Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Usvar for the Holiday and the Everyday!

Happy New Year, Dear Readers!

During the holiday times, so much of our focus is the special, exceptional food that characterizes the season. But, I do so delight in those foods and drinks that mark both daily life and the festivals of the holiday. One such item is usvar, or compote, a delicious fruity beverage made from a mélange of dried fruits. Sometimes tart, sometimes sour, usvar may be flavored with any blend of revived dried fruits, including apples, pears, cherries, plums, blueberries and raisins, depending upon availability. Apples are probably the most common ingredient. The fruits are harvested and preserved in the summer and autumn by drying for use through winter and spring. During the harvest months, one can see garlands of apple rings dangling from kitchen windows and rafters in both the city and the village. I once watched with great anxiety as my L’viv neighbor endeavored to balance on his fourth floor apartment balcony railing to secure a string of apple slices for drying from the roof, all while smoking a cigarette, no less.

Another distinctive addition to the elixir is smoked prunes. Usvar with this ingredient is a potent, earthy taste sensation. I am crazy about a smoky usvar but it should be said that there is a wimpy, fussy contingent of the population (and my own family, I might add) that find it a bit intense for their delicate tastes.. The beverage is mildly sweetened with honey or sugar and often accented with spices or dried herbs from the garden or forest.

Of course, usvar is drunk year-round but is also customary for the Christmas table in Ukraine. And, given that Orthodox Christmas will be celebrated this year on January 6, it is the perfect time to steep some up usvar to celebrate. Or just because.


Adapted from a recipe in Ukrainia by Bete Blaha, from Culinaria, edited by Marion Trutter (2006).

1 pound/half kilo of dried apples and or pears

½ cup pitted prunes

½ cup dried blueberries or other berries

½ cup raisins

1 cinnamon stick

3 cloves

Juice and rind of a lemon

Honey and sugar to taste

Rinse the fruit in cold water. Bring 1½ quarts (1.5 liters) of water to a boil, adding desired sugar. Add the apples or pears and simmer for five minutes. Then, add the remaining fruit and simmer for another five to ten minutes. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice and honey, if desired. Let stand overnight so that the flavors may intensify. Strain the liquid (eat the fruits or toss them out). Usvar may be kept in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Smachno!

Photo courtesy of Linda Knedsen McAusland

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Round on St. Andrew's Day

The Ivan Honchar Museum in Kyiv is dedicated to traditional Ukrainian folk culture.  They have a full calendar of events that encourage and continue all sorts of traditions--including food.  They've recently started posting great photos in their Facebook albums-and the photo above made me email my friend Ihor Poshyvailo,  the deputy director there, to ask for an explanation about what to me, looked like a giant bagel!  He wrote back,
That giant bagel on a string is a kalyta - a ritual bread used in Andriy (Adrew) traditional feast - December 13. It symbolizes the sun (often made in a form of a circle, stars) and during the feast boys have to jump and bite it not smiling (other boys and girls are standing nearby trying to make him laugh). If smiling he is black marked on his cheek... It's a rudiment of ancient rites of passage...

Although this day celebrates St. Andrew, a patron saint of Ukraine, this and other rituals date back even further.    Many Ukrainian traditions stem from pre-Christian rites that were adapted for Christianity.  St. Andrew's Day was also a time for fortune-telling, particularly to predict a young woman's future spouse.  And food played a critical role in these activities as well.  A piece of loaf sprinkled with salt and placed under your pillow.  Your dreams that night would reveal your future husband while your homemade dumplings could also reveal who would be the first to be married!  For more information on those traditions, click here.

As the year turns at the cold winter solstice,  it's a great time to check out the beautiful photos by Bogdan Posyvailo  of summer celebrations on the Honchar Museum's Facebook page.
 All photos courtesy of the Ivan Honchar Museum

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Village Christmas Story from Ukraine

Fran Cary, a Peace Corps volunteer who has shared her experiences before on the Pickle Project, sent us this beautiful piece that ties together so many elements of seasonality, sustainability, food and life in Ukraine.  Thanks Fran, for continuing to share your life in Starobelsk with Pickle Project readers.

