17 September 2008

Kvas: Magic in a bottle

The clock is ticking and my time in Ukraine is quickly drawing to a close: in two weeks, almost to the hour, I'll set foot on my native soil once again. This will also mark the completion of my field research for my dissertation and as such, the last time I'll spend an extended period of time in the former Soviet Union, at least for the next few years. Because I don't have anything interesting to say about America (indeed, the circus seems to speak for itself), I have a sneaking suspicion that this will be one of the last posts on Darkness at Noon for some time.

Given that this is the end of a personal journey that has taken me to some of the most fascinating and bizarre places on earth over the last two years, you might think that I'm going to wrap up with a thought-provoking, introspective look at how my experiences have helped me grow as a human being. Or maybe I will draw some sweeping conclusions about the people and places I've seen. Maybe I'll declare that I've finally come to understand the Russian Soul, the Ukrainian Nation, or the Belarusian, um, Potato.

Nope. I'm going to devote these final words to the most magnificent of bubbly brown drinks, kvas. I've got a bottle of the magic elixir just inches away from my grasp even as I pen these lines, just waiting to take me back to a simpler time and place. You see, unlike 99.7 percent of non-Slavic people in possession of their full mental faculties, not only can I stomach the stuff, I am deeply and passionately in love with the bewitchingly aromatic, palette-tingling, mildly fermented beverage made of stale black bread. I love kvas so much that I even write poetry about it:

Квас, квас!
Как люблю Я Вас!

Kvas, kvas!
How I love you!

That's all I've got so far. I know it's not much, but it rhymes (in Russian) and I'm pretty sure that's the most important thing for a poem. Someday maybe I'll even share my poetry series on public transportation which is equally impressive... But in the meantime, we have tasty verses about kvas to quench our thirst for culture.

To be sure, kvas is the national drink of the East Slavic peoples. Vodka doesn't count because it is consumed largely for its well-documented medicinal benefits. Or at least this is what a local guide in Odessa recently told me. And while beer is certainly witnessing an impressive surge, nothing quenches that deep down latent-peasant thirst like a big mug of kvas. I'm sure Tolstoy would agree with me.

In fact, the work of another talented poet (much like myself) stands as testament to kvas's importance to Russian life. In Evgeny Onegin, Alexander Pushkin writes:

They needed kvas like air; at table
their guests, for all they ate and drank,
were served in order of their rank.

Now, I don't know if it rhymes in Russian, but I'll assume so since Pushkin is generally considered to be a pretty talented poet and clever rhyming is the hallmark of all great poets. Needless to say, it's telling that the father of modern Russian language and literature would focus his genius on this humble beverage, without which Russians could not survive.

Kvas's immense popularity is not just limited to the days when guys like Pushkin rode around in troikas and got shot in duels. In fact, kvas is apparently the fastest-growing soft drink market in Russia today, with sales increasing by 43 percent in 2007. It's probably no accident that I spent much of 2007 in Russia, but I don't think that I alone was responsible for the surge in demand. Rather, kvas is the summertime drink.

And why shouldn't it be? After all, ask any Russian why kvas is so great in the summer and you'll get the same answer from every single one: "it's refreshing!" And they're right, it IS refreshing! Better yet, it's versatile too: chop up some raw vegetables, a boiled egg, a forest's worth of dill, and any mystery sausage/meats you have lying around, pour some kvas over it with a big dollop of smetana, and you've got okroshka a refreshing cold summertime soup. Did I mention that it's refreshing? Because it is...

So enticing is kvas and its special place in Russians' hearts that Coca-Cola launched their own kvas label in 2008 called "Mug and Barrel." Doesn't that just make you want to pick up a sickle and go out and harvest some wheat? Well, maybe not - I've actually tried Coke's kvas, and while it's pretty good compared to the other bottled brands available for sale in stores, it, like all bottled kvases, is no match for the amber liquid bubbling away on babushka's window sill. For manufactured kvas is produced today just like any other soft drink: carbonated water is added to a flavored concentrate which probably never even touched a stale piece of black bread in its life.

