Monday, November 28, 2011

Because Why Shouldn’t Uncooked, Lightly Cured Bacon Be Considered Delicious?

Another guest post by Caleb Zigas.

As far as museum experiences go, the Bulgakov Museum on a torn-up street in Kyiv surpasses nearly every expectation for a memorial to an author, even in a country with an impressively high literacy rate. The Museum is as much memory as emotion, and it was here that we had our first conversation.
At that point, my culinary experience of the entirety of Ukraine, let alone Kyiv, consisted of the following; Crimean Tatar food in a basement restaurant, that delicious funnel-cake-wrapped hot dog on the street, multiple markets with their varieties of pickles, a new-wave Ukrainian restaurant with hemp beer and incredible furnishings, several coffee shops, an organic demo marketplace with roasted pig, amazing soup and horseradish vodka in a tent under the rain with new friends and Puzata Hata, a Ukranian cafeteria-style chain with an open kitchen and servers in national garb. On the table at the Bulgakov we began with salo and vodka.
One of the reasons that not only have I always loved food but also working in food lies in the stock I put in hard work and in craftsmanship—in pride. I believe that this happens at tables, benches and backyards across the world, even when there is scarcity. But Ukraine was home not only to significant amounts of death in the  20th Century but also home to one of the worst famines of the same period. And so scarcity perhaps takes on a different meaning.

Our conversation began here, with scarcity, although somewhat unintentionally. I began these conversations in Kyiv with an interest in understanding who made what, why they made it and whether or not there was a market for it. My assumption about the changes that urbanization would bring revolved around the mass industrialization of foods and, therefore, not necessarily the disappearance of those foods but rather their replacement with more commercial versions of the same. In my own life, especially in America, my antidote to industrial-scale food production lies in taste. In deliciousness. Admittedly, it is thin ice to stand on, or, rather, a fairly subjective stance from which to stand, but something about me believes it, and so I stand.
And so it was fascinating to hear from Roman, a Ukrainian organic dairy farmer, that the National table relies on volume, or, in his words, calories. In his telling, at a crucial point in our conversation, the very value of the meal one offers not only resides in tastiness but also mostly in the quantity of food offered to guests. Now, I believe as much as anyone in never running out of food, but given the history of place and the sincerity of statement there is weight to thinking about this.

Could it be that Americans, or, for that matter, cultures unaware of the pangs of recent hunger, prioritized taste in an appropriate way? I thought about meals I’d eaten in El Alto, Bolivia, an incredibly poor place with a similar subsistence economy, and the pride a family would take in the taste of its offerings and found such a simple volume equation to be unsatisfactory. But the rest of the Ukrainians at the table agreed; taste, they said, was overrated.
But then why go to Puzata Hata? Because it felt like home? Because it was cheap? Why go anywhere for that matter? Why differentiate? The issue of taste runs central to food. Yes, we all eat to live, and the majority of us (despite ridiculousness like Man Against Food on the Food Network) do not live to eat. We live because we eat—in so many ways. And so I am given to wondering about the perception of taste. Not the way one piroshky feels compared to another but, rather, what the word itself means and what it gains and loses in translation. And so at the first of these conversations I find myself questioning if I even know how to explain my very fundamental relationship with eating in a way that is true to translation. In a way that will convey my appreciation for taste. For all kinds of taste.

And to do that while eating salo gives one quite a contemplative moment.
Images, from top:  
Salo, at the Pickle Project Conversation at the Bulgakov Museum
Bulgakov Museum interior, courtesy of the Bulgakov Museum
Puzata Hata food line, photo by Caleb Zigas
Kyiv Pickle Project participants
Caleb talks taste
Organic milk and honey, homemade pickles, brought to share at the conversation in Kyiv.


  1. Hmmm...that's interesting about the value placed on volume, not especially taste. Though I don't think that is true in my experience here, at least in the Crimean Tatar culture, where cooks take great pride in how their plov or manti tastes. But it is also very important that there is enough food and the serving dishes are constantly being refilled long after everyone seems to have eaten their fill.

  2. An interesting explanation, but a little bit simplified, I would say. The Holodomor is comparably recent history, and if to check Ukrainian literature before the famine, amount also mattered. It's absolutely true that an abundance of food is an absurd rule for many hosts today as well, it's about pride, and maybe even vanity. But concerning taste and deliciousness, it does not sound plausible, because apart from salo and vodka, the everyday diet of a usual person consists of quit tricky recipes - like soups, borsch, salads, stuffed fish/paprika/cabbage/anything. If taste did not matter, why to spend so much time cooking?

  3. Barb and Anna--thanks for your comments. I was in this conversation that Caleb wrote about, and was surprised at the general agreement about tasty vs. volume. I like the idea of it as about pride, and I also think that pride of home, of place, of family, places a role in the care people take in making and preserving homemade food. And everyone does believe their babushka's borscht is the best--if just volume was the key, perhaps not. But Caleb accurately reflected this fascinating conversation and I very much like that in writing about it, he encouraged me to think more, and encouraged your thoughtful comments. Thanks for reading!

  4. btw, there is a difference between salo and solonyna.


  5. Dear Anonymous--We're guessing that you're the same anonymous who regularly corrects our Ukrainian usage and terminology. To be clear, we view this blog as a way of learning and sharing and don't pretend to be experts on food in Ukraine (an idea more expansive than Ukrainian food) and particularly not in the Ukrainian language. So we're happy to have the corrections, but we'd be happy to have you clarify and expand on comments such as the above. Can you do so?