Remember those cute little pigs I saw when Olga and I visited Tonya at her farm in Kurychevcka? Well today I bought some.

Yes, Tonya and her husband came to town with a carload of fresh pork and had a good sale in the back of Natala's shop. All the pork was freshly butchered, cleaned and packaged. I feel I had a small hand in this because Tonya and Natalia met through me, when Olga was looking for a new place for me to stay in town. Lots of good connections, and good cheer, came out of it!

Neighbors, friends and customers of Natalia's came and stocked up on all the fresh meat they wanted for the winter.  Natalia bought tons of pork herself to freeze and take to her family in Kyiv for the holidays. And Tonya and her husband Vlad went home with enough cash to see them through the winter.
Natural fresh meat! Ukrainians care a lot about natural foods, from produce to meat. They want to know if any fertilizer or other stuff has been added to the ground or fed to the animals. Tonya assured all customers the pigs were well fed with only the best food. I myself fed apples and corn, along with handfuls of fresh grain to those little pigs, and to the big fat ones too.

Now that I am at Natalia's and cooking for mostly for myself, I've bought chicken and meat at the supermarket. It's been mostly tasteless and unedible and I told that to Natalia when she saw me feeding it to the cat. "Is it okay for the cat?" I asked. "Yes, but why not eat it yourself?" "Because it doesn't taste good." That's when she told me Tonya was coming with her pig meat, and would be having a sale at the back of her shop. I was delighted, though my first thought was of those little pigs running around in circles and looking quite loveable. To think they would now be on the dinner tables of Starobelsk!

Today, when Tonya was busy selling the meat and it was my turn to buy, I turned to Natalia for help. I had never bought pork like this, knowing the pigs personally as it were, and wasn't sure what I wanted. I asked Natalia to get what she wanted and I would pay for it. She then told Tonya the story of my meat-buying experience and said "даже не кошка съест!" They laughed and laughed. Tonya then turned to me and translated. Natalia said "not even the cat would eat the meat you gave her!"

Life is hard for Tonya.  She works 24/7 to maintain a self-sufficient farm with her husband and adult sons, who work the farm but are unemployed, a difficult and worrisome situation for her.  She also adds a few hryvnia to the household economy from teaching.  But the products of their farm have become more and more important to sustaining the family.   

And so it was a Merry Christmas for Tonya and her family after the pork sale, and I felt glad for it. Snow fell on the town, soft and lovely. Spirits were high. Scenes of holiday sharing danced in my head. And I thought, with a smile in my heart: This is the best kind of Christmas. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

New York Times' Album on Gourmet Forage

Today's New York Times album “Searching for Ingredients Beyond the Garden” highlights the growing use of wildcrafted and collected plants and fungi by American restaurateurs, chefs and gourmands.

Of course, collection of mushrooms, berries and wild herbs is a central part of Ukrainian food systems and gastronomy. (Check out our post chronicling a forest forage of delicious quince!) The New York Times album really showcases the use of small woodland herbs for flavoring and accents. One of my favorites from Ukraine is the infusion of wild mints in teas, a warm yet refreshing and medicinal tonic on a blustery winter evening!

And, while you cozy up with a that cup of tea, click on over to Kickstarter to support the Pickle Project's efforts to document and celebrate Ukrainian foodways!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What do you eat for Thanksgiving in Crimea?

Pumpkin manti of course!  Peace Corps Volunteer Barb Weiser shares this post about making pumpkin manti with her neighbor Lenura in preparation for a Peace Corps Thanksgiving that combined American and Crimean traditions.  Thanks Barb and Lenura!

For my contribution to the dinner, I asked Lenura to help me make pumpkin filled manti, a Crimean Tatar dish. Of course, it was really the other way around—she made them and I helped—mostly folding the manti into their intricate little shapes. Manti are a steamed dumpling or ravioli, traditionally filled with meat but sometimes with pumpkin and onions as we did this time, or other fillings. The real art to making manti is the crust. Composed of only flour and water and a small amount of salt, it is rolled out to a thin crust.

