Monday, November 28, 2011

Because Why Shouldn’t Uncooked, Lightly Cured Bacon Be Considered Delicious?

Another guest post by Caleb Zigas.

As far as museum experiences go, the Bulgakov Museum on a torn-up street in Kyiv surpasses nearly every expectation for a memorial to an author, even in a country with an impressively high literacy rate. The Museum is as much memory as emotion, and it was here that we had our first conversation.
At that point, my culinary experience of the entirety of Ukraine, let alone Kyiv, consisted of the following; Crimean Tatar food in a basement restaurant, that delicious funnel-cake-wrapped hot dog on the street, multiple markets with their varieties of pickles, a new-wave Ukrainian restaurant with hemp beer and incredible furnishings, several coffee shops, an organic demo marketplace with roasted pig, amazing soup and horseradish vodka in a tent under the rain with new friends and Puzata Hata, a Ukranian cafeteria-style chain with an open kitchen and servers in national garb. On the table at the Bulgakov we began with salo and vodka.
One of the reasons that not only have I always loved food but also working in food lies in the stock I put in hard work and in craftsmanship—in pride. I believe that this happens at tables, benches and backyards across the world, even when there is scarcity. But Ukraine was home not only to significant amounts of death in the  20th Century but also home to one of the worst famines of the same period. And so scarcity perhaps takes on a different meaning.

Our conversation began here, with scarcity, although somewhat unintentionally. I began these conversations in Kyiv with an interest in understanding who made what, why they made it and whether or not there was a market for it. My assumption about the changes that urbanization would bring revolved around the mass industrialization of foods and, therefore, not necessarily the disappearance of those foods but rather their replacement with more commercial versions of the same. In my own life, especially in America, my antidote to industrial-scale food production lies in taste. In deliciousness. Admittedly, it is thin ice to stand on, or, rather, a fairly subjective stance from which to stand, but something about me believes it, and so I stand.
And so it was fascinating to hear from Roman, a Ukrainian organic dairy farmer, that the National table relies on volume, or, in his words, calories. In his telling, at a crucial point in our conversation, the very value of the meal one offers not only resides in tastiness but also mostly in the quantity of food offered to guests. Now, I believe as much as anyone in never running out of food, but given the history of place and the sincerity of statement there is weight to thinking about this.

Could it be that Americans, or, for that matter, cultures unaware of the pangs of recent hunger, prioritized taste in an appropriate way? I thought about meals I’d eaten in El Alto, Bolivia, an incredibly poor place with a similar subsistence economy, and the pride a family would take in the taste of its offerings and found such a simple volume equation to be unsatisfactory. But the rest of the Ukrainians at the table agreed; taste, they said, was overrated.
But then why go to Puzata Hata? Because it felt like home? Because it was cheap? Why go anywhere for that matter? Why differentiate? The issue of taste runs central to food. Yes, we all eat to live, and the majority of us (despite ridiculousness like Man Against Food on the Food Network) do not live to eat. We live because we eat—in so many ways. And so I am given to wondering about the perception of taste. Not the way one piroshky feels compared to another but, rather, what the word itself means and what it gains and loses in translation. And so at the first of these conversations I find myself questioning if I even know how to explain my very fundamental relationship with eating in a way that is true to translation. In a way that will convey my appreciation for taste. For all kinds of taste.

And to do that while eating salo gives one quite a contemplative moment.
Images, from top:  
Salo, at the Pickle Project Conversation at the Bulgakov Museum
Bulgakov Museum interior, courtesy of the Bulgakov Museum
Puzata Hata food line, photo by Caleb Zigas
Kyiv Pickle Project participants
Caleb talks taste
Organic milk and honey, homemade pickles, brought to share at the conversation in Kyiv.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Odessa is Odessa!

“Odessa is Odessa”   “Odessa is different.”  Those are the kinds of things I’ve heard from both other Ukranians and Odessans themselves.  The first time I visited Odessa, it was on April 1;  the day that entire city comes out to play, celebrating April Fools Day with funny hats, satirical floats and a general good time.  So I knew it was different.

And sure enough, just like our Kyiv and Donetsk conversations were different from each other, this one was also different. Because of Odessa’s history and its status as a major port, this city is home to dozens, if not hundreds, of different ethnicities and nationalities.  (For a great look at Odessa’s colorful history,  read Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams by Charles King).

