Monday, September 12, 2011

Who are Your Human Links in the Food Chain?

Recently I gave a talk to a local community group here in the Catskills about the Pickle Project. As I showed pictures of fresh meat on long counters in open air markets (above, an oxtail) and big buckets of fresh sour cream, one of the audience members asked about the safety of unrefrigerated meat and other foods in Ukraine.

That’s a question many of us ask as we see those open-air markets, but increasingly, it’s a question Americans ask about our own food supply and the answers, interestingly, may be found in a place like Ukraine. Since the publication of Upton Sinclair’s  The Jungle, more than one hundred years ago,  “food safety” has been defined as “bacteria control” in the United States. But today, the threats to our food supply exceed microbes and include broader issues now defined as food security:  access to food, food and water safety,  genetically modified crops,  and, in an ever-growing global economy,  understanding where in the world our food comes from and how it is grown, processed and shipped.  Interestingly, cultures that never abandoned open-air markets --- and the food supply system that these markets support --- hold the answers to today’s crisis.

In the United States, we hope (and perhaps only hope) that government food regulations make the food we buy safe to eat.  But recent contaminations and ongoing budget cuts make that protection harder to believe.  Ukrainians, however, have no such illusions about the government’s ability to protect the food supply.

Ukraine’s recent history has left no citizen with few beliefs that any government can be trusted to feed its citizenry.   In 19322-33, Stalin created what is known in Ukrainian as  Holodomor,  the Great Famine,  sending troops to guard  the harvests, and ensure that every morsel was exported out of Ukraine as a way to ensure the unruly republic's obedience.  The real result was the starvation and death of  millions of Ukrainians.  During World War II battles fought in Ukraine devastated the agricultural landscape and starved hundreds of thousands more.   The Soviet Union’s efforts at collectivizing farms meant that eventually, fewer and fewer products appeared in the market as production decreased for a host of complicated reasons.  There is of course, also considerable concern about food contaminated from nuclear fallout from the incident at Chernobyl 25 years ago.  As recently as last summer, I was advised never to buy mushrooms on the street in the capital, Kyiv,  for fears that they had come from the contaminated region.

As Ukraine celebrates its 20 years of independence,  food is now widely available, but rampant corruption has continued the climate of distrust generated in Soviet times.  The average Ukrainian citizen does not believe that the government can or would protect the food supply in any way.  

Because of all of this, Ukrainians have long since taken responsibility for the food that they feed their families.    They’ve found two solutions.
First, grow it yourself.    In villages and towns, every house has a garden.  It’s not just for show.  They are big gardens.  The front yard of a house might be filled with potato plants and out back,  stretch rows of garlic, onions, beets, tomatoes, cucumbers, and more.  A clutch of fruit trees, cherry, apricot, apple, join the blackberry and blueberry bushes.   Full-time village residents (a rapidly aging, declining, number) might also have a cow or two, a few chickens and geese, and maybe even a pig.  

An increasing middle class in Ukrainian cities is finding the income to purchase a “dacha,” a vacation house in a village.  But these dachas aren’t just for relaxation, they’re a place where after the end of a busy work week, city dwellers drive to, put on their old clothes, , and weed, water, pick and preserve.  Full-time villagers and part-time residents both grow food for their extended families. Many young people still live at home, relying on mothers or grandmothers to produce home-cooked meals every day.  Few young people cook at all (“We have other hobbies,”  one said laughingly).  But when your food comes from your own family garden, you know who produces your food. 
Second, buy your food from someone with whom you have a personal, yet commercial, relationship with.  You can’t just buy it from any vendor.  At the main city market in Odessa there are dozens of women selling dairy products.  But according to my friend Natalia, she only buys from “her” vendor,  the woman with whom she has established a personal relationship.   That way, she knows that Irina comes from a village two hours away, twice a week, with cheese made from cow and goat milk, and fresh sour cream.  She knows the person who produces her food. 

Although Americans want to have a personal relationship with their food, that sort of intimacy requires rethinking the ways we live.

Is it possible to replant the lawn with vegetable gardens and re-apportion family time  away from soccer games and TV in order to tend those gardens? Is there a communal garden or CSA that could use help? Or is it more feasible to shop consistently from vendors and take the time to get to know them?   It’s definitely more work.  Planting, tending and harvesting a garden is a hard thing to do after a day in the office although Ukrainian women seem to balance work, family and home in a way I admire. 

Is it possible to become less used to food on demand?  When you eat what you or your known farmer grows, it means that at particularly times of the year,  you don’t eat certain things.  At my friend Anya’s dacha,  we had okroshka,  a cold buttermilk soup that celebrated, in her family, the arrival of the first cucumbers of the year.

Governments at all levels, in both the United States and Ukraine often make this revised thinking more difficult.  In Simferopol Ukraine, the city government forbade street vendors from selling.  This appears to be honored a bit in the breach,  but for many people, it meant that city residents had to travel a bit further for food, and pay a bit more.  As I describe farmers’ markets here to Ukrainian friends, there’s always a bit of puzzlement over the idea that they are once a week affairs.   In the United States, the tangle of regulations about both producing and selling food at markets and elsewhere prevents many would-be growers and producers from entering the marketplace.

The future is cloudy for both American and Ukrainian eaters.  We expect our governments to work for a common good and in both countries, the common good is often a highly debatable topic. There needs to be a transparency about food regulation and a willingness to both protect the food supply and encourage local webs of relationships.

I can imagine a future here in the US where a greater percentage of us eat seasonably and sustainably.  But I can equally imagine a future of factory farms and contaminated food.  In Ukraine, as the McDonalds are always jammed with young people and fewer young women (and virtually no young men) learn how to cook,  the centuries old tie to the land may be broken. But I can also imagine a Ukraine where cooks still make the perfect pickle.
Note:  over the past month, I've been taking an online food writing course with Molly O'Neill.  Special thanks to her and my fellow foodwriters in the workshop for their thoughts and great advice on this article.


  1. This is an awesome post! I live in Ukraine and was a little scared when I first saw the markets with fresh meat cut up and laying out with birds and cats running and flying around. However, I have learned how to choose a cut and to check if it's fresh or not and have not had any problems. In fact, when I visit the states and see the meat drenched in red food dye to make it look healthy I think, "Yuck!"

  2. Thanks for commenting--great observations about your own learning. We're heading back to Ukraine in late October and will be holding a series of community conversations about food--hope you can join us in Kyiv!