I was amazed how quickly Lenura was able to take a ball of dough and turn it into a perfectly round, very large and thin crust, ready to be cut into squares for the filling. Folding the manti into the proper shape with the filling inside is a precise maneuver, but easy to master—even I was able to learn it!
Then the manti are placed onto stacking trays in a stove top steamer (brought from Uzbekistan—it was Neshet’s mother’s) and 30 minutes later you have beautiful delicious steamed manti, usually served with a dollop of butter or sour cream.
Correction:  I had earlier posted a recipe here that didn't quite reflect Lenura's.  Barb's comment below sent me further afield on the Internet to  discover that the manti Lenura made is perhaps a combination of two fascinating traditions.  Turkish manti have an egg dough and are boiled, like Ukrainian pelmeni or its many variations, but the steamed manti with no egg in the dough is from Central Asia, most often described as from Uzbekistan.   And of course, that combination reflects the Crimean Tatars' history of origins, deportation and return. 

You can find a recipe for lamb-filled manti, steamed with no egg in the dough, on the food blog, Anna's Recipe Box.  Anna describes Uzbek food as the food she grew up with and includes recipes for other Uzbek foods as well.  Sopressata, another food blog, also has a recipe for Uzbek dumplings, with an egg in the dough and fried.  But she also describes how to make a pumpkin filling for you to try.

Across time and across space, we make recipes our own and family food traditions continually evolve.  The museum person in me, who thinks about artifacts, sees so much, so many stories embedded in that simple steamer,  brought home to Crimea by Lenura's mother-in-law.  Thanks again Barb, for sharing!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What's in Your Root Cellar?

As winter begins to close in here in upstate New York, I'm thinking of the many root cellars I still see in Ukraine.   Root cellars are pretty much gone from here, as we can buy out-of-season food year-round, or if still a preserver, might use the big chest freezer out in the garage.   But root cellars are still the norm in most Ukrainian villages and filled with far more than root vegetables.  In May, the supplies in root cellars were dwindling down--but there were potatoes,  onions, and shelves of pickled and canned vegetables, remnants of the previous summer.
And as we sat down to eat, my hostess dashed out to the root cellar to retrieve the soup she was chilling there.  It was a perfect temperature, and kept that way, of course, in the most environmentally thoughtful way possible, in a space that stays about the same temperature year-round, underneath the ground.   Even the New York Times, in a 2008 article, heralded the return of the root cellar, "food storage as grandma knew it."
 We're continually struck by the resourceful of Ukrainians and how much we can learn about growing, storing, and of course eating food--and the root cellars serve as physical examples upon the village landscape of this.   A typical root cellar has shelves for canned goods, separate floor bins for potatoes, carrots and other root vegetables,and meat hooks for hanging meat.  In autumn, the shelves are filled with tomato sauce, pickles, compote and more to sustain through the non-growing seasons of the year.
The interiors of the root cellars shown are are all from a village, as is the blue exterior.  I saw many of these slant-roof, above-the-ground entrance root cellars in common use.  The other two root cellars are historic buildings from Pyrohiv, the National Museum of Folk Architecture and Life, outside Kyiv.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

the Lovely Latke, the Delicious Deruny

On this, the first night of Chanukah, we find occasion to relish in the comfort of the latke, deruny (деруни) in Ukrainian, a potato pancake and staple of the Jewish festival.

Like other marvelous foods of Chanukah, including one of my personal favorites, the wonderful filled doughnut, pampooshke (пампушки), latekes/deruny are fried in hot oil. The essence of the holiday, the oil represents the purification of the holy Temple of Jerusalem in the 2nd century BC/BCE. As the ancient story goes, the Maccabees, fresh from battle, could only gather a small volume of oil, just enough to light the menorah on the rededicated alter, for one night. Yet, by great miracle, the oil lasted, providing for eight consecutive evenings of light.

Latkes/deruny are typically made of potatoes, which are grated, often along with onion, thickened with flour and egg and fried (sometimes, delightfully, in chicken or goose schmaltz!) until crispy. The golden beauties are typically served with sour cream (сметана). Interestingly, I read in Joan Nathan's Jewish Cooking in America (1994), that before the arrival of potatoes to eastern Europe (which was quite a long while ago, indeed), latkes were made of buckwheat kasha (kaшa)!

