Wednesday, December 7, 2011

From Armchair to Airplane: A Food Scientist Reflects on a Trip to Ukraine

For our recent series of Pickle Project Community Conversations across Ukraine, we were fortunate to be joined by Caleb Zigas of La Cocina and Rueben Nilsson of the Caves of Faribault. Here, Rueben shares his observations and photos.


I think it’s fair to say that I leapt at the chance to join the Pickle Project. I joined the group at the eleventh hour, about four weeks before the trip. I remember getting off of the phone with Linda and immediately starting to wonder if I had over-sold myself. I thought that there must be several candidates that they were choosing from, and I needed to justify why they should pick me to go with them. At one point in the conversation, I’m pretty sure I told her that I never get into bar fights. Because, obviously, she wouldn’t want to travel through Ukraine with someone prone to fisticuffs.

I’ve lived most of my life in Minnesota, and I’d never traveled beyond the confines of North America, but I’ve long been an armchair world traveler. I’m a food scientist by training, and I work at an artisan cheese plant here in Minnesota. I spend a lot of time thinking about issues of food production, and I spend a lot of my free time thinking and talking about cheese as well. The idea of traveling to another country to talk about food for 10 days sounded too good to be true.


Before the trip, I probably had an above-average (for an American) knowledge of Ukraine. I’d read in The Economist about the Orange Revolution and the poisoning of Yushchenko. I knew a bit about the post-WWII, Cold War and post-Cold War history of the region. I didn’t really know what life was currently like in Ukraine, but I was excited to find out.

Unsurprisingly, the scattered facts I had accumulated didn’t really give me a great insight into the psyche of Ukrainians. Nor, I suppose, did my 10 day whirlwind tour either. However, the conversations I had about food with Ukrainians were very similar to conversations that I’ve had with Minnesotans at local food events I’ve attended. Most of the people we met at our conversations were foodies and while their perspectives were different, they held opinions firmly as any foodie who I’ve ever handed a piece of blue cheese here in Minnesota.

I saw great enthusiasm for local and slow food in Ukraine. We met a dairyman in Kiev who, absent any government regulation, was forging a business dedicated to providing safe, local raw milk to consumers. He was an expert on European food safety standards and quality systems. In Odessa, we met with restaurateurs who were pioneering the Slow Food movement in Ukraine. At the end of my trip, I met an entrepreneur setting out to be a cheesemaker. His goal was to create a local cheese for Ukraine that would be his legacy and something to be enjoyed by future generations of Ukrainians.

Foodies are an enthusiastic, opinionated and sometimes cantankerous bunch, and my experience on this trip only reinforced my view. The people I met are trying hard to preserve and strengthen their connection to food production.

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