Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Abundance and Scarcity: Food in Newfoundland

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been traveling around the island of Newfoundland, Canada, in my museum persona,  facilitating a series of workshops for heritage organizations—but of course, finding time to eat and think about food along the way. The traditional foods are still found in many places here—both in restaurants for visitors like me,  but also for everyday people—in the same way that many Ukrainians still eat borscht almost every day.

Newfoundland is the easternmost province of Canada—but in fact, only became a part of Canada in 1949 and maintains a distinct identity.  Newfoundlanders mostly perch on the outer rim of this rocky island, with only half a million residents in the entire province;  60,000 in the provincial capital, St. John’s.  Aboriginal peoples have lived here for thousands of years, while Leif Erikson and a band of Vikings landed at L’Anse aux Meadows in the year 1000.  Irish, English, French and Scottish immigrants shaped the province and its traditions.

I was struck by the ways in which scarcity and abundance, two facets of food in Ukraine, also operate here.  Almost anything from the sea was freely and easily available, gained by your own labor.  One woman told me her family ate lobster easily once a week!  Cod was king here, until overfishing lead to the cod moratorium of the 1990s,  bringing drastic change to many fishing villages.     I picked up a reproduction of the 1958 cookbook,  The Treasury of Newfoundland Dishes,  composed of recipes sent in by women from all over the island to a flour company sponsored radio show.   The variety of seafood recipes is astounding:  baked flippers (seal) with vegetables, fish and tomato scallop, baked cod tongues, fried cod heads, stewed grilse,  herring fried in oatmeal, fried squid, matelote of eel, fried capelin, fried smelt, fried clams,  fried mussels, oyster stew,  lobster cutlets…the list goes on and on.
 One night in Twillingate I tried fish and brewis, a dish that exemplifies the simple, resourceful eating.  It can be made with either salt cod or fresh fish and is just hardtack or hard bread soaked overnight in cold water (as the salt cod would be as well) and then both boiled separately and combined, and served with scrunchions,  small cubes of salt pork fried golden brown, and the fat and cubes poured over the dish like gravy.  

Amazingly, I heard a radio program where local chefs and others were discussing how hard it is to get local fish for restaurants here in the province because of various regulations. And in St. Alban’s, a local radio station read out the various opening and closing seasons for a host of seafood:  whelks, scallops, sea urchins and more, many of which are now shipped to Japan and other places.

The forests also provide sustenance.  Although moose were not introduced onto the island until the 19th century,  there are now thousands, and moose stew appears on many menus.   Berries grow in abundance, although this year’s dry, hot season has produced fewer than usual, said one gatherer.   The berries have their own particular Newfoundland names:  what Scandanavians refer to as cloudberries are known as bakeapples, and partridgeberries are better known as lingonberries.  Crisps and crumbles, jam and jellies, pies and even a partridgeberry cocktail make sure that the gifts of the short season last throughout the year.
Old-fashioned root cellars still dot the landscape and those crops that last through the winter are most commonly grown here. Those traditional food preservation methods find their great expression in the Jiggs Dinner,  named after the mid-20th comic book character in Molly and Jiggs, for reasons that are now lost in time.   A Jiggs Dinner (served at what we call lunchtime) includes several variations, but the one I had at the Cozy Tea Room in Twillingate(highly recommended  by several locals) included salted beef (corned beef),  pease pudding (dried split peas boiled down into a stiff paste),  boiled potato, carrots and cabbage,  pumpkin pickle, a dumpling, and an onion bread pudding.  Delicious!  And sure to sustain you in a long day’s physical work at home or on the boat.

At one workshop we began talking about food, and one participant remembered her mother “bottling” everything:  flippers, turr (a shore bird),  capelin (a small fish), herring and more, ensuring that the family would have enough to get through the long winters.   The Treasury cookbook has a recipe for preserved moose:

Wash moose meat and cut in small pieces.  Place meat in jars, add 2 teasppons salt and enough boiling water to fill jars within one ince of top.  Seal jars and loosen slightly.  Process in boiling water for 4 hours or in a pressure cooker for 1 ¾ hours at 10 pounds pressure.  [No instructions provided for getting that moose in the first place].
When we talked about seminal events in the 20th century lives of Newfoundlanders,  many workshop participants remarked that the Great Depression had little effect on their families’ lives here—because people lived on what they could catch, gather or raise, and had little other money;  they could manage in the same way they had often had. (Above, moose stew).

But managing with what they had didn’t mean doing without sweets.  I discovered the English and Irish traditions of great desserts still in force here, including many types of steamed puddings.   Here’s one recipe from the cookbook for a cranberry pudding (as I assume cranberries might be easier for Pickle Project readers to find than bakeapples or partridgeberries).