For a more (or perhaps less) traditional Latke/Deruny, try this recipe:

5 or 6 good-sized potatoes, grated

1 onion, grated

1/4 to 1/2 cup green onions, chives or dill

2 eggs

1/3 cup matzo meal (wheat flour would do too)

Salt and Pepper

Vegetable Oil/Schmaltz

(Note: All of the quantities vary according to personal taste and preference)

First step, generously flood the bottom of a wide, heavy and deep skillet (preferably) or large pot with fat or oil. You want enough to adequately “float” the latkes. And, remember, the pancakes will absorb oil as they fry and you always need a tad more than you think. Then, heat the oil, over medium/high heat. It will take a few minutes and seem perhaps a bit too hot at first, but that is fine because the latkes will reduce the oil’s temperature when you drop them in.) Next, grate the potatoes and onion, then, try to squeeze out all of the additional moisture, using a towel. This will ensure a crispy latke. Then, mix in the eggs, flour, herbs and season with salt and pepper. Form into small patties, using a good 2 or 3 tablespoons of batter, flattening them to desired thinness (I desire a thin latke, myself). Finally, the frying! Carefully, carefully, lower the cakes into the hot oil, smashing them down a bit with a spatula. Monitor the latkes closely, make sure they do not stick to the bottom of the skillet. Once the sides turn golden, flip them and brown the other side. Pull them and drain on a towel/paper towel, while you cook the remaining latkes. Serve with sour cream and enjoy!

Recipe adapted from Joan Nathan's Classic Latkes, drawing on personal potato pancake practicum, observation in the western Ukrainian kitchen of expert deruny maker Halya Stryamets and consultation with several other friends. Photo taken by Linda Norris.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Borscht by Heart, Aleksander Hemon's New Yorker Article

This week’s New Yorker (November 22, 2010) is the food issue and, among other wonderful food essays, contains an affecting article by Bosnian-American writer Aleksander Hemon, author of the acclaimed novels “the Lazarus Project” and “Nowhere Man.” Hemon tells the story of borscht in his family, carried from Galicia (now, in Western Ukraine), to Bosnia, the recipe an unwritten poem, repeated by heart in diverse but perfected recitation. Drawing on the bounty and miscellany of the kitchen garden, the soup is simple sustenance, spooned into mismatched bowls, in accordance with classic Ukrainian convention, one chuck of meat each. Hemon’s borscht is a meal of family and survival. For me too, even in modern, changing Ukraine, I have come to understand that straightforward, claret soup as both a solace and artifact of Ukrainian endurance.

What does borscht mean for you? As always, we would love to hear from you!

Other Pickle Project-relevant compositions in the Food Issue, including an amusing essay outlining the steps to sauerkraut by David Bezmozgis (Pickling Cabbage) and a profile of fermentation prophet Sandor Katz, author of the cult classic “Wild Fermentation,” (Nature’s Spoils), along with other articles of lesser Pickle pertinence, including a treatise on root vegetables and an essay by Laura Shapiro on Eleanor Roosevelt's Thanksgiving frugality.

For an abstract of Hemon’s New Yorker article, visit http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/11/22/101122fa_fact_hemon and notice that full access is granted with a trial of the digital subscription. New Yorker cover image by Wayne Thiebaud.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Historic Food Images 5: From Kyiv

My last trip to Kyiv was very short, just over a week, but I did sneak in a trip to the antique market on the other side of the river, every Saturday morning.  I've been there enough that one dealer knows I'm looking for food and farming photos and always has a couple for me.  The above is just a detail from the photo below.  I was struck this time by how many photos I saw of women working together.  In this, harvesting some kind of root crop--hard to tell exactly what.  And of course, in 1959, this is on a collective farm.
In this undated photo, women are working outside, again together, this time peeling potatoes.

I particularly love this group, who look like they've paused for lunch, while harvesting or doing other outdoor work.
And in sharp contrast, our lone male in today's post, eating a meal at home.  Any ideas of what his meal consists of?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Market Report: October 11, Kyiv

The market really felt like fall yesterday, with summer abundance still intact but the sense of cold weather beginning to close in.  What was for offer?

