Friday, September 30, 2011

Conversations about Food and Culture

What does food matter?  What can Americans learn from Ukrainian food traditions and methods?  How are the ways that both Americans and Ukrainians think about food changing?  What's your most memorable meal or the food that reminds you of home and family?   Those questions, and many more, have formed the core of our work here at the Pickle Project.  We're thrilled to return to Ukraine in mid-October  for a series of four community conversations about food, culture, past, present and future.   These conversations are made possible thanks to the support of the Trust for Mutual Understanding, Shelburne Farms (our US sponsor) and our great partners in Ukraine.

The conversations will be held in four different Ukrainian cities and we invite you to join us if you're in the neighborhood.  More details to come, but mark your calendars and join us!
  • Sunday, October 16,  18:00 at the Bulgakov Museum, Kyiv
  • Tuesday, October 18,  Donetsk
  • Friday, October 21, Odessa
  • Sunday, October 23,  L'viv
We're also very pleased to have two other Americans join us for the conversations:  Caleb Zigas and Rueben Nilsson.  We've chosen Caleb and Rueben because they're both involved in food production in different ways, have inquiring minds, and much to both share and learn.
Caleb is Executive Director of La Cocina in San Francisco, an organization whose mission is to he mission of La Cocina is to cultivate low-income food entrepreneurs focusing primarily on women from communities of color and immigrant communities.  Caleb’s work on the program curriculum and social entrepreneurship innovation has been celebrated by the Hitachi Foundation when they named him a Yoshiyama Young Entrepreneur and by Inc. Magazine’s recognition as one of 5 Community Organizers making a difference. He has been named one of San Francisco’s Tastemakers by 7×7 Magazine, though he might be as proud that before that he was named Best Waiter in San Francisco.   Caleb has worked in kitchens since the age of 16,  but he also is a graduate of the University of Michigan with a degree in English and Globalization and Culture.
Rueben grew up in rural Minnesota, in a town of 4,000 people. After some years working in other fields, he returned to school and received a degree in Food Science from the University of Minnesota, and has worked in cheesemaking, production and quality, for the last five years.   He's now the Quality Systems Manager at Faribault Dairy, in Faribault, Minnesota, where cave-aged blue cheese is made.   As part of his job, he works with state and federal food inspectors and independent food quality auditors. Both he and his wife come from a cultural heritage of European immigrant farmers and continuing their own family traditions, they make beer, bread, sauerkraut, cheese and can soups, fruits and vegetables.

We're looking forward to introducing Caleb and Rueben to big city markets, village gardens, homemade sour cream, samogon,  early morning tea on the overnight train, salo, pickles, and most of all, to Ukraine's people and the stories they have to share.    

Check back soon here or on our Facebook page for exact times and locations for the conversations.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Who are Your Human Links in the Food Chain?

Recently I gave a talk to a local community group here in the Catskills about the Pickle Project. As I showed pictures of fresh meat on long counters in open air markets (above, an oxtail) and big buckets of fresh sour cream, one of the audience members asked about the safety of unrefrigerated meat and other foods in Ukraine.

That’s a question many of us ask as we see those open-air markets, but increasingly, it’s a question Americans ask about our own food supply and the answers, interestingly, may be found in a place like Ukraine. Since the publication of Upton Sinclair’s  The Jungle, more than one hundred years ago,  “food safety” has been defined as “bacteria control” in the United States. But today, the threats to our food supply exceed microbes and include broader issues now defined as food security:  access to food, food and water safety,  genetically modified crops,  and, in an ever-growing global economy,  understanding where in the world our food comes from and how it is grown, processed and shipped.  Interestingly, cultures that never abandoned open-air markets --- and the food supply system that these markets support --- hold the answers to today’s crisis.

In the United States, we hope (and perhaps only hope) that government food regulations make the food we buy safe to eat.  But recent contaminations and ongoing budget cuts make that protection harder to believe.  Ukrainians, however, have no such illusions about the government’s ability to protect the food supply.