No, for delicious authentic kvas your inner peasant will have to turn elsewhere. One deceptively attractive option is the ubiquitous kvas tank found on street corners throughout Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian cities, often accompanied by a buxom female attendant that resembles her kvas tank both in shape and demeanor. Often yellow in color, the tanks are also easy to identify by the helpful description inscribed in large letters on the side of the tank - КВАС - just in case you get them mixed up with the tanks dispensing martinis on the opposite street corner...

Here are a couple of examples of kvas tanks, the first in Kiev and the second in Sevastopol:

From Darkness at Noon

From Darkness at Noon

As you can see from the photos, they're rather mobile beasts (the tanks, that is, not the attendants): each tank comes with a trailer hitch and a set of wheels. At night when it's time for the kvas tanks to sleep and get refilled, they get hitched together in long chains, snaking through the streets behind a truck. Whenever I see a parade of kvas tanks in the city I have to restrain my urge to join the parade or simply run after it like a dog chasing a car on a country road. Because it IS refreshing, you know!

When you come across a kvas tank, you will likely see the customers standing around the tank enjoying their beverage right there without leaving the vicinity of the tank. This phenomenon has its roots in the Soviet era, when kvas tanks were ubiquitous but cups were not. Back then there was but one cup for customers and thirsty Soviet citizens had to line up for their refreshment, just like they lined up for everything from cabbage to Lenin. After each customer was served, the attendant would dip the communal cup into a bucket of water to "wash" it (I use the term loosely) and then fill it for the next customer. Not exactly hygienic, but then again the Soviets were never really known for their attention to little details like this. The point is, you couldn't wander away with the only cup (I imagine that would be enough to get you arrested since denying people their kvas would constitute oppression of the proletariat) so people became trained to stand at the kvas tank while quenching their thirst. While the communal cup has been replaced with disposable plastic ones (everyone gets his own cup), the conditioned behavior remains: people stand around the kvas tank sipping from their plastic cups as if held there by Comrade Brezhnev's invisible leash...

While the probability of catching a nasty bug from the communal cup has gone down, unfortunately the prospect of catching something unpleasant from the contents of the tank has risen considerably since the good old days. There wasn't much that the Soviet economy did well, but maintaining quality control on kvas was apparently one of them. Since the Soviet collapse, I am told that quality control has gone down the drain, and much of what should go down the drain ends up in the kvas tank. As such, I have been warned by several locals not to drink from the kvas tank, lest I wish to spend a week in very un-refreshing discomfort.

So what is a kvas lover to do if the bottled stuff doesn't cut it and the stuff on the street corner deserves a "thanks, but no tanks..."?

If you're lucky enough to have a babushka around, you should have started with her in the first place. I probably should have mentioned that at the beginning, sorry. If you don't have your own babushka, I suppose you might be able to rent one of the little ones selling flowers outside the metro station and convince her to make some for you. But if this approach fails, you're on your own - you gotta make it yourself.

This is the point where all you Americans can just stop reading since you think the stuff is wretched anyway. And you Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians can stop reading too since your babushka can do this in her sleep. So I guess that leaves us with a few Aussies, a couple of Brits, a handful of Canucks, and the occasional Dane. So welcome to the few of you that are still with us and want to learn how to make kvas.

Like most things worth having, making kvas is more of an art than a science. I say this because it sounds a lot better than saying, "every time I make kvas it comes out different." But I do have several homemade batches under my belt by now, so at least I can tell you where things are going to go wrong despite the fact that you're following the recipe...

Here's the basic recipe I use, which I've tweaked a bit based on experience. I should also point out that there are as many kvas recipes as babushkas, so I don't claim to have the "best" one. If you've got a babushka with a better recipe, by all means, send it my way!

1 lb stale black bread or 1 lb stale pumpernickel bread
1 cup sugar
a few raisins
2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves or 1 tablespoon dried mint leaves or a packet or two of mint tea.
1/2 teaspoon Active dry yeast (or more or less, I'll discuss below...)
1/4 cup luke warm water

-Cube the bread and let it dry completely. You can do this on a cookie sheet in a low-temp oven, or just let it sit out for a few days. I think the stuff in the oven tastes better and it makes the kitchen smell like black bread. Mmmm, Borodino! The darkest black bread you can find is the best - the stuff that seems denser than pig iron. If you can't find that, pumpernickel does work fine.

-Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil and add the bread cubes. Cover it and let it sit at room temp for 8 hours or overnight, whatever works for you.

-Strain the juice (mmm, bread juice!) through several layers of cheesecloth - you don't want bread chunks floating in your kvas. Alternatively, you can use an old (but thoroughly washed) pillowcase. But don't tell my landlady that I suggested this - I don't think she'd be happy knowing I've been using her linens to strain my kvas....

Carefully pour the juice through (making sure you have a vessel underneath to catch it) and dump the soggy bread goo into the pillowcase. You can hang it up and let it continue to drip drain, but I'm usually too impatient to wait for too long and you never get that much extra liquid out anyway.

-Put the yeast and a 1/4 teaspoon of sugar into the luke warm water and let it dissolve. Put it aside for a few minutes while it gets excited an bubbly. Can you blame the yeasties? They want to be refreshed too!

-Dissolve the remaining sugar in the bread juice and add the yeast mixture and the mint. Stir everything to dissolve well, cover it with a towel, and set it aside for another 8-12 hours at room temperature.

-Strain the stuff again if you've got little things floating in it like renegade bread goo, mint leaves, or dill (which somehow finds its way into everything Slavic but is best left out of kvas)

-Add the raisins and re-cover. Put it in a cool (but not cold) place if possible, otherwise room temperature works fine too. Then you wait for the raisins to float up to the surface. My original recipe said that this would happen in 4-5 days, but it only takes one day for most of my batches. In general the fermentation process depends on three factors: 1) the amount of yeast turning sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide, 2) the amount of food (sugar) the yeast has to consume, and 3) the temperature at which fermentation takes place. More yeast and higher temperatures will produce faster fermentation, and if you let it go long enough all the sugar will be converted and fermentation will stop (though I don't know how much sugar & time would be required for it to become anything more than minimally alcoholic).

But before you kvasaholics get ahead of yourselves and triple the yeast to hurry up the process, a word of warning: once you bottle the stuff and refrigerate it, fermentation and the resulting carbonation will continue to take place if there is still sugar in the liquid. The original recipe I used called for 2 TABLESPOONS of yeast, and my bottles were gushing violently upon opening them after only a couple days in the fridge. By contrast, homemade root beer recipes call for 1/8 TEASPOON of yeast which is enough to carbonate a gallon of soda. Ultimately you'll have to experiment with what level you prefer between these extremes. Using less yeast will take longer to achieve that nice sour/sweet balance that is good kvas, but then you won't have as many volcanic eruptions in the kitchen later on.

-Regardless of how much yeast you used, at some point your raisins should start floating because they are bloated and gassy, much like the kvas tank attendants you now know to avoid. At this point taste the kvas. If it's pleasantly sourish with still a bit of sweetness, and if you like the way it tastes, you can go ahead and bottle it. If most of the sugar has been fermented already and you'd like it to be a bit sweeter, add some sugar a little at a time until it tastes good to you. Or, if it's still too sweet and not enough sour, then let it ferment some more.

-When you are satisfied with the taste, filter it one more time to remove the raisins and anything else that might still be in there. Pour it into bottles and cap them tightly.

-At this point you have a choice depending on how much yeast you used. If you used a lot of yeast, they will continue to ferment enough in the fridge so that carbonation will develop there (assuming there's still some sugar to ferment and your kvas hasn't gone completely "dry"). If you used the minimum amount of yeast, you can leave the bottle at room temperature for several days while the carbonation builds up, testing it every day or so to make sure you don't over carbonate. Once it's bubbly to your satisfaction, stash it in the fridge.

Once it's chilled, there's only one thing left to do: pour yourself a big mug, kick back, and enjoy that delicious kvas down to the dregs.

Because after all, it's refreshing!

