Hungry for More
As I sit down to write yet another account of the unique life I’ve had here in Romania Peace Corps, it occurred to me that one of the greatest joys I’ve found has been to visit, nurture, admire, imbibe, or otherwise ingest glorious things from the gardens of my neighbors and my own. After just having finished a small, but precious bunch of early black grapes (struguri), I decided to take a seat on the wicker bench outside the home of some of my most favorite Romanian friends here in a village on the outskirts of Oradea. It is now late afternoon and the sun is low, the sky blue as can be and the aroma is of fresh alfalfa with a hint of summer rain from last evening’s storm. Sweet as they were, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry that one day this juicy bite of an every day treat would be out of reach. Going out in the breeze-swept countryside, spending valuable time among places which were at one time, in another far-away land, nearest and dearest to my own ancestors, is well, a feast for the senses.
Having for a long time (as long as I can remember) a love for fresh and diverse cuisine, this feast of sorts has become a vehicle for expression. Children and adults have shared their tastes and skills with me in the kitchen for the past year, and now, during the summer, I’ve travelled from East to West, and North to South Romania. Along the way, the kitchens (bucatarie) of my fellow foodies have become fantastic environments for learning on both sides of the cultural divide. An ocean and several countries may separate us by birth, but in truth, the bonds that we share transcend all of that as soon as the stove is lit and the refrigerator and garden are raided.
Whether shopping at the local piata (square) in Romanian lingo and currency, or moving around a room like bees to create a culinary masterpiece, the people whom I’ve cooked for, cooked with, and dined among have brought a new recipe for success to my own individual Peace Corps story. Not only has the International Cooking with English class
(http://poftamare.wordpress.com/events) and (http://www.peacecorps.gov/wws/multimedia/slideshows/rmn_montanaro.cfm)
been a tremendous hit with students in my Moldavian community for the last 11 months and counting, but their parents have begun to chime in and ask about the various methods, flavors, and ethnic origins of the foods we’ve made together. My kids, who are all of age 8-13, have shown me that they can roll, dice, slice, boil, chop, braise, whip, and knead with the best of them.
I’ve had the time to savor some of the things grown organically in the garden project of my dreams in May, June and July, but sadly the eight vegetables, two fruits, three flowers, and five herbs which I planted in late April were washed away during the flood which ravaged others’ gardens in my community as well. We had enjoyed those things which had been harvest ready, and talked about the others which had had so much effort put into them from seeding, to planting, to weeding, to watering and all the stages of growing. The gardens there took a beating, just as my own did and as they are and were the staple of their grocery haul, my neighbors had much to cry over. It really was heartbreaking to see many of our plots ruined by 10 days of rain and the resulting mighty power of nature.
But, back in South Carolina, we like to look on the bright side of things and as a result of these losses, either grand or sentimental, I started to think about what really mattered. Over the summer, on a kind of travelling odyssey, until I could get back to another kitchen, and another home through generous community partners here in Romania, during the eight or so weeks of a spattering of conference time, volunteer English camps, and assistance with projects throughout the country, I visited new friends and a few volunteers. While there in private homes and apartment pantries, I did what I knew how to do best. I had in my bag of tricks a transformed bevy of knowledge about cooking and food that I was able to share, door to door (so to speak) with others in the fashion of a working vacation.
Adventurous as I am, at times it’s difficult to transpose all of that “I’ve eaten raw sea urchin and slimey goose feet in China and it wasn’t the end of the world” mentality. Sorry to say that the recipes and routines that I shared with these culinary groupies of mine were less than hard-core exotic,nonetheless, in the heart of Romania, the old world standards are usually the only menu choices in town. Many villages, as is my own adopted one, do not have the luxury of a restaurant or supermarket. Even in some of the larger towns, unless you are in Bucharest, Cluj, or Iasi or some other metropolitan area, it’s difficult to find things like tarragon, stilton, persimmons or vidalias.
And so, not only have I begun a quest to impart the experiences which I’ve savored in the “food court” of life to willing Romanian friends and the children, but I’ve also learned myself to add, subtract, multiply and divide the ingredients for the different concoctions, creations, and holiday standbys which grace our tables.
Just this month, I stopped by first in Brasov with another teacher whose family is Hungarian just after volunteering for a week at an English camp for middle-schoolers. I was able to share time, energy, laughs, and mutually satisfying plates of Italian lasagne and the next day some American-style cole slaw accompanied by lots of grilled goodies. Being the cook of the day was fun and while I was there, I was also treated to how to make Serbian pizza and Hungarian Gyulas (Goulash in English). We cooked, cleaned, ate, drank, and communicated in one of the most lasting ways possible under the stars and the full moon of a Transylvanian landscape.
Next, I was off to Ghimes-Faget, where my best friend and I climbed ladders to pick the best cherries for her family’s special Hungarian Cherry Soup and my own George Washington-would-be-proud Cherry Pie. Between tart bites and sweet sips, we talked of the exploits of our first U.S. president, and finished off the spoils of our labors having had a highly memorable time.
As I moved along to make my way by bus to our Peace Corps mid-service conference in Sibiu, I made two stops. First in Hunedoara to see another volunteer, and teach him the steps to a French Lemon Tart. He did a fabulous job-see the photo-(and this from a guy who only eats take-out most days!) so I rewarded him with an herb-laced cheese omelette for breakfast and the next night a mix of Southern-fare fit for a king (including roasted spicy pork cutlets, onion rings, grilled peaches and homemade biscuits with honey) and appropriately enough he lives right near Corvin Castle. Another good friend, a female volunteer, was there with us and she and I took turns sharing the ropes of what girls who are good cooks know. She made a great meatloaf and a pasta arrabiata which we all handily finished off, too. They were deserved rewards for our male friend since the two of us had taken over his “den” for the weekend.
On to Astileu, where I gave a lesson in eggplant parmigiano, fiori fritti, and carrot cake (a favorite with my kids back in the village and everywhere else for everyone who never ate carrots with raisins and sugar before!) There I imparted the knowledge about the variety of foods we use in the U.S. and how simple things like unsweetened crepe batter can turn a squash flower into a delicacy in three minutes flat. Oohs and aahs over the eggplant and the side dishes we made together were welcome blessings while conversing with the local preot and his family as our guests that night. The preot himself remarked “You’re like the second coming of Christ”- well,seriously- I was flattered and so I thanked him profusely knowing that this was the very kindest way for him to say how much the food and company from a single volunteer teacher had been enjoyed that night...my place in heaven notwithstanding.
Once again, I packed up for another jaunt on the great Peace Corps road of life and the next day headed out to another children’s camp gig to teach some cooking, some English and to have a lot of fun with the kids there. Along with my clothes and other necessities, I took with me something else. Without extra weight and with the lightness of the midday breeze, I took the memories of my times together with everyone that summer in the kitchen, the gratitude of good company, the wonder of the foods grown on our own earth, and some new recipes to add to my store. I’d also learned how to make things like chicken paprikash, cumin soup, galuste, salade de boef, and gomboti cu prune…a few more delectable Hungarian and Romanian dishes that my future students, friends and family would certainly find to be impressive as well as tasty.
Satisfied and happy, I made my way to the train station, bags in tow, looking ahead to the next phase in year two of my Peace Corps service. The day was cloudless, the leftovers priceless, and the experiences the past weeks without adequate words to describe. The taste in my soul told it all. I resumed my journey, but not before I munched another bunch of those fresh-picked, juicy and beautifully formed early black and green grapes as I visited the garden of my friend once more for a last look—just to make sure that it wasn’t all a dream.