Kishka and Kasha in the Ukranian Countryside

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Kishka and Kasha in the Ukranian Countryside
Story by Judith Fein, photos by Paul Ross



A writer returns to her ancestral home and traces the evolution of her mother's home cooking through a few changed letters and syllables in Ukraine.


croquets

"Would you like to visit our friends in the country?" Andrew asked me.

We'd been pen pals for twenty years, and we met for the first time last summer in L'viv, Ukraine, where he lives. I imagined him as a short, bespectacled computer nerd who ate pizzas and drove a jalopy with the door handles duct taped together. God only knows how Andrew imagined me.

When he showed up at the airport, I beheld a tall, robust, buoyant man who looked like he was dressed for Casual Friday and drove a late-model SUV. His wife Oksana sews meticulously-crafted, brightly-hued vestments for priests, but this specialty pales in comparison to her delicate, tangy-sweet borscht.

"It's nothing like the bottled borscht I buy in a supermarket," I told her as I slurped from a bowl at the couple's kitchen table. "Yours is like nectar!"

"Nectar?" Andrew repeated. "How do you spell that?"

"N-e-c-t-a-r."

Andrew ran from the kitchen and returned with an English dictionary. Then he broke out in a broad grin. "Tomorrow we are going to the countryside. Would you like to come, like a happy bee, and find more nectar?"

Oksana

My head almost bobbed off my shoulders from nodding.

The following day, Oksana packed a cooler full of snacks—for her, food accompanies all human activities— and we drove south towards the Carpathian Mountains in the direction of the Hungarian border. As we rode along, we noticed that almost every house had a large vegetable garden and conical haystacks to feed the cows that produced milk and beef.

"Nice, fresh food is very important to the Ukrainian," Andrew commented. "It is our nectar."

"Nectar," Oksana repeated, as she handed me a slice of bread that sounded like delicate Venetian glass when I chewed the crust.

We arrived at the sprawling country house of Igor and Hala. The former combined his expertise in architecture and engineering to design and build his dream house of stone, wood and cement. After we exchanged hugs of hello — Ukrainians are friendly huggers— their daughter and son-in-law invited me on a walk into the fields. The earth was dappled with sunlight, and the sky was as perfectly blue as Oksana's borscht was perfectly purple. The daughter pointed out their favorite spots for gathering mushrooms that they use to make mushroom soup and sauces.

market woman

"Good, fresh food is very important to Ukrainians," the duo explained, echoing the words Andrew had used a few hours before.

We returned to the house and gathered around a large wooden table on the outdoor deck. Before eating, we each had a few shooters of vodka—with instructions to finish the whole glass at once, rather than sipping it— followed by borscht that was served with raw garlic cloves. I got the vodka down in two gulps, rather than one, and figured we'd all stink so I threw self-consciousness to the wind and chomped on five or six cloves.

"This borscht is nirvana," I told Hala, adding, "Whoops, I am sorry. Maybe you don't know the word nirvana."

"It is from Buddhist people," Andrew said, jumping in. "But I can't explain in English."

"Your English is wonderful," I protested.

"No," Andrew said, correcting me. "I am like dog. I understand what you say, but I can't speak."

As soon as I finished swallowing the sweet beet nectar, Hala waltzed out of the kitchen, proffering a plate of kasha pastries.

"This is like the kasha knishes I ate as a kid in New York!" I exclaimed.

On its heels came platters laden with wild rice, chicken croquets, meat croquets and a discussion about the Jewish food I was raised with, and some favorite Ukrainian comestibles. Each dish was accompanied by another round of vodka, which seemed to increase our appetites. The more vodka I drank, the more voluble I became.




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