1 cup fresh chopped cranberries
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup boiling water
½ cup granulated sugar
½ light molasses
1 egg, well-beaten
1 ½ cups sifted Cream of the West (the cookbook sponsor) flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

Put cranberries and butter in a mixing bowl;  add boiling water.  Then add the sugar, molasses and beaten egg.  Stir until well mixed.  Add the sifted dry ingredients.   Pour into a well-greased one-quart pudding bowl,  Cover tightly.  Steam for 2 hours.  Serve with a foamy sauce.
Partridgeberry Crisp

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Pickle Project Goes to St. Johnsbury Academy

On Tuesday, May 29th, I had the opportunity to engage in three conversations involving Ukrainian food, place, and culture with high school European history and World Civilization classes at St. Johnsbury Academy in Vermont. The framework for these conversations included moving borders and the complexity of historical narrative across the differing ethno-linguistic regions in Ukraine.  We focused our conversation on Western, Eastern, and Southern Ukraine paying special attention to differences in language, tradition, and national identity. For residents of Western Ukraine this includes the use of Ukrainian language, history of the Ukrainian insurgent army, and a strong sense of Ukrainian culture. For residents in Eastern Ukraine, it can include the use of Russian and direct ties to the region’s industrial history.  The Southern regions of Ukraine, as well as Crimea, reflect the influence of trade and multi-cultural history. Together we examined whether physical borders could impact national identity, and how? How one’s historical narrative could change across place and time and, above all, what does food have to do with it?
As an independent private high school with boarding students from across the United States and overseas, the conversations included students from China, Finland, Germany, South Korea, and Spain. Each class began with students presenting their end-of-semester research projects, including several that discussed the formation of national identity, and continued with a discussion of Ukraine. We snacked on beet salad while discussing the fundamentals of Ukrainian history and diving into regional traditions and food culture.
 The last portion of the class was spent digging deeper into questions and current events. The accelerated World Civilization class was interested to sift through differences in perception and actuality - “does Ukraine care about Yulia Tymoshenko’s arrest as much as the Western media does?” Other students asked about the relationship between Ukraine and Russia “Are Ukrainians happy that Putin is back in power?” Each of these questions led us deeper into our discussion of regional differences. In addition to being interested in their questions, I was also curious to see their reaction to the beet salad – some excited to dig in and other students approaching with great hesitation.   
Like the April conversation hosted at Shelburne Farms, it was a wonderful opportunity to bring the discussion of Ukrainian traditions home and explore connections to culture and community. Thank you to Helen Wilbur for hosting and to her three history classes for their wonderful comments and conversation.

Christie Bond is a former Peace Corps Volunteer to Ukraine and a Pickle Project enthusiast. She looks forward to continuing the conversations and sharing her love of Ukraine with all she meets!

Photos:  top to bottom:  St. Johnsbury Academy,  Embroiderer in L'viv; the Black Sea in Odessa; and a village in the Donbass Region.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

What's Your Favorite Ukrainian Food? Baba's Borscht!

This past sunny Saturday,  I went to the 50th Anniversary Celebration of St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church in Hunter, NY to share the Pickle Project with visitors.  The church itself is an amazing structure to come across in the Catskills,  handbuilt in the style of the Carpathians wooden churches.
I brought along some historic photos,  a few of our official Pickle Project t-shirts,  but most of all, I wanted to hear from festival-goers a bit about their favorite Ukrainian foods and to chat about the Pickle Project and our work in Ukraine.  Most people I spoke to were second or third generation Ukrainian-Americans whose families originally hailed from L'viv or elsewhere in western Ukraine.  Many have made just a brief visit or two to their homeland and were curious about my experiences while others spoke about cousins and extended family still living in Ukrainian villages.   Several people already knew the project from reading our blog and it was great to meet those people in person!  Many were interested in the idea that we worked all over Ukraine from east to west and that the food conversations were a way to open up civic engagement, to begin talking together about food, something we all know, and broaden out into all sorts of topics.
But I always love talking to people about food and associations with family.  To encourage that,  I invited festival-goers to share their favorite Ukrainian food on a Post-it note and put it up.  As the notes went up,  people stopped to read, to chat,  to say, "oh, no, my baba's borscht is the best!"  I think borscht was the clear winner,  followed by pirohi (varenyky) but many other memories were shared.  One man pulled up a chair and described in detail, the multi-layered torte his mother would make.  I was particularly impressed with the children who carefully printed out, in Ukrainian, their favorite food and appreciated parents' commitment to passing on the language to a new generation.
And of course, I ate!  The women of the church had clearly been cooking for days, so I tried the combination plate, which included borscht, varenyky with fried onions, sausage, and holobitsi.  The bake sale table had American style treats, but also cookies made with buckwheat honey and other traditional sweets.
The day also brought me another lesson.  The festival was public and in a way, I was surprised at how few non-Ukrainian Americans I met.  It was free, it had great music and dance,  exhibits,  food, and even a bouncy castle for kids.  No matter where we live, I think we all can make more efforts to get out there and see, in informal settings, cultures different than our own.  So, Pickle Project readers, get out there and go to a festival in a neighborhood that's not your own,  stop in at a church supper somewhere you wouldn't go to, and, of course, eat, eat, eat and enjoy!