01 September 2008

Lost and Found

One of my most loyal readers declared yesterday (over email), "Your blog is strangely silent - are you too busy to write about all the things you see and do?" A fair enough question, and one that deserves an answer...

The fact of the matter is that yes, I've been quite busy, much more so than during my time in Russia last year. Not only did being forced to relocate to Ukraine swallow up a fair amount of time and attention (I spent most of June learning the ins and outs of the Kiev rental market. Not pleasant...), but Ukraine itself has taken up quite a lot of attention as well.

In fact, the last two months feel like a dizzying Ukrainian whirlwind - I've crossed this fascinating country from north to south, east to west. I've talked to nationalists in Lviv, miners in Donetsk, and farmers in the Ukrainian heartland of Podillia. I've seen Russian and Ukrainian sailors walking side by side in Sevastopol, gawked at crispy red sunbathers oozing onto the beaches in Yalta, and watched young children playfully skipping down the Odessa steps. At times it has been relaxing (10 days sailing the Dniepr and Crimea can do wonders for your soul) but mostly it's been exhausting as I ascend dark stairwells in run-down apartment blocks, ringing countless doorbells in search of interview subjects.

But despite the darkness, the exhaustion, the sore feet, and the frequent frustration of doors shut in my face, it has been nothing short of a truly enlightening experience. I won't try to sum up the Ukrainian people, nor will I even attempt to characterize those that I found in the West, the East, or the center. That, I'm afraid, will have to wait for the dissertation. But what I will say is that Ukraine's people make it a remarkably complex and multi-faceted country. While such diversity is one of Ukraine's most intriguing gifts, it is also one of her greatest dangers, as the divide across the country on even the most basic issues is immense. The future - dare I say the survival - of this country will depend on the ability of these diverse people to coexist in the same country, and it remains a monumental challenge.

And so, "I've been busy with research" is part of the explanation for my silence on this blog. But it is not the only reason. If one were to dig among the posts throughout the lifetime of this blog, you would quickly see that my best material - most of my material - comes from ordinary experiences I've had while traveling. Specifically, they are based on the gap between expectation and reality in a part of the world where reality is sometimes too bizarre to understand. Put another way, this blog has been about Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine through my eyes, an endeavor that has attempted to illuminate both the subjects that I view but also the lenses through which I view them. For absurdity is the eye of the beholder: to me it is amusing, to the girl wearing the shirt that proclaims, "Sexyrural world of promise" it's simply a pretty shirt.

I have a suspicion that my reticence on this blog during the last couple of months has been the result of a narrowing of the reality-expectations gap, leaving me with less "A" material to write about. I suppose it's entirely possible that Kiev is less absurd than Moscow, and that this is why there's less for me to comment on. But I doubt it. Rather, I think that after almost 12 months abroad during the last year and a half, my expectations more or less conform to reality here. The lenses through which I view my surroundings have changed their focus, redefining what I see and how I see it.

It is not that my surroundings - whether Ukrainian, Belarusian, or Russian - have become any less absurd. Rather, they've become normal in my eyes. And therein lies the problem for the blog - when "Just like a thousand pound football, I will challenge with my invincible power" starts to make sense as a catchy t-shirt slogan, you know that you've been here too long. And you know that you're probably starting to do absurd things that the new arrivals are making snarky comments about. Like the plastic grocery bag, now patched with duct tape, that I've been carrying around since Minsk...

In short, I fear that I've become somebody else's "A" material without realizing it.

So is this the end of the Darkness? Well, not quite. I still have a couple of tricks up my sleeve and I haven't gone so completely native that I can't shake my head in wonder at the man who was spitting water on his appreciative girlfriend in the sweltering heat of August. But there is a big bottle of kvas and a sack of potatoes in the kitchen serving as a subtle reminder that maybe I'm not quite right in the head anymore...

13 August 2008

Thought on Georgia

Having just returned from a lovely vacation in Crimea where I had only sporadic news on the conflict in South Ossetia, I have come to the following conclusion:

Regardless of whether you're right or wrong, and no matter how many friends you think you have, it is rarely a good idea to poke a hungry bear with a stick. He's got the teeth and you have a stick. You do the math...

