Thursday, December 29, 2011

Will 2012 Be the Year of the Pickle? Only with Your Help!

It's official, James Oseland of Saveur Magazine has named pickles as one of his top food trends for 2012. We're happy to be ahead of the curve as 2011 was a pretty amazing year for the Pickle Project and we hope 2012 will be more of the same.

A year ago, we were deep into our Kickstarter fundraising efforts. We still can't say enough about the support we received. From across the world--including Sweden, Japan, Ukraine, Canada and the United States--dozens of you pitched in to help make our effort to document and share Ukrainian food traditions a reality. We truly felt buoyed by all of your good wishes when we returned to Ukraine.
Our two Pickle Project trips this year were each very different, but both were distinguished by the warmth and hospitality of Ukrainian friends and colleagues. Our three weeks in high summer were full of berries, of home-cooked meals, of walks in hills of Crimea and the Carpathians, and of long conversation-filled train rides for the two of us. This fall, returning with Caleb Zigas and Rueben Nilsson, our four Pickle Project Conversations cemented our friendships with great organizational partners the Bulgakov Museum, Eko Art, PIC NGO and the Centre for Cultural Management. We ate, we drank, we found ourselves in conversations that ranged from what we eat for dinner to how to support small farmers. Thanks to the Trust for Mutual Understanding and Shelburne Farms for making this possible.

Back in the US, I had the chance to share the work of the Pickle Project in five different presentations at locations ranging from a Catskills community roundtable to an American Association of Museums presentation in Texas. Lively questions always ensued.
But what will 2012 hold? And how can you help?
We continue to be inspired and driven by the interests, questions and comments from our Kickstarter backers, our readers and the people we engage through the Pickle Project, in Ukraine, the US and elsewhere.

We're working on a number of different ideas--ranging from promoting further exchange, to exhibitions, to projects with young people. We'd love to find ways to bring the Pickle Project conversations to different countries, to learn and share perspectives.

We've got a long list of blog posts from our 2011 visits to keep you up on--everything from Greek food in eastern Ukraine and manti making in Crimea to making currant wine in L'viv-- and the debut of some video interviews. Stay tuned.

But about you--if you're in Ukraine, we'd love your help. We've greatly appreciated our guest bloggers and hope that more of you will consider joining in and sharing family stories, traditions, or what you've learned about village and urban foodways. In particular, Peace Corps volunteers, we'd love to hear from you.

And if you have ideas about what's next for us--let us know. Thanks to all of you for making 2011 an incredible year for the Pickle Project!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Lviving On A Jet Plane

A final guest post from Caleb Zigas, traveling companion for our October Conversations. 

So after four conversations, three train rides, at least 2 pounds of salo consumed and countless liters of vodka (the best was the homemade kind) what are the takeaways?

In writing about travel, and writing about it in the first person no less, and in a format like a blog even more, I think it’s important to recognize that one most likely learns far more about one’s self through travel than one possibly can about one place. Place is too nebulous. Too large. Too all-consuming. I didn’t eat enough, or from everywhere. I didn’t eat in anyone’s home, share a meal with a person who cooked it, or stumble into an expected delight enough times to give a sense of place. But I did eat wonderful food, much of it home-cooked, and I did listen and talk quite a bit about not only the food but also the act of cooking and consuming it.

When I left the States I felt, as I often feel, conflicted about the work that I do. Without boring you too much with insights into my own personal struggles, it’s enough to know that I do what I do because I believe the world can be a better place. I often think that one of the main factors in preventing such betterment is the dominance of capitalism, yet what I do simply aspires to make poor people better capitalists. But what of this thought in a post-Communist society?
The irony, or really it’s not irony but the realization, is that small business can be powerful. In the many conversations we had, meals we shared and foods we tried, the idea of small business was rarely on the forefront of anyone’s minds. The questions I ended my discussion with (What foods do you think you could sell, for instance) often led to blank stares and boring conversation. The explanations provided were often that government regulation, corruption and taxation were too daunting of tasks for small business to have any traction in this place. And so small business begins to feel powerful.