Fava or cranberry beans, chives, dill,  mushrooms and peppers from one vendor;  mushrooms, rose hips, kalina and ribena (all both fresh and dried).

Squash, beans, garlic and shallots;  and popcorn on the cob, which my friend Gwen remembered from growing up in the Midwest.

One vendor had at least four different kinds of fresh mushrooms, while another had a duck or goose for sale.   And of course, many vendors with staples for the long Ukrainian winter:  potatoes, beets, cabbage, onions, carrots and other root vegetables.

And just in case borscht doesn't keep you warm enough, here's Gwen with the babushka selling beautifully hand-knitted socks.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Market Report: late September, Crimea

Thanks to Barb Wieser,  two quick photos of roadside stands on the highway from Simferopol to the sea.  The stands feature the famous, and sweet, red Yalta onions, along with grapes, honey and watermelons. 

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

It's a Wedding!

Barb Wieser, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Crimea continues to share her experiences living--and eating--  in a Crimean Tatar settlement outside Simferopol.  You can read about a pre-wedding feast here, but below, the wedding! 

In the Crimean Tatar tradition, there are two weddings—one given by the bride’s family for her family and friends and one by the groom’s family for his family and friends, and even the bride and groom’s parents don’t go to both. These aren’t wedding ceremonies, but rather lavish parties which take place one night apart. And these two parties happen even if they all live in the same neighborhood. And somewhere in there is the actual ceremony and registration, the registration taking place at a “registration house” which we might call a wedding chapel, and the religious ceremony in this case at the mosque in the Khan’s Palace in Bakchseray. And even both families don’t attend these events—at least I know Maia and Server (my neighbors, the groom’s parents) didn’t.

... I spent almost the whole day at the neighbors, helping them prepare food for the wedding celebration that night where 250 people were expected. It was to be held at a restaurant, but the restaurant was only providing the meat dishes, and we all prepared the salads, cold cuts, etc. There were at least fifteen women or more working away at Maia’s—relatives, friends, and neighbors. I was on the backyard crew as we first sliced mounds of eggplant which were then fried in a large wok type pan over an open fire.

Later they were smeared with fresh garlic and mayonnaise and rolled up with chopped tomatoes inside and a sprig of parsley sticking out (top picture).  Quite lovely and very tasty. Went on to chopping artificial crab, cucumbers, peppers, olives, cheese for salads, and slicing huge chunks of cheese and sausages, taking a few breaks for beer and coffee (not combined!), and of course, talking and laughing the whole time. I really couldn’t follow the conversations, and as least some of them were in Crimean Tatar, but I loved being with everyone anyhow, participating in the work of the wedding.

We finally finished after about five hours, and all the food was hauled over to the wedding place. So much of the wedding was like wedding receptions we know in the States—food, drinking, music, dancing—all the basics. And here is what was different, what it made it a uniquely Crimean Tatar wedding:

For one thing, the food. There was soooo much of it, not enough room on the tables, and it kept coming all night. Many different salads, plates of cheeses and sausages and some kind of traditional meal jelly, chunks of bread, platters of camca (pastries stuffed with meat), chunks of mutton with potatoes, and a sort of breaded and fried ground meat that I forgot the name of. Also, each table had bottles of vodka, wine, juice, and water.

And then there was the music. I had heard about Crimean Tatar wedding music, indeed preserving its traditions is one of the missions of the NGO I have worked with, but apart from the music drifting out of the wedding tents in Ak Mechet, I had never really listened to it or seen it performed. I think it is what we would recognize as Turkish music but with a kind of joyousness to it. And the musicians were just fabulous—a violinist, saxophonist, accordion player, drummer, trumpet player, and maybe one more. I kept thinking that to hire a band like that for a wedding in the States would be a fortune. And that is the really interesting part of it all—the musicians are paid by people dancing with members of the wedding party. First, the sister and brother of the groom—people lined up to dance with them for a few minutes and give them some cash. Later, a pair of elderly twin aunts in identical dresses, two young men, and then finally the bride and groom. In between this dancing, there was general dancing that everyone joined in. Crimean Tatars do love to dance!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Forest Forage: What Can be Found?