Hanna Shelest, head of the NGO PIC, our Odessan partner, had a particular interest in working with us to engage the different cultural groups in the city and reached out to Yaroslava Reznik, Head of the Department of National Minorities of Odessa Region State Administration.  And so our conversation here was held at the Bulgarian Cultural Center, one of several similar centers in the city. We reached the ornate meeting room by walking up past portraits of somber Bulgarians hung along the stairway,  but our conversation proved anything but somber.  

We were joined by representatives from many communities here in Odessa:  Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Byelorussians,  Moldovans,  Germans, Indians,  Armenians, and more.   It proved a great place to collect stories about the food that made memories for so many different people.

A German woman remembered her grandmother’s streusel cake,  while an Indian recalled his confusing arrival in Odessa as a teenager, when it was very hard to be a vegetarian in the city. But when a girlfriend made him stuffed peppers, he knew he could make a life here—and that he should marry her! One of the loveliest memories was shared by Yaroslava Reznik.When she was a child, her family lived just outside of town, in a small private house.  She told of a day the family ate varenyky. Not an unusual day, but just a day in the summer,  when the family ate outside, under the pear tree, and to this day, she still remembers the look of the bowl, dappled by the leaves of the tree, sparkling over her mother's handmade varenyky,  the beautiful sense of the day and the food.  Her description was so lovely I said, "you must be a poet,"  and with a shy smile Yaroslava said, "My parents were poets."
We talked a bit about the foods that are Odessan, which are the same foods that many Jewish Americans associate with their own family traditions—a fish like gefilte fish;  chopped liver, and more.  And the new foods also came into play, particularly as groups intermarried, and a new bride learned to make her husband’s favorite dish, while sharing her own traditions.

To me, one of the exchanges that symbolized the Pickle Project's efforts to do something different, to share our thoughts, ideas, beliefs and hopes by talking about food, came here in Odessa.  An ethnographer came with his students.  As he joined my small group,  he listened for a bit, and then spoke up to say that we were doing this all wrong, that it was not scientific!  As he explained exactly why it wasn’t scientific, I looked at the faces around me, who previously had been actively listening, laughing and sharing family stories—multiple generations, multiple ethnicities, multiple beliefs.  And their looks were polite, but with a bit of impatience and annoyance.

Ukraine is still a place where, in many situations, “experts” are revered.  And it was surprising—and a bit thrilling-- to watch these participants realize that they, not the ethnographer, were the “experts.”  That their stories, their perspectives, their beliefs, were the strength of the conversation.  No matter where you live, or where your family originated,  the ability to share your experiences through meaningful conversations with a larger circle is one small way in which civil societies are built.

So from the light coming through the pear trees to the stuffed peppers made by a girl in love,  Odessa’s conversation will always remind me of the powerful connections food can make, no matter where we're from.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Chatting and Chewing in Kyiv

As Caleb mentioned in the previous post, the first in this autumn’s series of Pickle Project Community Conversations took place at the Bulgakov Museum. The museum is perched on the renowned Andriyivsky Uzviv, a steep, curvy little street that winds down a Kyivan hill. The museum observes the life and works of the beloved Ukrainian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, most famous for his novel The Master and Margarita, the subversive commentary on the oppression of the Soviet Regime.

The building itself was Bulgakov’s home for a time and the Museum uses the house’s rooms to imaginatively braid together the themes from Bulgakov’s own life with that of the Turbin family, featured in his novel The White Guard, set against the chaos of the Russian Civil War. The Bulgakov Museum is known for inventive programming that often includes food traditions, drawing on Bulgakov’s life and works. For me, the Bulgakov Museum has a warm, familiar and almost magical quality. Thus, it made a wonderful and fitting setting for the event.

The evening began with cheerful mingling and refreshments. Between refreshing sips of icy vodka, a personal favorite, and nibbles of black bread and salo, participants chatted and jotted down responses to questions posted on the walls with thick markers. These included “What is your favorite meal? and “What makes food natural?” The crowd was a lively mix that included diplomats and dairy farmers, rural development specialists, municipal managers, grandmas, college students and teenagers.

A sequence of deeper discussions ensued, sparked by mini-presentations around the food-centric themes of personal memory, entrepreneurship, science and sustainability. We told stories about our grandparents and grandchildren. We laughed about why we hate some foods and love others. We talked about what it means to make food for your children and if a person can actually “taste the love.” We explored the element of trust in our food system and what our national dishes really are. There was technical tête-à-tête, about calves’ intestines and compliance requirements among the dairy professionals in the room, and the salt-to-water ratio for good pickles between experimental American picklers (ahem..) and seasoned Ukrainian ones.