It's a lesson that I hope Ukraine will heed. There was some talk that Kiev might not allow the Black Sea Fleet back into Sevastopol (incidentally, I was there the day they set sail for Georgia...). I hope it is just rhetoric and not an indicator of true intentions. For as much as I support Ukraine's sovereignty and its ability to make its own decisions about its future, there is no getting around that fact that this is still a realist world (following the traditional usage of the term "realism" in International Relations theory). It is a struggle for power and security is zero-sum.

Georgia has shown us that if provoked, the bear will fight back with surprising ferocity. Given Russia's reaction, it seems apparent that there are some fights that just aren't worth picking.

10 July 2008

Chernobyl: Photos and Video

In addition to the written impressions of my visit to Chernobyl, I am posting my visual impressions of the place, as captured in some photos and video I took. I hope you enjoy them...

Click here for photos


09 July 2008

Chernobyl: life after death, or somewhere in between

Where do I even begin? I've been avoiding this for almost a week now because the task seems too great for my abilities, the weight too overwhelming, the gravity too humbling.

I know that even if I had the ability, I don't have the right. I am an outsider, a visitor who will be there one day and gone the next, probably forever. I haven't shed the tears with my own eyes or felt the suffering in my own body. They have lived the tragedy; I have simply taken a fleeting glance at the shadows of tragedy. So who am I to reflect on the tides that have washed over humanity in that little corner of northern Ukraine, tides whose power and force I can never fully grasp?

And yet this forum remains an exercise in reflecting on my observations, perceptions, and feelings about the people and places I encounter along my journeys through the former Soviet empire. As such, I can promise nothing more than that. This is neither historical, political, nor social commentary about that event and the shock waves it sent through the Soviet Union and the entire world; others can and have met that challenge better equipped than I. All I will offer here are impressions, impressions of a place I never expected to see with my own eyes. They are the impressions of my visit to Chernobyl...

What I expected to find was a place of death. From the crumbling and decaying sarcophagus surrounding the still-deadly remains of reactor number four to the cities and towns abandoned in the days following the terrible accident, I was prepared to encounter a place permanently suspended in a deathly state. I pictured some sort of post-apocalyptic world where life had been scoured from all surfaces, rooted out from all nooks and crannies; I pictured a world that had faded and turned grayish brown, like a long-forgotten film that has been discovered after years collecting dust.

What I found, much to my surprise, was a place characterized by abundant life. The most startling aspect was the human life within the Chernobyl exclusion zone and at the nuclear power plant itself. In fact, 4,000 people are still employed by the power plant and work there on a regular basis. They are the workers who not only monitor reactor four and maintain the aging sarcophagus, but also those who are carrying out the closure of the remaining reactors, the last of which was finally shut off in 2000.

They work and even live inside the exclusion zone because this is their job. The guide at the power plant's visitor center tells us with a tinge of sadness in her voice that "back when the disaster first occurred people rushed here to help contain the situation because it was their duty - they were motivated by love of their country and they paid a high price. Now they come [to work on the Sarcophagus] because they need the work, they don't have a choice." We are told that the power plant takes the health of its workers very seriously - if anybody shows signs of radiation-related illness, they are immediately and permanently removed from the exclusion zone. Discovering the ironies that populate the darker corners of life, someone in our group asks, "doesn't that mean they lose their job, too?" The guide shrugs with a melancholy look of regret on her face and nods her head.

A much different vision of life can be found in Pripyat, the model Soviet city built in the 1970s to house the population that would be working at the Soviet Union's latest wonder-achievement, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Home to nearly 50,000 residents at the time of the accident in 1986, the city was evacuated three days after the explosion, never to be repopulated again. Because the residents were told that they would be able to return soon, they left most of their belongings behind. In fact, they left their lives behind to be re-created in the minds of visitors like myself 22 years later, picturing the daily experiences of an apartment's inhabitants as we carefully step over the broken glass and fallen radiator on the floor.

