Day 5: Ukraine
Ring ring ring.
WOMAN WITH THICK UKRAINIAN ACCENT: Hello?
ME: Hello. Hi. Good morning. Are you open today?
ME: Are you open?
Me: Oh. You’re not open?
Me: Open? Are you open?
WWTUA: Oh. O-pen. Yyes. We arr o-pen evvurry daey frohm naine ayy-yem to eiyght pee-yem.
Me: Great. Thank you.
WWTYA: Oh kyeh.
GirlfriendBites and I are looking for parking just as Mr. Meatball(real name), who has already arrived, calls simply to say “This is going to be very interesting.” Is it bad that I look at that as a good sign? We meet Mr. Meatball and Air Bear (a nickname much older than this blog) outside and step into the very small Ukraina Delicatessen in Santa Monica. The first thing we notice is that it looks more like a gift shop than a deli. Among the many Russian and Ukrainian things for sale, there is also a VHS copy of Four Weddings and a Funeral. Again, I am considering this a good sign. Then I get to the counter and get even more excited. Seafood, meats, prepared salads, pickles, hearty breads. This looks like Ukrainian food!
The woman behind the counter (no doubt the same one from the phone call this morning) is as kind and helpful as a surly, stand-offish Eastern European woman could ever be expected to be. She hands us samples, offers recommendations and packs up our lunch. Mr. Meatball will have none of the smoked or salted fish today and GirlfriendBites is already planning out what she wants to have for lunch when all this is over. Their loss, right? There’s a small table and chairs in the corner of the deli, but the WWTUA lets us know that we can’t eat here. “Hellth deepartment.” Fair enough. We decide to pack up and go to a nearby park.
Our Ukrainian picnic starts out looking great. Unfortunately, the next part of the Ukrainian picnic involves actually eating the food. The thick hearty bread has not one, but two bitter aftertastes (Air Bear says it “tastes like wilderness”). The stuffed cabbage is dry, vinegary and essentially inedible. At this point my mouth is upset, but my head keeps telling me that this stuff is important. It’s cultural. It’s accurate. It’s representative of a people. I’m pretty sure everybody else at the table is not thinking of this in the same positive light. The smoked “red fish”, which was also described as “salmon trout” is oustandingly oily. My fingers are absolutely coated in the stuff and nothing you can find in a park will get it off. The skin is tough and the bones are a bit of a hassle, but once you get to the meat— it’s a perfectly acceptible smoked salmon. If it was thinly sliced and put on a bagel with cream cheese, I’d be a happy man. I wash it down with some tasty but barely pickled cucumbers. The potato salad, which was called “verry traditional” is actually a lot like any other potato salad you would ever have on the planet. Not spectacular, not bad. Just…potato salad. Then we have the meat patties. Mr. Meatball’s whole family is from Romania, so a lot of this food is not too out of the blue for him or me, since I’ve had many a similar dish in his parents’ home over the years. In fact, the meat patties taste exactly like something his mom would make, except if it had been left uncovered in the fridge for about three days. Air Bear adds “We only have one fly bothering us. That’s how bad it is.” GirlfriendBites, who is biting nothing whatsoever, is probably the happiest person at the table at this point. We eat the vinegary eggplant and carrot salad and my tongue decides to disregard it entirely. The last three foods are probably the winners of the day. The smoked pork cold cut is nice and fatty with good texture and flavor— the dried salted anchovies come through on all fronts— and the chicken liver paté is a total delight. Would I eat any one of them as a whole course? Not unless I had to. A few bites of each is plenty and at this point I can’t tell if I’m hungry or full. I think my stomach is just confused. Air Bear adds “If you weren’t looking at this, you’d still be hungry.” Maybe she’s right. I can’t even tell. She tries to give the bread to the ducks in the pond but even they won’t touch the stuff. Clearly a sign it’s time to go. On the ride home I accidentally catch a whiff of my hand and it smells like I fingered my grandmother— and she’s been dead for eight years.
Was the meal sickening? No. Nothing bad happened, my stomach didn’t churn and I didn’t get dizzy. It’s the simple food of a country that has been through a lot. A country whose people often have to sit through bitter winters and need food that’s going to last. In fact, when I picture myself in a completely fictitious Ukrainian winter cabin, one which I’ve totally fabricated in my own imagination with no research whatsoever, and I sit down by the fire with hearty bread, freshly fried meat patties, smoked fish and a bottle of vodka…yeah. It sounds nice. It sounds like a winter I’d enjoy. I only hope that it exists.
1207 Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica, CA
Food Breakdown: Small amounts of many things. 1 loaf of bread. 1 small apple juice.
Distance From My House: 7.5 miles