Held on the Tongue

Photo: Elena Heatherwick, Outdoor kitchen, from Summer Kitchens by Olia Hercules

When the war began, I realized that I knew almost nothing about Ukraine. I could barely find it on a map. Food, I thought, would be a good way to get to know the country. I chose Summer Kitchens, by Olia Hercules, for the personal reminiscences collected at the back of the book, under “Summer Kitchen Memories.” Hercules put out an appeal “for first-hand experiences of summer kitchens,” and the letters poured in. When I saw that section of remembrances, I knew this was the book for me. I wanted to know Ukraine as these letter writers did, as it was, in more hopeful–or more prosaic–times. 


The recipes in Summer Kitchens exhibit a kaleidoscopic variety of culinary influences, a reminder that Ukraine sits at the confluence of Europe and Asia. There were dishes familiar to me from spending time in ex-Habsburg lands. Other dishes bore Ottoman influences. The wide variety of fermented foods, Hercules notes, owes something to Scandinavian influences. And, surprisingly, there were dishes that reminded me of the cuisines of Western China, though upon reflection, there should be no surprise – Ukraine, especially the part of Ukraine bordering on the Black Sea, was part of the Silk Road. Several Ukrainian sites appear in the fourteenth-century Italian merchant Francesco Balducci Pegolotti’s famous merchant manual. To reach the start of the famous route from Tana to China –described in Pegolotti, as well as other medieval manuals – merchants had to cross modern-day Ukraine. The city of Tana, or Tanais, located on the eastern reaches of the Sea of Azov, was settled by the ancient Greeks, and it remained an important trading station well into the eighteenth century. From the historical evidence, we can reasonably conclude that there was never a time when Ukraine was not cosmopolitan.

Ukraine is also, as Hercules notes, a very large country–the largest country in Europe–encompassing the Carpathian Alps to the West and those famous endless steppes to the East. (The same steppes feature prominently in recent news reports, as Russian troops began to shift east, setting the stage, many commentators feared, for a violent and bloody battle.[1]) This geographic – and ecological – diversity, along with the country’s cultural and religious diversity, helped generate an immense diversity of cuisines. Everywhere, cooks draw from the generosity of the land: the riches of the forest, or the rivers, or the famous Ukrainian soil, the ‘Black Gold’ that the Nazis attempted to dig up and transport back to Germany. 


It was only some weeks later, after looking at many pages of photographs of people–mostly women and children–fleeing Ukraine, and after listening to innumerable interviews with people whose voices were full of shock and sorrow, I remembered Claudia Roden’s description of the nexus of food, memory, and exile that lay at the heart of her work. Earlier this winter, before the war, I listened to an interview with Roden, where she retold the story of how she came to be a collector of recipes, a vocation that seemed, at least to me, to parallel that of a collector of dreams. Roden has told this story many times before.[2] In each telling, she introduces minor variations.

In this particular version, she recounts, “What happened is that all of a sudden, in 1956, my parents suddenly arrived, also with thousands of Jews from Egypt and a lot of them were relatives and friends, and a lot of them suddenly arrived in London. And for about 10 years, I sort of lived in this bubble of emigres, asylum seekers, what nowadays one would call them, of people who passed through London, deciding where they could go and settle, seeing where they would be allowed to go and settle, for it was not at all easy for everyone and some of them traumatized. But, even if not traumatized, in shock. One of the things that I noticed when we got together — in the early days, I was living with my parents until I got married and they were always having every Friday night some friends, some relatives coming to dinner for Shabbat — I realized how much everybody was asking [for] recipes from each other.” 

Those recipe exchanges were laced with a bittersweet understanding of the moment’s instability. Everyone knew that the world they knew had gone from them. They were all walking into an uncertain future, carrying with them their memories of the Egypt that was.  Roden tells us, “They were desperate to remember, but also were saying, please, give me your recipe, please give me your recipe, it will be something I’ll remember you for, because I might never see you again. And for most of those people, we never, ever saw them again.” 


As Russian forces advanced on Mariupol, Olga Koutseridi found herself following the same impulses–of collection and preservation–as Roden. “Mariupol was the closest thing I had to a home in Ukraine,” Koutseridi told Julia Moskin in an interview with the New York Times. “For the world to see it like this for the first time is unthinkable.” In the same article, Moskin described how Koutseridi, consumed with anxiety over the war, “turned her focus to Mariupol, collecting all kinds of recipes from scattered family members on Telegram, Skype and WhatsApp.”

“I had this urge to record,” she told Moskin. “It suddenly seemed like it was all going to disappear so fast.”


For those fleeing Ukraine today, will a temporary evacuation harden into permanent exile?


My parents left Taiwan under different circumstances in the late 1970s, but with the same question: When will we return? Will we return?

In her first American kitchen, a midcentury marvel of Formica and stainless steel, my mother attempted to recreate the flavors of her childhood. I remember, in particular, a three-day struggle to produce Peking duck, with all the fixings. Where did she get the duck in that small Indiana college town? I have no idea. She kept it up, in a series of rented kitchens – a big, drafty nineteenth-century kitchen in New Jersey, a shiny new condo kitchen in California. I didn’t need Proust to tell me about the power of taste. My mother had already taught me.


Listening to Andrew O’Hagan talk about the flash cube–how the bulb shatters and burns out, consuming itself in the moment, exchanging one being (the flash bulb) for another (the photograph). The flash cube, O’Hagan argued, was a metaphor for time. All of our moments went like that, consumed in itself. None of us can go back and dwell in the past. Objects serve as reservoirs for the past–that Proustian madeleine, again. We stumble across a crate of old mix tapes, and a long-forgotten memory springs to life, again. 

But memory works differently, I think, for those whose memories have been rendered fully abstract–dematerialized–by exile, or war. There is only the residue–of emotion, and thought. The possibility of anchoring those memories to real and tangible things (a house, a tree, a garden, a room) has gone. 


This is what it means for a city to be wiped off the face of the Earth, as the Russians have done to Mariupol. The deracinization of residents’ memories: all those pasts, now free floating, ghost worlds without homes. 


  1.  In an interview with Bloomberg in early April, The polish Prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki predicted that the Ukraine’s eastern steppes would host “the largest tank battle in this part of the world since World War II.” Source: https://www.newsweek.com/ukraine-russia-set-fight-largest-tank-battle-since-world-war-2-poland-1697196
  2. For variations on this story, see: an interview with Food52, an interview with Penguin, a long oral history conducted for the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery in 2016.

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