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.
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?