Jud Dolphin, another Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine, has generously allowed us to share this post from his own blog about a day in the forest.   He's living and working in Konotop, in Sumy Oblast in northern Ukraine.  If you want to read the full adventure (and if you're a rail fan you will) just click here.

My day begins with a phone call from Annya. I have known her for over a year and every time she calls me something interesting is bound to happen. "My Babushka wants to know if you want to go to the forest."

Among Ukrainians, going to the forest is one of the preferred leisure activities. Ukrainians love their land and especially the forests. I've heard many a discourse bestowing the benefits of pine scented air and the healing qualities of nature's beauty. They say going to the forest can heal mind, body and soul. Who am I to disagree?

Annya continues, "My Babushka has a special place to pick ground apples. Will you join her and a couple of friends?"

I have learned to never say no to an invitation and immediately agree. I will learn about foraging for ground apples.... whatever that may be.

It's a beautiful day. The oppressive heat of a few weeks ago is gone. Blue skies mixed with delicious marshmallow clouds hover over golden fields. The sunflower crop has been harvested and the corn awaits its turn. Distant clusters of people work fields by hand. I think they are harvesting potatoes for their family's winter meals.

Much of the land is unploughed. I am told that ownership disputes have not been settled since the demise of Communism. In addition, markets and infrastructure for crops are undeveloped. Ukraine is rich in natural resources, but has yet to benefit fully.

I look out over the Ukrainian landscape. I try to imprint the images into my mind. I am aware that my time in Ukraine is running down. Already I have been here more time than remains. I want to capture the sights for my old age memories.

Summer is turning towards Fall. Fields in greens, yellows and browns flow across the horizon. Mounds of hay dot the landscape. Stork nests adorn the tops of electric poles like large baskets A horse drawn cart trots down a two rut path. Flocks of geese waddle across a pond. Babushkas sit on benches outside of village homes watching our train swoosh by.

Now into the forest, we go. Sun shadows speckles our path. A backdrop of white pines scent the air. Here and there, a cluster of birch trees stand out. I am feeling the healing qualities.

We walk and then walk some more. After about 3 kilometers, we spy our first ground apples. They are about the size of golf balls or even smaller. They grow under the white pines on ground hugging shrubs. "Pick the yellow ones and leave the green for later," my Babushka instructs.

We get busy filling bags and then pouring the contents of our bags into a big sack. Babushka and her sister have a family dispute about the best way to hitch the sack to the bike. I have been taking photos and now capture the squabble. We all begin to laugh. Sisters will be sisters.

The ground apples are terribly sour like lemons. Each one will be cored and either boiled for compote juice or ground into marmalade. It's a lot of work.

And what are those ground apples?  They're quince.   I couldn't locate a Ukrainian quince marmalade recipe, but here's an American one--from the Boston Cooking School Cookbook by Fannie Farmer, published in 1918, via Bartleby.com.  Enjoy!

Quince Marmalade
Wipe quinces, remove blossom ends, cut in quarters, remove seeds; then cut in small pieces. Put into a preserving kettle, and add enough water to nearly cover. Cook slowly until soft. Rub through a hair sieve, and add three-fourths its measure of heated sugar. Cook slowly twenty minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Put in tumblers.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Family Feast in Crimea

Barb Wieser is a Peace Corps volunteer at the Gasprinsky Library in Simferopol and lives outside the city in a Crimean Tatar settlement.  Crimean Tatars have a long history on the Crimea Peninsula but, in a stunning display of ethnic cleansing, Stalin deported the entire Crimean Tatar population on a single day in 1944, sending hundreds of thousands to Uzbekistan and other distant Soviet republics, with as many as half the population dying en route and in the following months.  But the end of the Soviet Union meant the opportunity for Crimean Tatars to return to their homeland, now a part of Ukraine, and the Crimean Tatar population in Crimea now numbers more than 250,000.  Despite deportation and cultural repression, the Crimean Tatars preserved many of their own traditions.  Barb was generous enough to share her experience preparing for a pre-wedding Crimean Tatar feast. 

