Being a vegetarian in Ukraine is something that starts as a challenge and slowly degenerates into tedium, both in cooking and in representing a lifestyle largely missing from this country. In training, the constant stomach-clenching fear of offending your host family keeps your vegetarian identity edgy and interesting. You’re asked, told, begged, ordered, cajoled into tasting, eating, sampling, nibbling this meat and that. Each situation presents a new obstacle course of cultural values, family traditions, and hospitality to be negotiated with perspicacious mental agility, a situation which largely distracts you from the fact that your diet is, most likely, already dull (if you’ve seen/read it, think restaurant scene from Everything Is Illuminated involving the potato). As a lacto-ovo vegetarian (one that eats eggs and dairy products) my host family finally surrendered to force-feeding me more eggs than I thought a normal person could possibly eat. Varieties in my diet, thus, largely came from different forms in which eggs could be cooked. They now have a certain recipe dubbed “Linnea’s eggs” because they were the kind I was most happy to see come dinner (or lunch or breakfast) time.
After an understandable adjustment period in which a volunteer figures out where everything can be found or purchased for the lowest price at their respective sites, cooking experimentation begins. For me, this wasn’t until spring rolled around, a significant four months into my time at site. Figuring out the stores and bazaar wasn’t the only factor; as TEFL volunteers, we arrive at site for the beginning of a long, hard winter…alone. Missing Christmas away from home for the first time in my life, I largely escaped to the world of fiction and drank hot chocolate for sustenance. Tempest past, I finally emerged and stumbled, amazed into increasingly fresh and tempting produce at the bazaar. The variety of squash, rainbow of fruit, and bouquets of fresh herbs called out creative recipe ideas of their own accord as I tiptoed along boards covering the floor of puddles. Long into September, I was still canning and preserving apple butter and pear jam while trying to resist the raspberry jam made earlier in the summer. Playing around with tastes and textures, I whipped up stuffed eggplant, deep-dish spiced apple pie for an American Thanksgiving abroad. Then fall started frosting over, warning of the winter to come. My schedule wore me down, the setting sun at 4:30 in the afternoon pissed me off, and another approaching Christmas far from the comforts of home was already invidiously wreaking its havoc on my mood. I stopped cooking. I quit baking. I bought hot chocolate.
This curve was paralleled by my experience singularly representing vegetarianism in my community. Food and communal eating plays an important role in Ukrainian culture that is readily apparent. No different from my experience living with a Ukrainian host family, explanations were expected when I balked at the passed cold-cut tray. The first day in my new town had prepared me for the continuation of this dialogue. My attempt at a gracious decline of a fish dinner had been met with the terse response, “so you’re refusing my gift outright.” It was not a question and my verbal footwork had clearly been found lacking.
I gradually tired of sitting with my hands in my lap at parties centered around an array of largely meat-based dishes, smiling like an idiot, answering questions about my lifestyle that were posed with condescension. The fatigue I experience after a night of explaining my particular type of vegetarianism, (as well as providing a brief overview of the spectrum of vegetarian lifestyles) repeating myself for those who hadn’t bothered to listen initially, being misrepresented by those with more proficient Ukrainian, correcting the misrepresentations for the once again deaf ears was one of body, mind, confidence, and enthusiasm. Whereas before I was proud to share a piece of my culture and lifestyle, I found myself frequently begging lack of appetite rather than peak interest in which dishes I was choosing to partake. It strained my appreciation of the culture I had been given the chance to experience. Health conscious but thoroughly castigated, polite apologies were my solution to the dinner party problem. The latent problem was the ambivalence created in respect to my vegetarian diet. Attention to my diet was shirked, as my only focus became a steadfast loyalty to the lifestyle.
Recipes turned to routine and I ate almost the same three meals each day simply because eating is necessary. Something akin to joy left when I stopped cooking to cook, to experiment, to share and to create. Diffidence turned me into a person who happened to not eat meat rather than a vegetarian. I lost sight of the fact that being vegetarian is a sign of my culture, finding nothing extraordinary about it a luxury of my culture. As culture, it should be respected even if it cannot be understood. My patience with Ukrainian culture was worn thin as a result of the constant disparagement of my own. Then a couple weeks ago an unexpected thing happened. Cherries reappeared in the bazaar, and I was ready to cook again.
In the midst of my period of dietary monotony, I volunteered to take the role of head of Healthy Lifestyle Working Group’s newly created Recipe Committee. Part of me clearly wanted to be twirling around the kitchen again. Though in its nascence, the committee had some immediate goals; to acquaint volunteers throughout the country with the ins and outs of Ukrainian gastronomy (as in what is possible, not necessarily cultural) by season and, as the name suggests, dispersing recipes via blogs and monthly newsletters. So here is a declaration to all of my readers, no longer shall I neglect my cooking blog. I cannot promise consistency as Peace Corps summers are filled with travels and summer camps, but for every week I am at site I will share a minimum of two recipes I have tasted, tweaked, or thought up. Perhaps you’ll find something you want to try, perhaps a vegetarian (or carnivorous!) PCV in another Eastern European country will be encouraged or inspired to let their culinary creativity flow or simply to cook after a long, hard day at work. No matter their influence, the recipes will be here…and I’ll be cooking up something new.
*Music: “Rewind” -Diane Birch