Two people close to me spent considerable time in Eastern Europe in their early 20′s. Both of them embraced the local cuisine with gusto and returned home quite a bit larger for their efforts. I understood from them that getting fat in Eastern Europe was going to be a simple task. Unfortunately I only had about three weeks to do so. To further complicate things, the rest of my family is not as adventurous as I am, and the kids were eager to take advantage of the prevalence of American fast food, which has invaded the former Eastern Bloc. Even with these constraints I made the most of my time in the region and found that not only did I pack on a few extra pounds but I also came away loving the cuisine.
It is hard not to love food that is so rich and so right. They may not have refined the fat delivery process as well as McDonald’s and KFC, but the Eastern Europeans have done a great job of packing as many fat molecules into a meal as humanly possible. My love affair with Eastern European food began on our first night in Bulgaria and continued until our final days in the Czech Republic. It was all rich, hearty and tasty, but my highest praise goes to the food we ate in Ukraine and Poland. It is no surprise that the coldest places we went had the richest foods. I guess one sheds a lot of calories shivering through the frigid, long winters. I didn’t have a winter to spend shivering with the Ukranians and Poles but after a couple weeks, I did have a little more to grab around the midsection as a result of their perogies and kielbasas.
I have always liked perogies. We don’t get many chances to eat them at home and when we do, I think health conscious cooks have tried to use olive oil or other less “bad” fats when serving them to Americans. Already a fan, I was shocked at how much better they tasted in their homelands. In Lviv we bumped into a Ukranian who grew up in New Jersey and he turned us on to a fantastic down home cafeteria where I ate perogies stuffed with chicken, pork, cabbage and my favorite– sour cherries. These were all served straight out of a pool of butter. At least I think it was butter. It could have been lard. I wouldn’t know, since lard is not a taste I’ve developed. I know I have seen it, but I don’t remember tasting it. It is usually in a little corner of the dairy section in your local supermarket. I have always thought It is nice for our supermarket managers to stock lard for our different first generation immigrants. Anyone in America long enough gets re-educated with the virtue of mono-saturates and vegetable oils. This time the education was mine.
At the end of a rich and delicious meal full of pork, cabbage, chicken, and various dark breads, I dipped into desert, my sour cherry perogies. These butter or lard-rich little morsels were covered with big crystals of sugar and a spoonful of sour cream. Each bite contained the richness of the various fats, the sweetness of the sugar, and the tartness of the cherries and became a transcendental experience. Of course each bite was followed by another and another, and too soon the first serving was gone. I quickly excused myself and ordered a second. It too disappeared before I noticed. If Anne would have allowed me a third, I would have ordered it right there. As it was, I had to get the family back to the hotel. We did stop by McDonald’s to get the kids their 20 cent ice cream cones.
As soon as we hit the room, I convinced the big boys to go to a Powersoft shooting range, which was close to the restaurant with the glorious perogies. They jumped at the chance to shoot things, and I had a great cover for getting back into that neighborhood. After wowing them both with my marksmanship, I asked if they wanted to go down the street for dessert. Both said, “No.” Well, too bad for them. Our family is not a democracy. Back to the restaurant they went and after bribing them with the promise of another ice cream on the way home, they sat and were good company while I ate servings number thee and four. My biggest regret was that this was our last day in Ukraine. We were on a 6am train the next morning and it was not going to be possible for me to pick up some little cherry fat balls for the train.
I decided not to try to replicate the cherry perogies in Poland. It just didn’t feel right. I settled on lamb and mint perogies with a dessert of rhubarb perogies. They were good, but my culinary sensors had already turned towards sausages and I could no longer be satisfied with perogies, no matter how good. I knew this was the home of kielbasa. It was the only Polish food I could name prior to arriving in the country, which raises an important point: we need more Polish restrauants in the US. I have only been to one Polish restaurant in my life, a little sausage shop in Cohoes, New York, and that was the day before Anne and I got married. But I digress. I will get back to kielbasa.
Kielbasa is a wonderful sausage I gained a taste for when we visited Anne’s cousin Tammy in Indiana. It was an earlier time in my life when getting fat was not an option. It was summer and I was struggling to put on weight before the football season started. During a visit to the land of Anne’s Swiss forebears, Berne, Indiana, our car broke down. While we waited at Tammy’s house for the replacement part to make its way from San Diego (finding a Japanese part in a small Midwestern town), I had my first kielbasa, though in Berne they call it Swiss sausage. Tammy cooked it simply in a boiling pot with potatoes. It was a hearty and delicious dish and I think I scared her with how much I ate.
Since that time I have always loved the Polish national sausage. However, much like the perogies, I was not ready for how much better and how varied the selection of sausages would be in Poland. The Poles treat sausage the way the Africans treat jerky. It is available everywhere. As we walked through the mall, a nice young lady came up to me with a collection of dried sausages in paper cups. The family was far ahead of me on their way to the food court. I stopped for a second and tasted each one. I tried to have her tell me the differences but her English and my Polish were about the same– non existent. I didn’t let my complete ignorance of the types of sausage get in my way and at every chance, I ordered a kielbasa or other local sausage. Fortunately for my blood pressure, we only had three days in Poland and I was soon in the Czech Republic missing both the sausages and the perogies. I am still missing them and will make finding Atlanta’s Polish and Ukranian restaurants (if they exist) one of my first tasks when I get home.