Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Family Feast in Crimea

Barb Wieser is a Peace Corps volunteer at the Gasprinsky Library in Simferopol and lives outside the city in a Crimean Tatar settlement.  Crimean Tatars have a long history on the Crimea Peninsula but, in a stunning display of ethnic cleansing, Stalin deported the entire Crimean Tatar population on a single day in 1944, sending hundreds of thousands to Uzbekistan and other distant Soviet republics, with as many as half the population dying en route and in the following months.  But the end of the Soviet Union meant the opportunity for Crimean Tatars to return to their homeland, now a part of Ukraine, and the Crimean Tatar population in Crimea now numbers more than 250,000.  Despite deportation and cultural repression, the Crimean Tatars preserved many of their own traditions.  Barb was generous enough to share her experience preparing for a pre-wedding Crimean Tatar feast. 

Abdul, the oldest son of my landlords, Server and Maia, is getting married September 18th. There has been much talk and preparations for the wedding for quite some time. I am invited, of course, and I have been looking forward to attending my first time to a Crimean Tatar wedding! By all accounts, they are quite the event, and include all night eating, dancing, and toasting. Despite the fact that Crimean Tatars are Muslims, they still do a lot of drinking, kind of like the Turks. The joke is that there is nothing in the Koran about not drinking vodka.  Two weekends ago there was a large gathering at Maia and Server's house, a traditional part of the pre-wedding ritual where the two families exchange presents, and the imam comes and blesses the couple. 45 guests were expected: relatives, neighbors, friends and many of the relatives showed up the night before and spent the weekend.

Earlier in the week I had offered to help with the cooking, so I spent much of Friday next door in the kitchen with Maia and her sisters, daughter, and mother, chopping vegetables and meat, getting ready for the early morning feast preparation the next day.  One of the traditions in Muslim culture for a large ritual gathering such as this is to slaughter a goat, or in the case of the Crimean Tatars, a sheep, to provide meat for all the dishes. Maia had told me that her brother-in-law was bringing a sheep to slaughter on Friday, but somehow the reality of that hadn't sunk in until I came home from work Friday afternoon and glanced into the back yard, and there was a sheep, laying under the tree, staring at me with his woeful (or so I felt) eyes. I really didn't want to be present for the actual slaughter, so I disappeared into my house for awhile. When I came out later, the brother-in-law and nephew were hacking away at the sheep carcass. Two cooking fires had been started and large wok-looking pans were placed on them to cook the food needed for the feast. Later that evening, a delicious mutton soup was made for the neighbors and relatives who had gathered to help with food preparations.

After watching them for awhile, I went inside and started helping the sisters chop and peel vegetables--mounds of carrots, onions, potatoes, garlic--taking out time to have coffee and green tea and of course, talk.   One of my other jobs that evening was grinding of sheep meat to be used to make dolmades (stuffed peppers) the following day. As I was chopping up chunks of meat to be fed into the grinder, I thought of that living creature whose eyes I had looked into not so long ago, and whose body I now held in my hands and was making preparations to eat. Not since I was a child on my grandparents farm and watched the caged up chickens before their slaughter (one of which I let loose and got into big trouble) have I been so close to the connection between animal life and the meat I eat. Maybe it is the connection with mammal's that is so profound, as I have also frequently caught fish and killed and ate them. I just couldn't and still can't get the vision of that sheep's face from my mind. I tried to thank the sheep for giving its life so I can eat, but somehow, I don't think it is enough. But I continue to eat meat at my neighbors' homes and when I go to Crimean Tatar restaurants. Perhaps this experience will help me to remember what it is I am eating and to be consciously thankful that an animal has given its life for my food.

By the time I went next door, all the food had been prepared and the festivities were in full swing. I tried to help with serving, etc. but I was clearly to be treated as a guest and was escorted upstairs to dine with all the women. I hadn't realized that was going to happen, so I felt way underdressed for the event, but no one but me seemed to mind. Quite a feast was laid on the table. Plates of fruits, olives, cheeses, and sweets. A thick mutton soup was served and then the dolmades along with leposhka, the traditional Crimean Tatar bread. Afterwords, there were platters of cookies, cakes, and candies, and tea and coffee were served. It is the Crimean Tatar tradition to serve first Turkish coffee and then green tea. When I asked about this, someone told me it was because in Crimea before the deportation, people only drank coffee. But in Uzbekistan coffee wasn't available, so they drank green tea. So when people came back to Crimea, they began to serve both!

Finally I went back to my house, enriched by yet another Crimean Tatar experience and full of love for this wonderful culture I have found myself in.

Thanks, Barb, for sharing this.  More posts from Peace Corps Volunteers to come, and of course, all of our Pickle Project readers are invited to share their stories and memories about food traditions in Ukraine.


  1. Thanks for this great post, Barb!

  2. A great story of a Tatar wedding feast. I really enjoyed reading it on your birthday!

  3. that's where i was born ^^" my dad was born there man i miss it so much

    well if you have any information about Crimean please contact me at OlympusVrTech@hotmail.com or call me 734-276-7736 thank you ^^"

  4. Thanks, Aleksander. And, stay tuned for more posts from Crimea!

  5. thank you very much ^^' email Imvuilovejulie@yahoo.com

    or call me only if you live in u.s loll


  6. Wonderful post Linda. I really enjoyed reading about a Tatar wedding. It seems to be similar to Uzbek celebrations but I don't know where the differences are. From the picture, it looks like the soup could be "lagman", if it had noodles in it (one of my favorites), and lepyoshki are a staple in Uzbek diet as well. As for "dolmades", I think it was actually "golubtzi", as dolmades are made with grape leaves and golubtzi are made with cabbage leaves (but the meat mixture is frequently the same for both, or you can have vegetarian dolmades).

  7. And Anna, thanks again--and of course, these are both posts by Barb, who's been so great at sharing the culture she's learning about and living within. The soup, I'm almost sure, is lagman, and not sure about the grapeleaves. I'll ask Barb!