Making Borsch in Obirek – Ukraine

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Obirek Ukraine

I took the train to Bakhmach and got off at the wrong stop. On the wrong side of the tracks, I walked around the back of the train and what I saw has been burned into my memory since then. To the right was a grey stone building. Two stories tall, it looked like an abandoned house for railway workers. Cutting in front of the house, parallel to the train tracks, was a dirt road. There were several people riding ancient bikes, and further down a handful of instantly recognizable, one story “Продукты”. This translate exactly as “Products” and if that draws comparison to the type of stores we had in the 1800’s, that’s a more apt analogy than a convenience store. They carry everything you’d expect, like Pepsi and beer, but they also sell meat, fresh bread, and whole frozen chickens.

The train gained speed and pulled away from me, while I stood motionless. It was the most vivid manifestation of time travel that I had ever experienced. Scanning the road I saw a young man riding a bike, with a beautiful girl in a fluorescent green dress sitting on the handle bars. It reminded me of a scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kidwhen Paul Newman shares the future with Butch’s girlfriend.

Recovering, I walked to the Продукты, my back sweating in protest of the overweight backpack. Facing the woman working there, I used my limited Russian to ask for two things. Cold water and the number of a taxi. I took the slip of paper from her hand, paid for the water, then staggered out of the store like a gawky teenager.

After a phone call and a fifteen minute wait, I’m sitting in the front seat of a taxi. Leaving the village behind, we drove down a road that cut massive green fields in half. Fields far larger than any I’ve ever seen in the eastern United States. My driver, Alexei, abused the throttle and we hurtled past horse drawn carts. Discordantly, this took place while Drake was rapping about bitches and success on the blown out speakers. The world outside the windows of the Russian made taxi suggested that the industrial revolution was just over the horizon. The music inside reminded me that places like T-O-R-O-N-T-O exist and that women are abundant there.

What’s Smaller Than a Village?

In English, short of saying “outpost” or “colony”, we don’t have a good word to describe anything smaller than a village. In Ukrainian and Russian they do. It’s called a “Хутор” (Hooter) and they look something like this. My hooter was a collection of about a dozen houses, arranged along a quarter mile of well paved road. The houses were all one story, built the same way that they’ve been built for hundreds of years. We passed by massive gardens, horse stables, free range children, pig pens, and pulled up in front of the place that I was going to stay.

The first thing I noticed was a fence running in front of the buildings. It abolished the view so that I could only see the top half of a barn and a home. As I was pulling my ignorantly packed bag from the trunk, a head popped over the fence. On top of head is cap, which didn’t seem to do much as the face had picked up a healthy tan from working outside.

“Hey” said the face, with a smile and Russian accent that you could stick a fork into.

“Привет” I replied . I had learned that if I wanted to practice my Russian, I needed to speak it even when people addressed me in English. I traded my taxi driver 200 Grivna for the twenty minute ride, then off he went. Back in the direction of relative civilization. A bustling city by comparison to my new home.

Meeting the Ukrainians

Two days later and I had met almost everyone living at the farm. Besides me there was one other volunteer, named Olga. She was several years older than me, Ukrainian, and spoke English to put my Russian to shame. Leonard, the head of the household, was a filmmaker and at a festival in Poland. He left behind his very pregnant wife and their two daughters. Finally, there was Mama Luda. Leonard’s mother and the senior member of the mismatched crew. Mama Luda was a lovely person and I spent a great deal of time helping her around the kitchen. For example, the water situation was interesting. While there was running water, it wasn’t a fully developed system yet. Water came out of a plastic spicket and my job was to fill up the five gallon pail of water for the kitchen. I also had the privilege of filling up the hand washing sink, and the large plastic containers that we used to wash dishes.

Another job was lighting the large wood burning stove in the morning, and keeping a fresh supply of firewood in the kitchen. Life at Obirek was traditional and fun. I’ve always enjoyed work that feels meaningful. Working as a cashier in a supermarket and bussing tables in a creperie never offered me any satisfaction, and I often felt like shit after my shift. On the other hand, when Mama Luda is cooking dinner and had to have water, that was satisfying job to see to. Especially when I knew the results would be delicious.

A lot of people are surprised when I tell them that I really enjoyed Russian food. Most assume that all Russian food is pickled, scaled, or somehow associated with Vodka. While there certainly is that subset, there’s more to it. Mama Luda consistently cooked delicious dishes that would convert any skeptic. Green borsch, red borsch, dumplings, potatoes, kasha, and shuba. I ate well every day, and enjoyed the experience of eating traditional food, prepared by a seasoned cook, made in the most antiqued kitchen that I’d ever lit a fire in.

Second Language Cooking Lessons

Despite my appreciation of the meaningful work, after ten days I was ready to leave Obirek. My feelings about gardening were mixing with a craving to start working online, and I knew it was time to get back to Kiev. However, before I left there was something that I really wanted to do. Using my limited abilities with the Russian language, I explained to Mama Luda that I would jump at the chance to cook Ukrainian borsch. Would she be generous enough to teach a young American how to prepare the best soup in the world?

I knew this would be an interesting experience because of the language barrier. My conversational Russian was decent, but I was lost like a tourist in New York when it came to verbs like cut, grate, slice, peel, boil, fry, and almost every other food related action. Determined to make the best of it, we gave it a try.

Every new word Mama Luda taught me pushed out an old one that I had learned five minutes ago. The whole thing would have been a mess if I hadn’t had a notebook with me. Writing half in Russian, half in English, I began to record the experience of cooking borsch. I wrote an entire post with the recipe and cooking instructions, so I won’t get into details. There I was, a twenty-three year old American, learning how to cook a famous Russian / Ukrainian dish, from a grandmother who grew up under the Soviet Union. Thankfully countries change and barriers are broken. Grudges are forgotten and swept under the rug of time. I spent thirteen months in Russia and Ukraine, and in that time I was never greeted by anything but warmth and good emotions. I learned how to cross country ski, curse in Russian, drink vodka with pickles, and cook borsch. And most of all, I learned that there’s a world out there and it’s quite a bit different than how the news makes it out to be.

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