Contrary of the image in my mind of a barren, windswept cityscape permanently drained of life by the events of that day, in fact life is everywhere. 22 years without human interference has had a startling effect as the forest has gradually reclaimed the territory it was once forced to concede in the name of socialist progress. Houses have been engulfed by the forest, apartment buildings dwarfed by the trees, and streets and sidewalks obscured by moss until little trace of them remains. Nature has even found its way inside several buildings, with trees, shrubbery, and grass growing out the windows from within. We see the telltale evidence of wild boars that wander the city rooting up tasty morsels from her soft, mossy soil. We are told that herds of wild horses roam freely on the open plains, and that native zubry (European bison) will soon be re-introduced to the area.

It is, of course, a strange encounter with life that one has in Pripyat, for everywhere we see wild, natural life growing up through and around the remains of the human life that once occupied this place. We see the birch sapling growing upward next to the abandoned toys of children who have long since grown up and started new lives. We see the remnants of a long-forgotten basketball game - a shoe here and there - in the gym that overlooks the thick green forest threatening to swallow the city and the memories it holds. And we see the hopes and dreams of a country that no longer exists, colorfully emblazoned on the sides of buildings, obscured by the trees that were planted when those dreams were still vivid in the minds of their creators.

And so, while Chernobyl and Pripyat are no doubt "living" places, they are not fully alive nor are they fully dead. They are somewhere in between, poignant reminders of man's power over nature and ultimately, of nature's power over man.

30 June 2008

Change we can't believe in

Another one from the “my (short) life in Belarus” series…

Anybody who has known me for more than a couple weeks knows that I don’t like change. There’s nothing wrong with a little order, stability, and tradition. And so, whether it’s a question of doing away with the allegedly tacky tinsel on the Christmas tree (S, just you wait, it’s coming back next year!) to the latest hair color of my chameleon-esque friends, I tend to see beauty and comfort in the status quo.

But that’s not the kind of change I’m going to rail against today. No, the kind of change that has been causing me the most problems lately is the kind that the cashier gives back at the store. Two different trends intersect in Bealrus to make even the simplest of purchases traumatic enough to send me whimpering in the corner like a lost, wet puppy.

First is what appears to be the universal post-Soviet desire by cashiers for exact change. It’s a request – no, demand – that I’ve encountered now in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. What is more, failure to produce the requested change (“look for a ten,” she barks) seems to be considered a personal insult by the woman perched in front of the register, as evidenced by the dirty look she gives you as she begrudgingly doles out her precious small bills.. In the event that she cannot produce correct change due to a lack of smaller bills (a condition brought upon by previous customers who were similarly inconsiderate enough to shop at the store in question), you have three choices: 1) forego the change and eat the difference; 2) wait for a later customer to produce change; 3) forget about that bottle of kvas entirely.

In Russia, the demand for change rarely causes problems for me – I usually have some tens in my wallet, along with a pouch full of one and two-ruble coins. Always something to fit the bill (bad puns are becoming a bad habit, aren’t they?).

But it is in Belarus where the situation becomes untenable, thanks to the addition of a second factor: Belarus’ ridiculous currency, the Belarusian ruble. To give you an idea of the silliness, the current exchange rate is 2,147 Belarusian rubles to the dollar. As such, goods are priced in the thousands – 4,000 for some cheese, 16,000 for some sausage, and so on. Now, higher-order math has never been my strong suit, and doing rapid conversions of totals in the tens and even hundreds of thousands on the fly is a bit taxing.

These two factors – pan-Slavic correct change dogma and absurd currency denominations – collide in Belarus to deliberately torture me for the few seconds I’m standing at a cash register. You see, Belarus has bills in all sorts of denominations, from the hundreds of thousands all the way down to the meager ten-ruble note, whose value is approximately $0.005. And so instead of demanding four rubles (as in Russia), I am faced with orders to find 3,740 rubles to make even change.

The “law of large numbers” states that large numbers are harder to understand than small numbers in foreign languages (at least I think that’s what it states). So unless one is really paying close attention and isn’t thrown off by the Belarusian accent, it is easy to misunderstand what is expected. Wrath ensues.

