Thursday, October 06, 2005

How to Make Chicken Kharkiv

When you learn you’re going to Ukraine for a year, become less of a fundamentalist. Don’t insist on being a vegetarian. You already eat fish, but that isn’t enough. Go to the In ‘n’ Out Burger and order the #2, then sample the lamb when you find yourself at that Indian buffet your family really likes. Practice. Get used to it. Know that you’ll need to bend a little so you don’t break. You won’t be in California anymore. This will be Ukraine. And so you’ll eat the beef and the lamb and even the occasional piece of chicken, despite all the hidden camera footage you’ve seen on the PETA website. You will do this because you think it will keep you away from the national dish, salo. You don’t do pork. Never have. As for cured pork fat, you can’t believe an entire country could rally around this. So yes, eat everything, the beef, the lamb, even the chicken, hoping this will allow you to show your host the flat of your hand and say, “Actually, I don’t eat pork fat. I have an allergy. My doctor told me – or rather my priest said, I mean my rabbi – well, the long and short of it is the chicken’s so good I think I might just have some more.” Prepare for the day. You know it’s coming. Be polite but firm. Show you have limits. Tell yourself this. You have limits.

Eat pizza your first afternoon in town. Have it at the restaurant near the university, knowing you can’t eat here everyday. You didn’t travel halfway around the world to eat pizza everyday. If you did that you would be a failure, even in the eyes of your Italian friends. So yes, eat the pizza, but consider it a decompression chamber. It will take you from Marin County to Kharkiv. Remember to eat the crust.

At the market across the street from your flat, you will find six aisles. One is given over to hard alcohol, another is dominated by mayonnaise. Inspect the milk. Some is in a box, some a bag. Of course there’s no soy. Don’t even look, certainly don’t ask. Instead, decide which brand of milk to put in your basket. Choose like an American. Find the one with the best packaging. A grandmother, a cow grazing on a green pasture, a mountain in the background. Feel like more of a local. You already have a consumer preference.

Quickly learn to redefine “average daily requirements.” Eat muesli and milk for breakfast, maybe some yogurt if you remembered to check the “made on” date, then go out into the world and see what else you can drum up for lunch and dinner. Stop at a kiosk window. Get your money ready. Practice how to say, “I would like ...” Move forward in line. Do not act frightened when the lady’s face appears in the little window. You are not buying a Playboy. This is not your first time getting condoms. You are hungry, that is all. So speak calmly, as if it’s no big deal. Piroski s kapusta. Sloika s gribami. Say it again if she says anything. That probably means she didn’t understand. Be conscious of where you hold your tongue, how you move your lips. Speak as if the words are little boys on the diving board for the first time, unwilling to jump off. Push them if you must. And then marvel at how little it costs: fifteen cents, forty cents. Walk away with your bounty and try to make this your lunch. The sloika are like pastries, and the piroski donuts. Only both have something healthy inside. Potato, mushroom, cabbage. Eat these until you discover varenniki, which give you the same choices inside the shell of something you consider a ravioli. Do not cover these ravioli with that pasta sauce you bought at the best supermarket in town. It does not taste like pasta sauce. It tastes like ketchup, spicy ketchup, and not even good spicy ketchup. Wonder again if it’s gone bad, or if that’s just what goes for popular here. Tell yourself: No more pasta. This is not Italy. And forget the pizza. You're not here for that.

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