Abdul, the oldest son of my landlords, Server and Maia, is getting married September 18th. There has been much talk and preparations for the wedding for quite some time. I am invited, of course, and I have been looking forward to attending my first time to a Crimean Tatar wedding! By all accounts, they are quite the event, and include all night eating, dancing, and toasting. Despite the fact that Crimean Tatars are Muslims, they still do a lot of drinking, kind of like the Turks. The joke is that there is nothing in the Koran about not drinking vodka.  Two weekends ago there was a large gathering at Maia and Server's house, a traditional part of the pre-wedding ritual where the two families exchange presents, and the imam comes and blesses the couple. 45 guests were expected: relatives, neighbors, friends and many of the relatives showed up the night before and spent the weekend.

Earlier in the week I had offered to help with the cooking, so I spent much of Friday next door in the kitchen with Maia and her sisters, daughter, and mother, chopping vegetables and meat, getting ready for the early morning feast preparation the next day.  One of the traditions in Muslim culture for a large ritual gathering such as this is to slaughter a goat, or in the case of the Crimean Tatars, a sheep, to provide meat for all the dishes. Maia had told me that her brother-in-law was bringing a sheep to slaughter on Friday, but somehow the reality of that hadn't sunk in until I came home from work Friday afternoon and glanced into the back yard, and there was a sheep, laying under the tree, staring at me with his woeful (or so I felt) eyes. I really didn't want to be present for the actual slaughter, so I disappeared into my house for awhile. When I came out later, the brother-in-law and nephew were hacking away at the sheep carcass. Two cooking fires had been started and large wok-looking pans were placed on them to cook the food needed for the feast. Later that evening, a delicious mutton soup was made for the neighbors and relatives who had gathered to help with food preparations.

After watching them for awhile, I went inside and started helping the sisters chop and peel vegetables--mounds of carrots, onions, potatoes, garlic--taking out time to have coffee and green tea and of course, talk.   One of my other jobs that evening was grinding of sheep meat to be used to make dolmades (stuffed peppers) the following day. As I was chopping up chunks of meat to be fed into the grinder, I thought of that living creature whose eyes I had looked into not so long ago, and whose body I now held in my hands and was making preparations to eat. Not since I was a child on my grandparents farm and watched the caged up chickens before their slaughter (one of which I let loose and got into big trouble) have I been so close to the connection between animal life and the meat I eat. Maybe it is the connection with mammal's that is so profound, as I have also frequently caught fish and killed and ate them. I just couldn't and still can't get the vision of that sheep's face from my mind. I tried to thank the sheep for giving its life so I can eat, but somehow, I don't think it is enough. But I continue to eat meat at my neighbors' homes and when I go to Crimean Tatar restaurants. Perhaps this experience will help me to remember what it is I am eating and to be consciously thankful that an animal has given its life for my food.

By the time I went next door, all the food had been prepared and the festivities were in full swing. I tried to help with serving, etc. but I was clearly to be treated as a guest and was escorted upstairs to dine with all the women. I hadn't realized that was going to happen, so I felt way underdressed for the event, but no one but me seemed to mind. Quite a feast was laid on the table. Plates of fruits, olives, cheeses, and sweets. A thick mutton soup was served and then the dolmades along with leposhka, the traditional Crimean Tatar bread. Afterwords, there were platters of cookies, cakes, and candies, and tea and coffee were served. It is the Crimean Tatar tradition to serve first Turkish coffee and then green tea. When I asked about this, someone told me it was because in Crimea before the deportation, people only drank coffee. But in Uzbekistan coffee wasn't available, so they drank green tea. So when people came back to Crimea, they began to serve both!

Finally I went back to my house, enriched by yet another Crimean Tatar experience and full of love for this wonderful culture I have found myself in.

Thanks, Barb, for sharing this.  More posts from Peace Corps Volunteers to come, and of course, all of our Pickle Project readers are invited to share their stories and memories about food traditions in Ukraine.