Food for Thought-Turning Left on Dunavska Street (The Seventh Letter)

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30 April 1957
Belgrade, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
Between The Arrival of the Post and the Setting of the Sun in the West

Dear Beloved Friend and Colleague,

Your faith in my Latin is truly humbling. Thank you, dear friend. What time has passed since this morning! The creeping clouds crawled slowly across the horizon as I made the turn onto Dunavska*. The fortress* was shrouded in a curtain of mist, visible only as I rounded Vojovica Boulevard*. My day is never the same without the ability to behold the magnitude of this imposing sight. As you know, it is not the brick themselves but what the bricks behold that enthrall my attention. Without the ability to see what they see, I am blind.

From sight, I return to sound. The forests south of the Sava* are truly mysterious places. As in life, they challenge our ability to accurately see and hear the world around us. My fear, as we soon discovered, is the Picus Viridius* needs not tree nor sky in order to survive. How can this be? Above the ground which we trod, beneath the sky we observed, underneath the trees we examined, or among the people we sought aid each person asked us to describe the sound we had heard. None recognized the calls we mimicked; yet they still surrounded us in trees which were of no use. Was this not what it seemed?

As the sun sets, my day ends and these questions are tabled for now.

Yours truly,

V

Dunavska* A street in the eastern area of Old Belgrade
Vojovica Boulevard* A street along the northern edge of the Kalemegdan Fortress
Fortress* The Kalamegdan Fortress
Picus Viridus* The Common European Woodpecker
Sava* The main river running east and west through Serbia

Food for Thought-Jane Austen’s Tea

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My day began several months earlier when someone picked and prepared the tea leaves I drank this morning. After years of living in Great Britain and Ireland, I have grown fond of tea from Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Africa, and across the Indian subcontinent. I prefer my tea, like Jane Austen, at breakfast or mid-day. Though, if the mood strikes and the pastries are properly prepared; I can be convinced sit again at 4:00 pm.

Jane Austen is the ideal companion with whom to share a cup of tea. As a writer she is thoroughly obsessed by tea. I find this enthralling. Few writers share my fascination. Coffee addicts and bourbon hounds are a dime a dozen. But Jane Austen, Ms. Northanger Abbey herself, is into tea. That is the foundation on which one can build a lasting relationship.

The drawing room consumption of tea was one of the events which held middle and upper class society together in Regency England. Drinking tea and talking in one room (at home) was still a fairly new event. Jane helped make this both popular and cool. Tea was important (as it still is) to ordinary British people both rich and poor. You can see this in her work. In her six published novels, Jane’s characters drink tea on almost 60 occasions. The contents of the tea cup define the meaning and set the rhythm of Emma’s, Mr. Darcy’s, and the other character’s days.

Were I to begin to read, how would I, prepare my Jane Austen tea?

A boiling kettle,
Full of water,
I would need,
Then leaves of tea,
Brought to me,
Across the sea,
From the Chinese,
To be strained,
And steeped,
And then to see,
If I could sip,
And be pleased.

–Richard Bryant

Food for Thought-Memories of Marmalade on Toast

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Sometime,
on the way to May,
I was waylaid,
by a jar,
of Oxford marmalade,
with tiny flecks,
of rind and peel,
they made my toast,
long to feel,
the overwhelming realization,
of crust and crumble,
as the blade draws wide,
spreads and glides,
unevenly applied,
with loving care,
taste in segments,
not filled with air.

–Richard Bryant

Food for Thought-Even Further Adventures In Soviet Cuisine-Admiral Ketchup

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I am a condiment guy. I am a connoisseur of condiments. Whether ketchup, mustard, hot sauces, or salad dressings; there are certain things with which I like to season my food. When travelling abroad, it’s always a pleasure to see what other cultures and peoples identify as condiments. What do they reach for when they sit down at a table by a street vendor in Bishkek or Kiev? These are some of the questions that went through my mind as I wandered the back streets of the cities and towns of the former Soviet Union. Some Soviet food is reprehensibly bland. That’s an undeniable fact of life. To someone raised on hot sauce and peppers, the need to find spicier ethnic food (usually from the Caucasus or Central Asian Republics) or effective condiments is absolutely crucial to eating well.

