Letter From Lithuania: On Food and Liberty

A former editor at the University of Nebraska Press, Nina Shevchuk-Murray, recently wrote to me from her new home in Lithuania, where her husband has been posted on a Fulbright. Nina, originally from Ukraine, has kindly allowed me to post here this most interesting of emails, “On Food and Liberty.” (By the way, I like Nina. A lot. A few months back, she asked me to review a cookbook manuscript and graciously offered to pay me in BOOKS!!)

To keep me company on the long flight to Vilnius, I brought the Gourmet reading supplement, a sleek, pastel-covered collection of food-related musings from, presumably, some of the best stylists of contemporary English. It did its job quite admirably, transporting me off the bent-wood bench in Gatwick, where I was catching some much-needed relatively horizontal naps between flights, to Paris, China, Nigeria, all of these cities’ houses and apartments necessarily perceived and rendered through smells and tastes. So subtly seductive were these pictures, that several days later, when I looked up from my smoothly-chewy wild-mushroom soup in its rye bread bowl, it suddenly hit me: this is what American writers do. They go abroad to write and eat. I was abroad, I was eating, I even mean to write one of these days, and I came to Kaunas from America – I thought myself qualified.

Strangely, even though Kaunas is not exactly a cheap city (in comparison to the paradigmatically American Lincoln, NE, and the sleeplessly entrepreneurial Lviv, Ukraine, my birthplace), one could eat every meal out and not strain their budget. In addition to restaurants, cafes, bars, tea-clubs, coffee parlors, street carts and newsstands all sell things to eat. Food is everywhere, but it is not taken lightly. You will not see a Kaunite eating on the run. In fact, I haven’t seen a Kaunite run yet. The smallest mid-morning or mid-conversation, or mid-rain, or mid-walk snack calls for a quick duck into the cozy dusk of a meticulously renovated eatery, where keksai with warm vanilla cream on the side and a fresh berry cobbler, as well as your companion, can all be given their due. Supermarkets, which finally seem to have won their space from the ubiquitous old ladies with jars of mushrooms and pig heads on the sidewalks, gleefully offer packaged and ready-to-cook crop of national staples: smoked bacon, black bread croutons soaked in garlic oil, cabbage dumplings, and sausages, sausages, sausages.

Food is liberation. For years, food was the terrain plowed with the invisible border of “us” and “them”, just like the tilled strip of dirt between the electrified fences where those sneaking across Soviet borders were doomed to leave their footprints. The first banana in my life came from “there” – brought by a fortunate uncle who had been sent to work in Hungary. Chewing gum, the multicolored balls in a narrow tube kind, came in 1991 via a charity package from Canadian diaspora helping out the newly-fledged Ukrainian republic. The same package held a jar of something I would now call margarine, but it took a couple of dictionaries and the help of the high-school English teacher to figure out exactly what it was – none of us had ever seen margarine in a two-pound jar!

A reliable supply of processed, pre-packaged staples brought freedom that was much more powerful than any political reform lauded by the western libertarians. No more institutional trips to the potato fields, where the whole cadre of architects and construction engineers would dig up and sack potatoes for their families, 45-pound sacks to be unloaded into a musty basement long after dark. No more weekly trips to said musty basement to fill a plastic bag with increasingly mushy potatoes, sprouting lavender-colored tentacles in the dark. No more chickens whose feathers have to be burned off at the stove and stomachs scraped out of their sandy-green contents before being boiled for the broth. In Nebraska, the skinless, boneless chicken breast on the shelf of the local SuperSaver might well be a token of our enslavement by industrial agriculture. In Lithuania, still, the same chicken is a glorious banner of freedom.

– Nina Shevchuk-Murray, Kaunas, Lithuania

One thought on “Letter From Lithuania: On Food and Liberty

  1. As a Polish girl raised in communist times I still remember my fisrt banana – brought by my father from UK. Unforgettable taste:)
    And, yes, I agree, that food is liberation. It’s always nation’s strong treasure and asylum in hardship. Somehow, now when our shelves are full things taste often bland…

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