And even if I do understand what number the woman demands of me, I am horrified when I open my thick wallet, bursting forth with monopoly-like “play money” in infinite denominations. The bills are all out of order, having been hurriedly shoved in there the last time I panicked at a cash register. So when she asks for 1,790 rubles, I’m hopeless and helpless – I could never piece that sum together under such pressure. Rather than risking the wrath of the 8 people in line waiting behind me as I dig through my wallet, I take the wrath of cashier woman, telling her that all I have are large bills.

I slink out of the store, traumatized by the experience, and for what? Some sausage and a bottle of water. I pledge to myself that tomorrow morning I will change my routine, sorting the bills in my wallet by denomination so as to be better prepared next time. But like I said at the outset, I’ve never been fond of change…

24 June 2008

Belarus' Bountiful Table

Frequent readers of this blog (all three of them) know that food was a favorite topic for consideration last year in Moscow (previous discussions of Russian cuisine can be found here, here, and here.)

Since most outsiders are not familiar with the diverse culinary delights that make up traditional Belarusian cuisine, I thought that I would offer readers a brief photographic introduction to these delicacies. I was hoping to present a fully spectacular multimedia event, but sadly I could find neither appropriate music, video, nor fireworks to complement the culinary wonders of Belarus.

I should first point out that in fact Belarusian food is heavily influenced by the cuisines of its neighbors – Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania. Not a huge surprise when you consider that Belarus has been Eastern Europe’s “Flying J” truck stop for much of the last 500 years – whenever you’re invading someone, you’re usually stopping in Belarus along the way to grab a bite to eat, fill up the tank, and maybe do some shopping at the cheesy gift shop. And so, it comes as no surprise that much of what you find in Belarus’ national fridge is similar to what cousin Wojciech and uncle Vladimir keep in their respective pantries, having brought them as “gifts” when they were just “passing through.”

And so, we open Belarus’s fridge and discover the following delights:

First off, holodnik, a delicious cold beet soup:

Of course, Belarusians are also fond of borshch, the delicious hot beet soup from Ukraine:

Moving on to the salad course, we have “peasant’s salad in the Belarusian style,” a mayonnaise-based favorite (in fact, all favorite things in this part of the world are mayonnaise-based, including socks*):

Sometimes this salad also comes with smetana (sour cream):

Moving on, we have the ever popular meaty gravy known as matsanka:

As well as tasty zrazy, which are (according to Wikipedia) “chopped pieces of beef twisted into a sausage shape and filled with vegetables, mushrooms, eggs, etc.”:

By now you may have guessed that this is all a painfully long setup for a tasteless potato joke (I’ll leave you to decide whether it’s the potato or the joke that’s tasteless, though). But stereotypes aside (during the Soviet era the kind-hearted Belarusian people were referred to as “bulbashi” – potato eaters – by their big brothers in the communal apartment that was the Soviet Union) they really do love their kartoshki. So much so that Belarus leads the world in per-capita potato consumption, ringing in at a whopping 376 pounds (171 kg) per person per year.

Think about that – eating over a pound of potatoes every day. And that’s just the national average – there are people that eat even MORE than that!

I had been in Minsk for less than 24 hours when I discovered how it is possible to consume so many potatoes in a year. The answer lies in the unassuming little potato pancakes known as draniki. Isn’t that a cute name? Almost makes you want to go up and hug them before scarfing down a dozen. When covered in smetana (sour cream) and maybe some sautéed mushrooms and onions, I assure you that there are few things so delicious in the entire Slavic realm.

I found myself constantly craving draniki, bouncing from meal to meal, café to café looking for a fix. When I told my Belarusian friends about my newfound love, they all declared with unwavering conviction that their babushka makes the best draniki in all of Belarus. Understanding the rules of transitivity, I can draw one of two conclusions: 1) that all of Belarus has descended from the same babushka; or 2) that regardless of who the babushka is, babushkas in general make pretty darn good draniki.