Ukraine’s recent history has left no citizen with few beliefs that any government can be trusted to feed its citizenry.   In 19322-33, Stalin created what is known in Ukrainian as  Holodomor,  the Great Famine,  sending troops to guard  the harvests, and ensure that every morsel was exported out of Ukraine as a way to ensure the unruly republic's obedience.  The real result was the starvation and death of  millions of Ukrainians.  During World War II battles fought in Ukraine devastated the agricultural landscape and starved hundreds of thousands more.   The Soviet Union’s efforts at collectivizing farms meant that eventually, fewer and fewer products appeared in the market as production decreased for a host of complicated reasons.  There is of course, also considerable concern about food contaminated from nuclear fallout from the incident at Chernobyl 25 years ago.  As recently as last summer, I was advised never to buy mushrooms on the street in the capital, Kyiv,  for fears that they had come from the contaminated region.

As Ukraine celebrates its 20 years of independence,  food is now widely available, but rampant corruption has continued the climate of distrust generated in Soviet times.  The average Ukrainian citizen does not believe that the government can or would protect the food supply in any way.  

Because of all of this, Ukrainians have long since taken responsibility for the food that they feed their families.    They’ve found two solutions.
First, grow it yourself.    In villages and towns, every house has a garden.  It’s not just for show.  They are big gardens.  The front yard of a house might be filled with potato plants and out back,  stretch rows of garlic, onions, beets, tomatoes, cucumbers, and more.  A clutch of fruit trees, cherry, apricot, apple, join the blackberry and blueberry bushes.   Full-time village residents (a rapidly aging, declining, number) might also have a cow or two, a few chickens and geese, and maybe even a pig.  

An increasing middle class in Ukrainian cities is finding the income to purchase a “dacha,” a vacation house in a village.  But these dachas aren’t just for relaxation, they’re a place where after the end of a busy work week, city dwellers drive to, put on their old clothes, , and weed, water, pick and preserve.  Full-time villagers and part-time residents both grow food for their extended families. Many young people still live at home, relying on mothers or grandmothers to produce home-cooked meals every day.  Few young people cook at all (“We have other hobbies,”  one said laughingly).  But when your food comes from your own family garden, you know who produces your food. 
Second, buy your food from someone with whom you have a personal, yet commercial, relationship with.  You can’t just buy it from any vendor.  At the main city market in Odessa there are dozens of women selling dairy products.  But according to my friend Natalia, she only buys from “her” vendor,  the woman with whom she has established a personal relationship.   That way, she knows that Irina comes from a village two hours away, twice a week, with cheese made from cow and goat milk, and fresh sour cream.  She knows the person who produces her food. 

Although Americans want to have a personal relationship with their food, that sort of intimacy requires rethinking the ways we live.

Is it possible to replant the lawn with vegetable gardens and re-apportion family time  away from soccer games and TV in order to tend those gardens? Is there a communal garden or CSA that could use help? Or is it more feasible to shop consistently from vendors and take the time to get to know them?   It’s definitely more work.  Planting, tending and harvesting a garden is a hard thing to do after a day in the office although Ukrainian women seem to balance work, family and home in a way I admire. 

Is it possible to become less used to food on demand?  When you eat what you or your known farmer grows, it means that at particularly times of the year,  you don’t eat certain things.  At my friend Anya’s dacha,  we had okroshka,  a cold buttermilk soup that celebrated, in her family, the arrival of the first cucumbers of the year.

Governments at all levels, in both the United States and Ukraine often make this revised thinking more difficult.  In Simferopol Ukraine, the city government forbade street vendors from selling.  This appears to be honored a bit in the breach,  but for many people, it meant that city residents had to travel a bit further for food, and pay a bit more.  As I describe farmers’ markets here to Ukrainian friends, there’s always a bit of puzzlement over the idea that they are once a week affairs.   In the United States, the tangle of regulations about both producing and selling food at markets and elsewhere prevents many would-be growers and producers from entering the marketplace.

The future is cloudy for both American and Ukrainian eaters.  We expect our governments to work for a common good and in both countries, the common good is often a highly debatable topic. There needs to be a transparency about food regulation and a willingness to both protect the food supply and encourage local webs of relationships.