I imagine a group of piroshky selling women banding together with a solid brand and making a living for themselves. Or the subsistence farmers creating value-added products with regional variations in order to maintain the life style that their sons and daughters are abandoning. While their sons and daughters work in cities and earn money in order to purchase the foods they miss from the village. And while our conversations seemed to state that this was not, yet, a reality, some part of me feels that we simply didn’t find the right places to have that conversation.
If there was no belief in that kind of opportunity there would be no Pizzata Hata and no Kompot. There would be no informal vending, no funnel-cake hot dogs, no coffee shops and no tandoori-like fired breads. By the end of this trip I’ve come to believe, again, in the power of small business, or at least the ideal of it, the notion, to provide some kind of opportunity for economic freedom. It’s a concept that is utterly complicated by the rippling impact of collectivism plus oligarchy, but, perhaps for the first time in a long time, it often feels like a solution.

Given the pace of capitalism that we experienced, I’m not sure that Ukrainian capitalism currently looks any different than the malicious brand of American capitalism, rife with income inequality and lack of opportunity, that we are so quick to export. But I’m also not sure that has to be the case.

In our last conversation in Lviv, a young woman was asked if she still cooked, and she answered (like nearly everyone else we asked in the time I was there) that she did. But, she was quick to point out, instead of spending Sunday making vareniki all day long, she cooked something quick and delicious. If she were to spend an entire day, she said, she’d have friends over and they would make something they wanted… sushi.
In Lviv we ate one meal at the Salo Museum. A high-concept restaurant bar that chooses not to examine the history of this national dish but instead to focus on its future, draping models with small bits of it in artsy-soft-porn poses and offering a menu of salo based concoctions. One of which we tried—salo sushi. Like so many other things, it was imperfect, but emblematic. There is no such thing as tradition. No such taste as authentic. There is only what we are, and that is constantly changing. So salo sushi is no less Ukrainian than borscht, no matter how much we miss the borscht our grandmother’s made.

What can be more powerful than the memory of that borscht, or the taste of any other number of foods, is the power to choose the foods that we make and eat. Ukraine, like so many of us, is in a struggle to define that future for themselves, and it’s one you can see, hear and taste on the streets and in the markets every day. I will remember, for a long time, the taste of that borscht and the taste of that sushi, and I will wonder, for a long time, what it will taste like the next time I go.
Photos by Rueben Nilsson, our fellow traveler.  From top:  borscht;   cheese seller at Bessarabka market, Kyiv; salo sushi (no kidding); and Sarah, Linda and Caleb in L'viv.

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.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A L’viv Conversation, Food and Thought

Like each of the cities we visited on our conversational tour of Ukraine, L’viv is its own place. The capital of historic Galicia, L’viv is regarded by many as the heart of Ukrainian culture, language and traditions. Crumbling and complex, the city is known for romance, poetry and intellectual enterprise.

In recent years, L’viv has also sought to distinguish itself as a gastro-destination. Long renowned for its caffeine haunts, there is now a cohort of small brewers, chocolate shops and gelato stands, cropping up around town, not to mention the batch of bizarre themed restos.

Our wonderful partner, the Centre for Cultural Management, an organisation that works to promote the cultural sector in L’viv and across Ukraine, hosted the event at the Ye Bookstore. And, so, we chatted, amongst the books, while browsing customers paused to listen or join in the dialogue.

Unsurprisingly, our discussions reflected L’viv’s unique character, charting a thoughtful progression from traditions to the future. We launched with stories about first tastes and childhood temptations. One participant remembered that, under the Soviet Regime of her youth, there were few luxury foods to be had. However there were the rare delights, including chewing gum and sodas (Pepsi NOT Coke) and, for Christmas, mandarin oranges. In my circle, we talked a great deal about Ukrainian food customs and dishes. What makes a meal Ukrainian, one asked. But, Galician food has been so influenced by Polish traditions, another commented. Is it still Ukrainian? What if you ate the same meal in Canada? (On a plane, on a train? In a box, with a fox?) We explored gender roles relative to food, who cooks and who grows, then, now, and into the future. The group of participants in the L'viv discussion was more diverse in age than in the other cities on the Community Conversation tour. Thus, the conversations were infused with an array of perspectives, reflecting the generational and cultural influences of the participants.

As talk of food often does, the discussions turned to politics and governance, and, inevitably in Ukraine, corruption. Contemplative participants offered exchanged opinions on regulations, taxes and food safety. We talked about the influence of Ukraine’s current leadership and the future of rural Ukraine. We talked about lifestyles, health and who tomorrow’s farmers will be. The lively exchange went on for a while, in that smart, meandering and, sometimes, wistful L’viv of way. And, then, we retired for beer and more of the same.

Watch a video and read peculiar news coverage about the L'viv event here.

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.