In the “магазин” (small shops-pronounced “magazines”) that line the roads, train stations, and small towns between Moscow and Saint Petersburg one can find all the essentials of life. Toilet paper and vodka come readily to mind. Meat and cheese are also available along with a supply of local vegetables. These shops are not unlike, in some respects, American convenience stores. It was to one of these shops I went in search of the most basic condiment of all, ketchup.

What ketchup does one buy when one is thousands of miles from home and knows none of the brands on offer? Have you ever asked help or a recommendation from an angry Russian to aid your purchase of ketchup? You might have asked a waiter or waitress for a wine recommendation or some beer aficionado about the latest advances in craft beers or pale ales; all in the comfort of a fine restaurant or a whole food type market. But asking a Russian, about ketchup, when there’s more than a foot of snow on the ground, and he’s unhappy about a) working and b) talking to an American with an atrocious accent? I admit it; I never saw this scenario unfolding when I began conjugating Russian verbs in a classroom on the other side of the world. And yet, my love of ketchup and my love of Russia were about to be combined. I asked and I received. I am a better man for it today.

Russian ketchup bottles are works of art. They remind me of handheld lighthouses one might see along the Neva River, guiding mariners toward the Gulf of Finland. Once you realize what you’re seeing, the massed array of red, glass, and turquoise labels create an impressive sight on the most dilapidated shelf. The most prominent and well-displayed ketchup on offer was St. Petersburg’s own “Admiral”. If you have the extra rubles, go for the “Admiral”. You won’t regret it. Is it ketchup, is it tomato puree, is it tomato sauce, or is there a hint of curry, who knows? Each of those questions will go through your mind. Admiral Ketchup expands the possibilities of the tomato to create taste epiphanies once thought unimaginable.

Food for Thought-Does Wood Grow on Serbian Trees? (The Sixth Letter)

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29 April 1957
Belgrade, The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
Between Receiving the Post and the First Shades of Dusk In the West

Dilectissime amicus*,

Grato animo accepi salutaiones tuas et vota tua!* I look forward to them each day. Do you think the English Earl* knows how much I enjoy his creation? While I know you are partial to the coffee prepared by the blind Turk would you grant me a moment with my English tea? The cup, called a saucer, opens to the world like an ever-blooming Easter flower. It is within this Lilly, that skilled artisans place a finely mixed ratio of water; water that has been allowed to bathe in the leaves of exotic Ceylon. Only then may it be sipped and enjoyed at the right time of day. Allow me to ask, can there be a wrong time of day?

As we sought the bird, in this place, on the day, I remember one question coming to mind. Does wood grow on trees? When the sun light fades on the south side of the Sava*, would the Picus Viridius* possess the ability to make sound at all? In the woodless forests of Umka*, would there be a sound, if there was no wood upon the trees for the bird to call home? These, I admit, are deeply distressing thoughts.
The rustling of your trouser legs may have indeed masked the much greater reality: woodless trees. The rules of physics and acoustics, written for a world where trees possess wood, offer little succor for our attempts to isolate the occasional chirp of an unseen bird.

It seems our questions only grow deeper. Faciendo veritatem quam iam scimus, in veritatem quam adhuc ignoramus progrediamur. Tunc procul dubio unum erimus: veritas enim una.*

Your friend,

M

Dilectissime amicus* Latin Dear Friend
Grato animo accepi salutaiones tuas et vota tua* Latin Thank you for your salutations and good wishes
English Earl*  Earl Grey
River Sava*  the River that runs south and west from Belgrade
Picus Viridus* Common European Woodpecker
Umka* A city southwest of Belgrade along the Sava River
Faciendo veritatem quam iam scimus, in veritatem quam adhuc ignoramus progrediamur. Tunc procul dubio unum erimus: veritas enim una.*

Latin  By doing the truth which we already know, let us make progress towards the truth which as yet we are ignorant of. Then without doubt, we shall be one, for truth is one.

Food for Thought-Further Adventures in Soviet Cuisine-Salad/салат!

