bosnian Americans, a cup of coffee creates community.

The Bowling Green Bosnia Oral History Project “A Culture Carried: Bosnians in Bowling Green”

Senida Husić holds an MBA from Western Kentucky University. She became involved with the WKU Folk Studies Department in 2015 in conjunction with the exhibit “A Culture Carried: Bosnians in Bowling Green” and the International Year Of Bosnia and Herzegovina 2017-2018. She continues to be an activist and a liaison between the university and the Bosnian American community in Bowling Green, Kentucky. 

Virginia Siegel is the folk arts coordinator for Arkansas Folk and Traditional Arts, housed in University of Arkansas Libraries. Formerly, she served as Folklife Specialist for the Kentucky Folklife Program. Siegel holds an MA in Folk Studies from Western Kentucky University and is currently pursuing a PhD in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies at the University of Arkansas.