Tuesday, September 28, 2010
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
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.
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.
Friday, September 3, 2010
It is in these dwindling days of summer (or the very first days of autumn) that we really appreciate the luxury and succulence of the season’s produce. And, for me, the melon, bright and invigorating, is the pinnacle. When melons enter the bazaar, a sweet and distinctive aroma fills your nose, long before your eyes lay upon them. Fresh from the vine, watermelons (кавун) and muskmelons (dynya) are the delight of Ukraine’s late summer markets.
Native to tropical Africa, watermelons have crisp, red (or yellow) flesh while muskmelons, with soft orange or pale green flesh, originate in central Asia. Watermelons and muskmelons are both members of the Cucurbitaceae family, which also includes squashes, pumpkins and cucumbers. Melons, both watermelons and muskmelons, are rather fickle fruits, sensitive to frosts and cold, windy or cloudy conditions. They thrive in warm, sunny weather and humus-rich, well-drained, if slightly acidic, soils. The greater southern Dnieper valley regions of Zaporizhzhya, Mykolayiv and Kherson, as well as portions of the Crimean peninsula afford ideal conditions for these delicate beauties. And, thus, Ukrainians have developed a particular fondness for the fruits and adeptness in their cultivation. Indeed, melons have been cultivated in Ukraine for some 15 centuries. According to a USDA report, fossilized melon seeds found during excavations of sites near Sevastopol dated to the 2nd century BC! In addition, genetic research suggests that Ukraine is also significant hub of genetic melon diversity. It seems Ukrainians (and Russians) carried some of the seeds of these diverse strains with them as they immigrated to North America, notably to Central Canada, home to famous varieties such as the buttery yellow “Cream of Saskatchewan.”
As with most fruits, melons are sweetest and most delicious when ripened on the vine. As for choosing a watermelon at the perfect stage of ripeness, it can be tricky because the outer skin, often green and zebra-striped, remains so regardless of fruit readiness. At my regular market haunts, growers, sellers and fellow patrons are usually glad to provide advice for spotting, slapping, squeezing or sniffing out the ideal specimen.
If selection assistance is not a service provided by your melon merchant, as may occasionally be the case, you may choose to defer to the advice of American writer, Mark Twain, who, I gather, was something of a watermelon aficionado and, according to my treasured 17th edition of Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening (1971), is said to opined: an unripe melon says “pink” or “pank” when rapped with the knuckles, while a ripe one replies “punk.”
Muskmelons, of course, provide an unmistakable perfume, smelling delicious when they are delicious. They also tend to soften after being picked and may give a bit under the thumb. I have been informed that they may also rattle when lightly shaken, as the seeds move about in the hollow center.
In addition to the fleeting joys of fresh melons, there is also the magic of pickled watermelon! Sometimes sweet, sometimes salty and savory, sometimes spicy and sweet, both the flesh and the rinds of the watermelon are pickled and make a wonderful appetizer or relish for warm, mid-winter meals.
The drying of muskmelons, both flesh and rinds, is a preservation technique that apparently originates in the Caucus region and is popular in some Ukrainian communities, particularly in Crimea. While I heard much about this practice third-hand, I do not know anyone that does this! If you have experience drying muskmelons, drop us a line!
To learn more about Ukraine and genetic diversity of melons, see the USDA Agricultural Research Service 2009 study.
For information about growing watermelons, muskmelons and cantaloupe, I recommend Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, any edition.
As always, Culinaria Russia: Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, edited by Marion Trutter, published by H. Fullmann, 2006 is a great resource on the food traditions of the Post-Soviet Space.