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I love a good salad. I might even self declare as a salad aficionado. One of my images of heaven involves a Golden Corral and being told to, “have at it”. The Soviets liked their salads as well. While not quite the same as my conception of a salad, the Russian “салат” can encompass a wide of variety of vegetables and means of presentation. I learned to love Russian salads. Salads can be appetizers, heavy appetizers, or they can be so hearty you’ll simply need nothing else to eat for several hours (even though more food may be readily available). The Russian salad is one of the miracles of Soviet cuisine. I’ll say it again, I came to love Russian salads. Perhaps this is because I saw it everywhere. People have the dish at every major social event large and small.  I’ve never been to a Russian, Armenian, or Georgian birthday, wedding, house warming, or any kind of important life event where this dish wasn’t served. It is ubiquitous across the former Soviet Union.

To begin with, a coherent Russian salad isn’t lettuce based, it’s potato based. Yet, this is not a potato salad in the way southerners or Americans (in general) conceive of the term. I feel uncomfortable calling it a potato salad. Descriptively speaking, that’s correct. But to a Russian, it’s just, “salat”. Potatoes form the base of the salad (much like lettuce would) to receive, hold, and bind other vegetables in the dish. What the Russians do differently (and their Soviet ancestors-possibly due to rationing) is hold back on the amount of mayonnaise and other sauces which go into this overwhelmingly “vegetable” salad. The flavor and taste of the vegetables are not lost (or drowned) in a sea of mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, or vinegar. There are just enough of the seasonings to emphasize the quality and earthiness of the vegetables. The content of the salad; the potatoes, peas, carrots, the things that people grew with their hands in their local gardens and villages are the items people want to taste and appreciate within the dish.

How might one create such a magnificent Soviet salad? You could give this a try.

3 large sized boiled potatoes (peeled, diced, cooked)
2 medium carrots (diced, cooked, peeled)
2 medium dill pickles (sliced)
1 average size cucumber (sliced and diced)
3 hard boiled eggs (chopped)
1 can of peas (drained)
¼ cup scallions
¼ cup dill
12 oz of cooked chopped chicken (up to you whether you want to do a vegetarian version)
Salt and pepper to taste

Seasonings:
1 cup of mayo
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
2 teaspoon of Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar

Directions:
1. Put on some Russian music. I recommend Vladimir Vysotsky. He’s like the Russian Don Mclean. You can find him all over You Tube.  This will get you in the mood for Russian food.
2. In a large mixing bowl, through mix the ingredients. In a smaller mixing bowl, mix the seasonings/dressing.
3. Toss everything thoroughly. Serve in a nice clear bowl so your guests can see all the ingredients working together.

Food for Thought-Excuse Me, Do You Have Any Montenegrin Jam? (The Fifth Letter)

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28 April 1957
Belgrade, The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
Between the time of receiving the post and eating my evening meal

Dearest Neighbor and Friend,

The intoxicating glories of April left me inebriated as I wandered through the grounds of the Kalamegdan*. In the early hours, before dawn, light is in short supply. Black diffuses to grey, which fades to blue and daylight appears, as if from nowhere. Out of the decaying blackness, I found myself turning the very same corner I have walked hundreds of time towards the Rose Church*. A cloudless blue sky hanging listlessly above the ivy draped walls of the tiny chapel. Has the ivy ever been so green?

I hope my drunken amazement did not alter the course of breakfast. The jam provided by the Montenegrin woman and her strawberries could bring life to even the most Lazarus like of bread. Were I to buy week old, fungus covered bread in Tirana, had I her jam, I would eat the most foul Albanian bread. Do you share this view?

I have thought of much over the past night. The sounds of that day will not leave my mind. I was wearing brown corduroy pants. They made a sound when I walked. For many hours, I was convinced I was being followed by some invisible animal whose only tell-tale trace was like that of fabric rubbing together. It was only when I realized nothing on my apparel could accurately recreate the call of the Picus Viridius* that we must be within its world; for this place, with its road, sky, air, buildings, food, restaurant, horses, and people was not like our own. Did I not perceiving an invisible wall between ourselves and the world?

Until tomorrow, think on these things.

Your friend,

V

*Kalamegdan an ancient fortress in Belgrade, now a public park, overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers
*The Rose Church, a historic church on the grounds of the Kalamegdan
*Montenegro was known for outstanding strawberries
*Albanians bake bread, often for breakfast
*Picus Viridius the common European Woodpecker