Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dach(a)ed Hopes; A Non-Religious Jewish Story About Odessa

And another great guest post from Caleb Zigas.

When I was nine years old and in line at Safeway, the cashier wished my mother a very earnest Merry Christmas. We’re Jewish, Ireplied probably annoyingly, we don’t celebrate Christmas. My mom, clearly notnine and far better mannered than I, wished her the same and whisked me away. Allof this to say that I’ve rarely been scared to say who I am.

When I told people I was going to Ukraine, I felt like atl east one out of five told me they had roots there. And if the literature of Jewish America (or at least of my DC Jewish same-age-but-went-to-private-school-but-is-really-talented-(begrudgingly) cohort Mr. Safran Foer) can tell us anything it is that this beautiful port city knows its Judaism. And, with that, the Jewish part of this story ends. Because for whatever confounding reason (and I could write about 1,200 more unnecessary words un-confounding them) I did not articulate my Judaism in this fine city. And I found that to be just fine.
Instead, I felt lucky to be connected to a part of Ukraine that, until then, had seemed hidden. Through circuitous social connections and the power of Facebook, we were introduced to the inner-workings of the Kompot empire in Odessa, a network of 6 restaurants all with aspirations to be a new kind of Ukrainian place. Sitting outside at Kompot’s second location on a pedestrian-friendly street in the sun, with the marketing manager, one couldn’t help but think that they were well on the way.

For much of the time that I spent in the Ukraine I couldn’t help but think about one of La Cocina’s program participants, Anda Piroshki.Anna Tvelova, the owner, moved to the States about 10 years ago, waited tables and finally decided to pursue her dream of business ownership with a baked-piroshki model. Her food is delicious, original and beautifully branded,and as I watched Ukraine essentially speed into capitalism as I simply stood there, I couldn’t help but think that there was a dearth of well-branded national fast-casual foods and that someone just needed to take it there.
Perfectly appointed,detail-oriented and with middle-class food, the Kompot experience was unlike most ofthe basement dining that we did in so many ways. But, perhaps even more interestingly, the partner restaurant Dacha, took the concept of Ukrainian food and elevated it beyond my expectation in a way that looked both inward and outwards.
Located in a former sanitarium a ten minute taxi ride from downtown Odessa, Dacha simulates the experience of the gentried middle class of this part of the world's history--pre-Soviet Union. It may not be the dacha that your family has, but it’s the one you and I have read about in Russian novels with balls and carriages. But updated and, maybe even sometimes, kind of ironic.
We were greeted with a selection of six vodkas, several the house brand, and one of which (not from the house) was called Jewish Vodka (nocomment). From there, we sampled six kinds of homemade pickles and perused amenu full of Ukrainian food offerings that sounded simply delicious. The place was beautiful, warm and the staff was knowledgeable and passionate. Most interestingly, though the place can seat 400 in the summer, they seem to have no problem bringing people to them.
Which means that someone in Odessa is eating. In our conversation here we heard from a smattering of Odessans, all of which came from very different places. What was amazing about a place like Dacha was thefamiliarity of the concept despite the difference in the food. Nowhere in the States will you find pickled watermelon, fish-stuffed fish (basically gefilte fish)and bread soda on a menu, but you wouldn’t have felt out of place in the dining room with white wooden chairs and a wood-burning oven.

Our conversation was largely dominated by currents of frustration at industrialized agricultural practice, skepticism of supermarkets and the shocking straw poll that saw everyone claiming to not only know to make but also actively making salo in their homes. Meanwhile, Dacha diners can buy“Odessan” food, take it home in a branded Dacha bag and buy branded Dacha preserves whenever they want. I can’t help but admit to liking that both are an option.
So when we arrived two hours early to the train station the next day after dining in the dark the night before (though a generator was procured midway through the meal) in yet another basement, I wasn’t even kind of disappointed to be eating in Kompot yet again. But I’m not sure that I know what that means for Ukrainian food.


  1. Surely you have read Isaac Babel, an Odessan of the 20th century. He wrote, for instance,of the Jewish gangster culture of the Moldovanka. His most famous character was Benya Krik, who, it was said, could sleep with a Ukranian woman and satisfy her. His collection of short stories called Red Cavalry is about his days as a Jewish recruit in the Cossacks (it's not at all a Woody Allen joke).