Thursday, March 22, 2012

KGB Pickles

Kim McCray, returned Peace Corps volunteer, ends her food trilogy with a pickle memory.  Thanks Kim, for sharing, and Peace Corps volunteers,  we'd love to hear from more of you!
This is the Pickle Project, so it is only fitting that I end this list with a pickle memory. 

Toward the end of my service I agreed to participate in “Adopt-A-Cluster”, a practice developed by Peace Corps to encouraged seasoned, veteran volunteers to visit the brand-new trainee groups, (clusters), at their training sites.  Because the trainees had been interacting almost exclusively with Peace Corps staff and host-country nationals up to this point, getting the opportunity to pick the brains of current volunteers and get feel for the practicalities of Peace Corps life beyond the technicalities of training was invaluable.

So, with fond memories of the volunteer who had adopted my cluster two years before, I agreed to help with the project and boarded a train to Kyiv and then caught a bus and headed north to the city of Chernihiv.  A Ukrainian Peace Corps staff member met me at the bus stop on an especially cold and dark night and explained to me the plans for the next day as we walked quickly down a bumpy unlit sidewalk and then weaved our way through a maze of Soviet high-rise apartment buildings.  Soon enough we arrived at our destination and rang the buzzer.  A young woman answered the door, and pattering up behind her came an elderly woman. We were introduced – her name was Luibov – and I learned that Luibov would be hosting me for the next two nights.  The Peace Corps staff member then gave me a piece of paper with directions to where I was supposed to go the next morning, and left.  Luibov was cheerful and I was very pleased to find that she spoke only Russian (I had been trained and continued to study Russian, but often heard Ukrainian or the Russian-Ukrainian blend “Surjik” at my site, so communicating with someone who only used Russian was always a relief).  It was late however, so we did not talk much; she showed me to the living room where I was to sleep on the couch, and said goodnight.
The next morning I found a typical Ukrainian breakfast spread for me on the table – buttered bread, slices of cheese and sausage, peach juice, and a bowl of pickles.  Ten minutes later, I had eaten three large dill pickles and packed two more for my lunch. They were very simply the best pickles I have ever had in my life.  Perfectly crunchy and tart but with a sweetness I’d never tasted before or since.  That night I cleaned the bowl once again and asked for the recipe.  In typical Ukrainian fashion, Luibov didn’t write it down but instead tried to explain the process verbally.  I knew I was in trouble when early on in her explanation she said “…then I add that brown seed…I don’t remember what it’s called…” 
Several minutes later she finished giving me her “recipe”, and while I had a vague notion of what she had done, I definitely had not grasped enough details to duplicate her process.  Now, more than three years later, I remember nothing about that recipe except the brown mystery seed.

The next morning, as I was packing my bag to leave, Luibov approached me with a photo in a frame and a box and told me to sit down.  I was worried that if I didn’t leave soon I might miss my train, but I agreed to stay a few more minutes.  We sat down and Luibov opened the box. Inside were medals, newspaper clippings, coins, and various other knick-knacks.  She asked me if I knew what they were and I guessed army memorabilia, as medals from the Great Patriotic War (WWII) are commonplace souvenirs in Ukraine.  She smiled and shook her head and then showed me the photo. “That is me, and that is my husband” she said. The picture was of a couple standing on a stage in some sort of official ceremony. “We were in the KGB, the both of us, for almost thirty years. This is us receiving an award for our excellent service.”  

Now of course, having lived in a former Soviet country for more than two years, I am sure that this was not my first interaction with someone who had been affiliated with the KGB, but this was the first time I’d been made aware of it.  The shock factor hit me as I realized that I had spent two nights under the roof of a 30 year KGB veteran.  Luibov then went on to joke that in all those 30 years she had never actually met an American until now.   “Look at these things Kim!” she exclaimed as she pawed through the box, “I cannot believe you are here in my home!” I shook my head in disbelief as well and we continued to laugh about it as I grabbed my bag and walked down the hall towards the front door.  I thanked her for her hospitality and headed out. I hadn’t made it more than a few steps when she called to me and scurried after me, holding out plastic baggy. I opened it – inside was a jar of pickles. Delicious KGB pickles.   

Top:  Kim and Luibov
Bottom:   Pyotre Petrovich Konchalovsky (b.Ukraine, 1876-1956) Still Life with Teapot and Breakfast. 1946

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