Born in the U.S. and raised in Ukraine, RTVF freshman Jack Birdsall and McCormick sophomore Marcus Stemple grew up eating beet soup, cabbage rolls and more. They sat down with Spoon to sound off about Ukrainian cuisine and culture.
Which cities did you each live in, how long, and why?
Jack: It’s the exact same reason for both of us: 18 years. Our parents worked for a non-profit. [We lived in] Kiev.
Marcus: I lived in Lviv for four years when I was younger.
What typical foods did you eat?
M: The quintessential Ukrainian food is borscht, which is a red beet soup with potatoes and meat. But most of the Ukrainian diet, I would say, is based heavily on potatoes, cabbage and a lot of grains, so a lot of rice, breads. [Ukraine has] very, very fertile land, so they produce a lot of grains.
J: Totally. The Ukrainian flag, it’s a blue stripe and a yellow stripe. It’s supposed to be blue skies and fields of grain.
How does Ukrainian food compare with the U.S., and which one do you like more?
J: I like both. They’re different, I guess. This is tough.
M: The food itself, I think, is a lot richer there. It’s closer to the basics of food than it is here in America. There’s a lot less chemicals. We lived actually like a half-mile away from a bread factory and we’d go and you’d get bread that would go stale in a day because there aren’t any added chemicals or anything like that to keep it fresh forever. Things taste closer to what they should taste like.
Do you miss Ukrainian food, or do you like U.S. [food]?
J: Deep down I do [miss Ukrainian food], but I haven’t consciously realized it.
M: I definitely miss it. I think, as you stay here longer, Jack, you’ll realize things that you miss more. The bread is way better there.
J: Bread here is weird [chuckles].
What were some of your favorite Ukrainian foods, and have your preferences changed over time?
J: Golubtsi. It is the best thing. [It’s] some sort of meat, and then usually some sort vegetable, some cooked vegetables in there, and then you wrap it in cabbage and you boil it. Most people that come to Ukraine fresh from the States, it’s the thing that grosses them out the most. But it’s so good. I think it’s my favorite.
M: I really like pelmeni. They’re these Ukrainian dumplings.
J: Chicken Kiev. It’s chicken. It’s breaded. It’s butter-egg-y-cheesy stuff inside. And then you open it and there’s meat, but then all this just great stuff just flows out.
What about least favorite Ukrainian foods?
M: This is easy. There is a Ukrainian dish that is basically the juices that are left over from meat. You know if you let them cool they turn into a jelly sort of thing? That is an entire dish sometimes. It’s basically just cooled meat juices. And they’ll throw in some other stuff. There’s this one salad that’s an eight-layer salad or something like that, so they add a bunch of vegetables and they have fish in there at some point, and then they put the meat juices on top. It’s just not at all good texture.
J: There’s also Salo, which is pig fat, and then you can just put different stuff on it, and I like it a lot. I didn’t start liking it until a few years ago.
In terms of American food, was it available, and if it was, how accessible was it?
M: There’s not very much access to American food at all.
J: Valuable stuff that you can’t get in Ukraine, that you can only get in America, that’d be stuff that if one of our dads would go on some trip to the States, he’d bring back peanut butter, maple syrup.
M: It’s still sort of a thing. We don’t take peanut butter for granted, ever. We had to ration it.
Do you have any fun memories involving Ukrainian food?
J: There’s basically been this guy that has been friends with our family since we moved there. We had this tradition every Christmas, our whole family, we’d go to his house and just have this big, long dinner. We’d eat for maybe 30 minutes, and then just talk for three hours. It was a good tradition.
M: Anytime you go to a Ukrainian’s house, it’s going to be a massive, massive meal. You’ll have at least like three or four salads. But also, one of my favorite memories actually, in Ukraine involving food, is involving American food. We’d get together with the American community there and they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving there – at least not on the day that we do – so we’d get together and cook. We had some friends who could access the commissary, so we’d get [Butterball turkeys] and once a year get together and celebrate.
M: If you have a chance to go to Ukraine, definitely do it. It’s a really, really cool cultural experience.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.