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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kompot yet again. But I’m not sure that I know what that means for Ukrainian food.