Monday, February 15, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Practice of Chocolate Giving

Although Valentine’s Day is not widely celebrated in Ukraine, all of the chocolates being exchanged remind me of the Ukrainian penchant for giving chocolates. I learned about the practice of chocolate giving at the end of my first trip to Ukraine. As a colleague arrived to drive us to the airport, he presented me with an enormous box of chocolates. (It really was a huge box of chocolates! Perhaps, 18 inches long and 12 inches wide (40cm X 30cm). I had to hand-carry it because it would not fit in my suitcase..)

Now, after living in Ukraine, I have come to understand chocolate giving as a common ritual, sometimes charged with meaning and sometimes without expectation whatsoever. My friend, Katarynka, once told me that Ukrainians love chocolates but that they really love chocolates in boxes. This, she said, is because, during the Soviet era, boxes were fancifully decorated and typically came from abroad, which was considered more extravagant. Giving of any gifts, she explained, was and, arguably, still is a strategy for securing personal economic and political livelihood. Conversely, another friend, Natalia, who is a bit younger and grew up in a post-Socialist Ukraine, told me that she thinks it is “social” to bring good chocolates to friends or colleagues to enjoy with coffee. And, she added, they are tasty.

In her article on the culture of gift giving in contemporary St. Petersburg (And, by the way, the Pickle Project endeavors to fill the void of Ukrainian-specific food studies!) Jennifer Patico (2002) explores how the giving of small gifts, and chocolates, in particular, inform post-Socialist identities. She also further examines how these customs reflect and overlap with the social and transactional networking that was central to Soviet era life. Whereas, during the Soviet period, people drew on their connections to meet their material needs for goods and commodities, today, with a range of consumer goods available, urban Russians rely on money to achieve those ends. Now, Patico’s research suggests, gifts are used not as direct payments or bribes, but as “signs of attention” or spontaneous expressions of gratitude. They symbolize recognition that relationships are appreciated and in good standing, while reinforcing a kind of social commonality. Reflecting the variation in my friends’ responses to the chocolate question, Patico writes that gifts can be variously interpreted and that their meaning is often expressed by the choice of item selected. Boxes of chocolate (for women) and bottles of cognac (for men) are both neutral and traditional, reflecting the tastes of neither the giver nor the receiver. Nonetheless, chocolates in a decorative box are a good gift, she found, because a person would never buy a box of chocolates for themselves. Furthermore, they are frivolous, fleeting and delicious.

Regardless of the reason for the gift, Ukrainian chocolates come in a dizzying array of shapes, flavors and fillings. There are ones with poppy. And, coffee crème, almonds and crispy rice and marshmallow (delightfully called “hummingbird’s milk”) and cognac-soaked cherries and raspberry jelly. There are wafers, layered with hazelnut ganache. There are cones filled with champagne-flavored crème. My personal favorites involve the mingling of honey and almonds..

Chocolate confectionary is rather old industry in Ukraine, apparently dating back to the 18th century. According to, as L’viv emerged as an important hub of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it also became a center for confectionery. In combined celebration of this history and International Women's Day, the 3rd Annual Chocolate Festival will take place in L’viv March 6-8, 2010.

For thoughtful academic discussion of gift-giving in Russia, see Jennifer Patico’s 2002 article “Chocolate and Cognac: Gifts and the Recognition of Social Worlds in Post-Soviet

Russia” in Ethnos 67 (3), 345-368.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

More Salt, Less Salt? Horseradish or Currant Leaves? The Quest for the Perfect Pickle

What makes a great Ukrainian pickle?  It's complicated--and different for every family.  Irina Leonenko was good enough to share her mother's quest for the perfect pickle.  Here's her family story.
I asked my mom and dad, "I have a serious question for you! What does pickle mean to you?"  My mom said it's the beginning of fall and winter times; it's a tradition in our family, all our grandmother had their own recipes for pickles, but my dad likes my mom's recipe best.

In fact there is a "pickle" story in our family. My dad loved his mother's pickles and for many years my mom tried to learn the recipe from her mother-in-law but they never turned out the way my dad liked. My mom tried everything: black currant leaves;  garlic before boiling water and after boiling water; less salt, more salt;  horse radish, and simply horse radish leaves; she even used to send me and my brother in early September to find cherry trees in the area and pick some leaves. We also had to always go to the market in fall to buy dried dill and dried horseradish leaves from an old babushka (for whom it was the main product to sell in September). 
After many years, my mom spoke to somebody in her office and is sure she found the "secret ingredient" that was missing in her mother-in-law's recipe. Even today my mom still believes my grandmother (her mother-in-law) did that on purpose because she wanted her pickles taste better and she wanted to please her son (my dad).

My mom's pickles before turned out to be soft, but now they are crispy and have the right balance of salt and necessary herbs that pickles require. My mom never uses vinegar, not anyone in our family used vinegar for pickles. That's why we never buy Supermarket pickles, because they have a strong taste of vinegar (quick and cheap), just like Greeks would never eat canned olives, instead they first dry them in the sun and then marinate for a long time in good olive oil. 
My dad had nothing to add to the pickle story, he simply can't live without them, especially in winter. By now, my mom by knows exactly how many 3 liter  jars of pickles she has to have per winter for only my dad.

So, this is our family pickle story.  I think Ukrainians never really think what pickles mean for us. We simply grow up with them.  They are present even at the wedding tables and nobody ever thinks that there won't be any.  Another thing, at any party, if there is Vodka there is definitely a Pickle. 
And, Irina added, "My mom is a modern Ukrainian woman, but still doing pickles, so that's also good!"   We want to hear your stories about traditional Ukrainian pickles and other foods in Ukraine or around the world.  Send us pictures, stories or questions.

Photos:  Gala Leonenko making pickles, fall, 2009.  By Irina Leonenko