Fortunately, I was invited over for draniki by a real-live babushka while visiting the city of Brest. There I learned the magical recipe – finely grated potatoes, an egg or two, a little bit of flour (not too much), and some salt. Oh, and you have to drain some of the liquid when you grate the potatoes. Then it’s into the frying pan (along with at least a half inch of oil) until they’re crunchy, golden, and delicious!

When we sit down to the table, a bowl of smetana is placed in front of me. I gingerly take a dainty dollop and plop it down onto my little greasy paradise. I am immediately chastised by babushka: “No, not like that, you do it like THIS!” whereby she folds up a single pancake, plunges it into the bowl, and manages to scoop up a good quarter cup of smetana before tossing it all down the hatch. Babushka’s corresponding dedushka sits there and just smiles at me with his wonderfully endearing sparkling gold smile, a bit of renegade smetana dribbling down his chin.

Upon returning to Minsk I decide that I must make draniki for myself. After all, by this point I am on my way to being yanked out of the country, so I’ll need to take draniki skills with me if I am to survive outside of Belarus. I go to Mink’s massive Kamarovka market and wander through the aisles of fresh(ish) produce piled high. It turns out that potatoes warrant their own section of the market, so I set out in search of the superlative spud.

I soon find a woman whose countenance resembled that of the bounty she was selling – russeted, pock-marked, a little dirty, but firm. Oh, and she had nice looking ‘taters too. I ask the woman for half a kilogram of potatoes, not really sure how much either a potato or a kilogram weighs (don’t forget that I, like all Americans, am ignorant of metric equivalents).

“What can you do with half a kilo of potatoes?” she asks me (mind you, this is one day’s serving of potatoes in this country). I momentarily contemplate explaining how I’m here on a research fellowship but that my wife is back at home in the States so I’m single, plus I’m being withdrawn from Belarus for political reasons so I won’t be here long and won’t have time to eat my 171 kilos of potatoes this year so I only need a few….

Instead, I just shrug my shoulders and she weighs the tempting tubers on her scale before rolling them into a sack.

At home I discover why God created food processors on the eighth day: finely grating potatoes by hand (even just half a kilo’s worth) is a laborious endeavor. I’m sure that if your average Belarusian man were forced to grate a few potatoes himself he’d be a lot more appreciative of his wife/mother/babushka/food processor. As I reach the end of the potatoes, I notice that I have managed to grate my knuckles, the feeling of which doesn’t improve with potato water and salt mixed in.

Wounded though I am, I soldier on, ending with a plate piled high with the delicious treats. But not high enough – within a day or two I have burned through all the leftovers which, despite turning a grayish blue in the fridge, still taste like heaven. Potato-faced woman was right: I should have bought more potatoes.

Luckily, my dear friend Comrade Kartoshka (no, not her real name) comes to my rescue and feeds my addiction with an invitation for me to try her homemade draniki. While Comrade K is an amerikanka, she has married into a Belarusian family which is enough by way of potato credentials for me. I am on the metro to her apartment before she even finishes delivering the invitation.

What is most memorable about that day is not the draniki (though they were to die for - crispy, golden, and perfection on a plate). Rather, it is the three guys moving what appears to be furniture down the stairs as I step through the entryway to Comrade K’s building. Once my eyes adjust to the dim light I discover that instead of carrying a desk past me, they are carrying an open coffin with a dead woman in it. I cross myself even though I’m neither Catholic nor Orthodox – just seems like the right thing to do. As I look up the stairs I see K’s face poking out into the hallway wearing what I can only assume is the same look of shock that graces my own. The cortege clumsily passes – after all, she was a hefty Slavic woman (God rest her soul) and I dart into the apartment, looking forward to a bit more lively company (sorry, couldn’t resist a bad pun).

K and I are both a bit shaken by the experience, but K’s middle-aged sister in law matter-of-factly tells us that it’s a sign of very good luck. I don’t catch all of the explanation through her Belarusian accent, but I can only assume that it translates to something like, “better her than you.” Indeed.

All I can say is that I hope for her sake – and for my own someday – that they have draniki in heaven. With plenty of smetana, too…


*this is not actually true, Russian socks are not made out of mayonnaise.