Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Just Pickled to Be Here

On our recent conversations trip in Ukraine, we were joined by Caleb Zigas and Rueben Nilsson.  Both have been good enough to share their reflections on that trip, those conversations, and that food.  Here, Caleb shares his thoughts on those first days in Kyiv.

I know, probably like most Americans, very little about Ukraine outside of Gogol Bordello (a great live show), Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated (with a Gogol Bordello connection no less) and, of course, the most cursory of details about Chernobyl, famine, Stalin, World War II, oligarchs, Shaktar Donetsk’s UEFA Cups Championship and that the lead on the Google search of the country is marriage opportunities for Westerners. This is to say, in what is probably a longer way than necessary, that when I was asked to join the Pickle Project I really had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Linda and Sarah found me to be a part of this project through a Ukrainian immigrant who had heard about the work that we do at La Cocina. I believe in La Cocina because I believe that everyone deserves an opportunity to make a living doing something that they love to do. Furthermore, and I can never quite articulate this well enough so you’re either going to have to simply try to believe me or join me for dinner some time, I believe that food, more than anything else, can be a tool with which to be the same as anyone in the world. That to sit down to a meal and to open yourself to that which someone else offers is a rare moment of pure and total equality. So the idea behind the Pickle Project, conversations about culture and food, immediately appealed to me. As did, if I’m to be totally honest, the ability to go some place new, and to learn.

Conversation, in a controlled situation, is something of a funny thing. One (and by one I mean not simply the universal but also the personal) feels compelled to say perhaps grander things than one otherwise would and, in that grandiosity, as a result perhaps obscures the grander truths. And so the intentional conversations of the Pickle Project do not stand alone as experience but are rather coupled with the people, the train rides and the meals that were shared to give the picture that I now hold. As myopic, myriad and incorrect as that may be.

I boarded a plane from Paris to Kiev directly behind two women with Celine bags, significant amounts of jewelry and really lovely blond hair. I got off the plane in Kyiv and realized, immediately, that a) Cyrillic is nothing like English and b) that I should probably have learned more about Ukraine (don’t say the Ukraine, I was told, so I know that at least) before I arrived. Like how to say please and thank you.
Kyiv conformed almost too neatly to my vision of post-Soviet Europe with wide avenues, block-style apartments with unimpressive facades, large statues in picturesque squares and the contradiction of old women selling small collections of varied sundry items on sidewalks with the Jaguars, Bentleys and designer clothes of the cosmopolitan set.  So, I think it made sense that my first culinary experience be a hot dog wrapped, essentially, in funnel cake and served with no toppings in a plastic on street corner. Because this, at least, I did not understand, though it does provide further proof of Bourdain’s theory of encased-meat universality. And it was delicious.
Immediately, and despite our world’s best efforts at standardized globalization, one begins to know that one has arrived in a different place. Without spending too much time defining the notion of difference let us simply acknowledge the political (post-Soviet state, Orange Revolution, Tymoschenko recently jailed), physical (aforementioned apartments, average heel height of 4 inches) and cultural (language, Bulgakov, soccer) discrepancies, and accept those as fact if not generalization. And go from there.
 My Kyiv, and in fact my Ukraine, begins with those apartments, opens into a cosmopolitan downtown, curves to the open-air and established markets (more soon on this!), dips into modern art galleries that feel a little unexpected and neatly lives in places like the Bulgakov Museum, where we had our first conversation. I hope to get to the conversations soon, but wanted to begin with, well, the beginning, because every writer knows the middles is the hardest and as I write this from a plane I already know the end.
The first market I visited in Kyiv looked, well, just like I expected a market to look like. Tiled blocks from which older women cut pieces of unrefrigerated primal cuts into domestic cuts, rows of vegetables all of which looked great and the majority of which could certainly not have grown in a Ukraine as cold as the one I was experiencing, counters full of pickles where sampling was not only allowed but also encouraged and a back corner full of dried fruits and nuts from all over. Our second market, much the same, opened onto a larger marketplace for clothes and assorted household items as well as hot and prepared foods like the tandoori-style lavosh breads and grilled meats. But the real marketplace, the one that captures the imagination, happens informally in the streets where an older generation hawks dried mushrooms, random herbs and berries, 3—5 vegetables and even live crawfish all of dubious origin but with the romanticism of the country come to the city. Not being able to have the conversations, and unable to test the statements even if I could, I will take the romantic long-view and believe in provenance.

But meanwhile, a city is growing. In a place that is home to over 3 million people and a prominent (if very small) very upper class, demand appears to be shifting,  if ever so slightly. There are fast casual concepts everywhere, an organic marketplace one weekend, restaurants and an abundance, truly, of sushi. Again, provenance is perhaps questionable and, again, I did no investigation and prefer to believe in the best intentions of humanity despite strong evidence otherwise in most cases.

All of this, I think, to say that arriving in Ukraine means both the new and the old, the known and the unknown, the market and the supermarket, the home and the restaurant and all of those other things that make our current global moment so, well, global. But what about that food?

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed reading Caleb's first impressions of Ukraine and the food scene in Kyiv. Thanks for posting it. Looking forward to more highlights from your conversation trip.