To accompany these exchanges, there were second and third courses to our feast. We enjoyed kasha with sautéed onions, golden cabbage and squashes with caramelized pork. There were home-made pickles and marinated mushrooms! Oh my! Then, we had coffee, tea and sweets.

The evening concluded with the exchanging of home canned goods, raw dairy products, hugs and kisses. Set in the Bulgakov Museum’s comfortable space, the event and dialogue offered many levels of engagement and was enriched by the openness and energy of the participants. And, we headed out into the dark Kyivan night, a bit brighter by the connections we'd made.

The Bulgakov Museum maintains an interesting blog and Linda has written more about the Bulgakov Museum at the Uncataloged Museum.

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?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Welcome to Potluck!

On a dark stormy night in Donetsk,  Caleb, Daria (the local organizer) and I hurried down a gusty street, clutching our umbrellas and leaping over ankle-deep streams at intersections, to arrive at our second Pickle Project conversation.   We entered the school where the conversation was to be and were instantly swept up into the kind of buzz that only excited high school students make. 

"Welcome to Potluck" said the chalkboard and we were thrilled to see that students had all brought food from home to share with us.  EkoArt, our partner in Donetsk, works with young people, so they decided to have the conversation at a lyceum with high school and college students.   We met in the French language classroom, where their enthusiastic teacher, Nikolai Routchka, had read our blog, had it projected on the board, and had even brought us a jar of preserved sea buckthorn after seeing my request for information and identification after spotting the berries in a market.

We began the evening with girls in traditional costume bearing the traditional Ukrainian welcome of bread and salt;  a lovely reminder of an ancient, still important tradition.  We asked students to share the details of each dish they had made--and impressively,  each one did it in English, most with an accompanying PowerPoint presentation.  Here's just a bit of what we ate (and thanks to Valya Sakhnenko and others for the descriptions!)
The salad is called "herring under fur coat" or short "fur coat" ("shuba" in Russian). It includes herring, pickled onions, potatoes, carrots, beets. Clean and cut the herring into small pieces. After that put chopped fresh or pickled onion. Vegetables cooked, rubbed on a grater and put by layers. You can add the grated apples and eggs. All layers except herring, covered with mayonnaise.
Daria's pickles, "This is my pepper in tomato sauce, which was pickled by my mother. In Ukraine we call this dish "lecho"."
Verguny--a fried dough.  
 Mlyntsi, (depending on where you're from, blini or crepes) filled with homemade cherry jam. 
 Homemade compote, above, and below, holubtsi, stuffed cabbage rolls.
Below, still warm plov, brought in right as we started by a student's father.  Plov is traditionally made by men, and she had made it with her dad, who was Kazakh, and had, as I recall, learned to make it from Uzbek friends while living in Moscow.   Ukraine is a diverse place, with many different cultures, and of course, it can be seen in the food.
And what would a potluck be without a great looking dessert.  One student had some pretty amazing cake baking and decorating skills!
The food was great, but it's the conversations that I'll remember.  Donetsk is off-the-beaten-path for most Americans, so we had lots of questions.  What is "typical" American food?  (which consistently, was one of the hardest questions to answer throughout the trip).  Are Americans really overweight?  Do we all eat fast food all the time?  What kind of food does my family eat?  Does my daughter know how to cook?  Do I preserve fruits and vegetables?  Is food in the US safe?  Do we trust the government to regulate it?  What makes food healthy?  (in part, this conversation was generated by the university nutrition students who attended bringing healthier versions of some typical Ukrainian foods).
So much of what Ukrainians think of Americans comes from television and movies--particularly for young people.  Caleb and I are from different generations, different regions, and different family backgrounds--but what we both shared with these enthusiastic young students were stories that are different from what movies and TV shows convey--that there's not one American food, nor one American story.  And what did we learn?  We learned about food, but even more about a curious, enthusiastic group of Ukraine's young people who care passionately about their country and the world.

We ended the evening with group photos and headed out, with bags full of sea buckthorn, cake, grapes from the teacher's arbor, bread, and more, to sustain us on our next train trip.   The rain continued, but the warmth of the evening carried us home.