I can imagine a future here in the US where a greater percentage of us eat seasonably and sustainably.  But I can equally imagine a future of factory farms and contaminated food.  In Ukraine, as the McDonalds are always jammed with young people and fewer young women (and virtually no young men) learn how to cook,  the centuries old tie to the land may be broken. But I can also imagine a Ukraine where cooks still make the perfect pickle.
Note:  over the past month, I've been taking an online food writing course with Molly O'Neill.  Special thanks to her and my fellow foodwriters in the workshop for their thoughts and great advice on this article.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Making Samahon, from a Babushka's Recipe

Andrea Wenglowsky is a New York City-based artist currently living in Ukraine as a Fulbright Fellow, studying contemporary art practices in several cities there.  She's generously contributed this piece about making samahon,  something that's a distinct part of many, if not most, Ukrainian gatherings.  You can see more of Andrea's work here.

Since house parties are common with the hip youth of Ukraine, I have had the chance to do things like dance in stockinged feet to random pop or klezmer hits, sample varieties of pickles and sausages, and be served a mysterious amber colored liquid, all in the comfort of a warm living room.

Turns out that the unidentified liquid was home-brewed vodka, or samahon (самогон, literally ‘self-distillate’ or ‘self-run’.) To cut to the chase, it’s moonshine. It is very commonly made in villages in Eastern Europe and Russia and I am sure many ex-pats have tasted these strong spirits and consider it a sort of ritual to aid in understanding, or forgetting, Ukraine a little better with each sip.

However, a small glass of this particular batch did not put  hair on my chest nor did it remind me of gasoline. I came out unscathed. What was the secret? I asked. My friend, whom we will call X for complete anonymity, simply said: It is my babushka’s recipe. We make it in her apartment right outside of Kyiv.

Months later, in the summer air, it was time for X to prepare a new batch, and I had the chance to observe the distillation process. Babushka has been making samahon for decades and it is illegal, and therefore she keeps a tight watch over her recipe, tools and its execution. X was a bit nervous, though didn’t show it, because this was her first batch mixed alone while Babushka was at their dacha, or country summer home.
On the way to the apartment, we had to pick up some key ingredients: sugar and yeast. These are the major players in this concoction. We all know that vodka can be made from grains or potatoes (or things like shoe polish, which is the moonshine one wants to avoid), but it is also very common to use beetroot or other household staples. Since sugar can be expensive, this is not as common, but X claims that this is perhaps why their drink is so good. It doesn’t have to be filtered or strained. The yeast is very special, and the only one Babushka allows. X says that when she buys it she gets a knowing and approving look from the merchant- they know what she is up to.
First, the yeast must be mixed with warm, but not hot, water and some sugar, and left to react in the way that yeast does in the comfort of the warm apartment. X found some random jam in a jar and threw some spoonfuls in there for good measure. She is not sure if it makes it taste any better or perhaps gives it some color. Once the distiller feels that it is ready, this yeasty mixture is poured into a huge tub, and filled with sugar and water. The last ingredient is milk, of course. This dollop of dairy is potentially a superstitious key ingredient, but Babushka swears by it.

My favorite part was taking a large stick and mixing this earthy smelling liquid all together. I felt a bit like a witch at a cauldron. Once the sugar was all dissolved, the lid was put on with a little air for breathing, and the tub was tucked in for a three-week slumber with coats and blankets, encouraged to ferment, react and brew.

Three to four weeks later, X and Babushka transfer the mixture to a special pressure cooker and boil it for four hours. The pot needs to be completely sealed so they sometimes adhere dough for varenyky around the rim to assure that the lid doesn’t come off. The liquid boils down under their close watch and the condensation drips out of the tubing into the jars. Voila! Babushka then adds fruit or tea for color.

Their recipe can never be duplicated, because just like most Ukrainian cooking, everything is done na oko, or by eyeballing it. But in addition to the special equipment, ingredients and know-how, I believe that Babushka’s incredible apartment gives keeps the samohon company and infuses this cultural staple/science experiment with tales, memories, and a special Ukrainian flavor.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Shopper's Delight

In addition to the vendors, growers and cooks we have met across Ukraine, the Pickle Project also engages shoppers to learn more about what they buy, where and why.

We met Vera on a hot and steamy July day at L'viv's bustling Krakivsky Bazaar. Vera has been coming to Krakivsky for 10 or 15 years. She likes this market and knows most of the vendors here. She smiles, exchanging "dobry dehns" as she makes her way down the colorful aisles piled high with produce.

This afternoon, nestled in Vera's red "New York" market bag are carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, sweet peppers and potatoes. She told us she plans to make borscht (the beets are already at home, she said) and a fresh salad for the evening meal.