letter from a summer kitchen


As soon as I heard that Olia Hercules was publishing Summer Kitchens: Recipes and Reminiscences from Every Corner of Ukraine this spring, I asked our local bookseller to order me a copy. It arrived a few weeks ago but somehow I didn’t have time to open it and savour the recipes and the photographs.  But in the past three days, I’ve read the book cover to cover and although I have a few small quibbles—the notes for making uzvar, for example, have been cut short—I love this joyous testament to tradition and making the most of what one has at hand. To my delight, there’s a whole section titled “Summer kitchen memories”: Hercules appealed to Ukrainians from everywhere to send their experiences of this lovely phenomenon: a rustic building set apart from the main house, meant for preserving and social activity centered on food. These are small essays in themselves: “A secret attic and the foam from the jam pan”; “Homemade butter and dried apples”; and the gorgeous “Rhubarb buns and hailstorms”.

This time last year I was preparing for a trip to Ukraine with my husband and my daughter. We chose a company specializing in small cultural tours because honestly? I felt out of my comfort zone without any Ukrainian and unsure of whether I’d feel ok with renting a car and driving the rough roads in search of my grandfather’s village. I’ve never been on any kind of tour before but this one was stellar. There were just 7 of us and most of the time we were driven in a van by Roman, who was flexible and kind of unflappable. Our guide, Snizhana, was lovely and also unflappable. When 8 members of my grandfather’s family turned up at our hotel to meet me, she spent hours with us, helping us to make family trees to determine just how we were related. We made a video call to Forrest in Ottawa (also unflappable) to ask for some information I knew he had at his end. But what I really wanted to say here was that Roman drove us daily for 4 days up and down a steep road in the Carpathians to our hotel and we passed a couple of farms and there was a smell in the air, like wine-y fruit, like smoke, like summer becoming autumn, and one morning at breakfast, there was a jug of something called uzvar and it tasted like that smell. Earthy and smoky and I couldn’t get enough of it. The recipe is in Summer Kitchens.  A dried fruit infused drink made with pears or apples or cherries (or all three, with plums maybe), and in this book there’s even a recipe for how to dry the fruit (which would have been dried and smoked in the wood-fired masonry oven called a pich) in a warming oven, then smoke it on a barbecue with fruitwood chips. For the past day or two I’ve been wondering what to do with the 60 pounds of Merton Beauties John picked the other day, an apple with a spicy pear-ish edge to its flavour, and now? I’m going to dry some and make uzvar.


I realize too that the farms on that steep road had summer kitchens. The families were sitting under trees at wooden tables and chimneys jutted from small buildings near the main house. We’d drive up or drive down and I’d press my face to the window by my seat, wanting to know everything about their lives because I felt that I might find myself there, another version of myself, the granddaughter of a man who stayed and married and who knew what to do with the bushels of pears and cucumbers. A woman knew how to make fresh cheese and horseradish horilka and who would take apples to the market to sell from a basket at her feet.

Today in my summer kitchen I made 3 peach pies (unbaked) for the freezer with some of the 20 pound case I got in Sechelt the other day, I sliced and froze 8 pounds more of the peaches to wait in ziplock bags for a winter dessert, and I made a double batch of pesto, also for the freezer. I don’t have a pich but I do have a maple worktable and lots of light and the otherworldly voice of Rhiannon Giddens to make the work go well.

On that road in Ukraine, the air held the smoke of fires preserving fruit for winter and this book holds that too. And so much more. Recipes for varenyky stuffed with berries or homemade cheese, for kvas and borsch (with duck and smoked pears), for sourdough breads brushed with garlic oil. And I’ll remember this man who stopped so we could stroke his gentle horse’s face.


In an essay I wrote about traveling to Ukraine, I used brief passages from folk poems. This one spoke to me so deeply:

My dear mother, what will happen to me if I die in a foreign land?
Well, my dearest, you will be buried by other people.

But they would still be mine, wouldn’t they? The women in their summer kitchens, fermenting tomatoes in big jars, the children gathering windfalls, the dogs asleep in the dust.


When I was in Ukraine in September, I was entranced by the markets. Unlike those in France or Italy, where everything—pyramids of cheeses, perfect apples, peaches, plums with the bloom still on their cheeks, fish on ice, olives arranged in tubs on Provençal cottons— is arranged like a still life, lit from within, the market in Kosiv was untidy, smoky, loud (ducks in cages, a few sheep baaing), and so filled with life that I didn’t want to leave. Old women sat at tiny tables with their soda bottles of milk, their buckets of fresh cheese that they’d scoop out with their hands and put into a small plastic bag if you wanted some, and men sold their homemade mouse-traps, their battered tools, tomatoes so ripe they cracked at the stem, and apples that would win no beauty contests but that were spicy and delicious eaten from my hand as I walked around the stalls.

The meals we ate reminded me of summers in Edmonton with my father’s family. He was one of 9 children (8 of them half-siblings), much younger than the others. So my cousins were as old as my parents but their children—first cousins once removed?—were plentiful. There was no fatted calf to kill for the visit of the only child who’d actually moved away but the visit was a series of feasts anyway, the kind that take a whole day to prepare. My aunts and my mother, with my grandmother nearby in a rocking chair, made pyrohy, cabbage rolls, salads of cucumbers and tomatoes and dill, dressed with soured cream, yeast buns, stuffed breads, maybe some chickens stuffed with herbs and onions, and all of this was accompanied by laughter and tears. The food wouldn’t have been from any single ethnic group. My grandmother was from what’s now the Czech Republic. My grandfather was from Bukovina, now Ukraine (but Austro-Hungarian when he left in 1907). My grandmother’s first husband, the father of the other 8 children, was Polish. One aunt married a man from Syria. The neighbours, who were part of the meal preparation and feast, were Hungarian.

I’ve been thinking about this food, how it sustained us, allowed for social interaction, for secrets, for tears as one aunt or another recalled a relative now dead or a baby stillborn or the hardships of my grandparents’ early years in Canada. Cooking and eating are part of how we preserve our history and so much of this preservation—the details, the hows and the whys, as well as the actual preparation—is what we think of as women’s work. The men have a part in it, of course. Certainly the outside cooking of meat is a man’s province, poking at steaks and smoking fish and turning great slabs of ribs on slow fires. But rolling out the thin dough for dumplings, pitting cherries for pies, peeling potatoes and making fresh cheese to stuff in the dumpling dough, souring the cream for smetana, mincing green dill for pastries, soaking walnuts in honey—those things tend to be done by women. And a child watching learns about the work and the nature of women’s relationships. The aunt married to the Syrian was always given a job she could do sitting down. This was because her husband abused her. No one challenged him or reprimanded him (it was the early 1960s….) but they did what they could for her.

So I’ve been thinking about the food and wanting to know how to prepare some of it now that I am the oldest woman in my immediate family and realize that I need to keep certain traditions alive for my children and grandchildren. I knew about Olia Hercules, mostly because of the articles I’d read in the New Yorker over the past few years. I ordered her first book, Mamushka, and it arrived on Tuesday, the same day I was mailing out copies of the little book I’d made to give to my family and friends as a gift to commemorate my 65th birthday.


The subtitle is important: Recipes from Ukraine and beyond. In the introduction, she tells us

Despite my strong Ukrainian identity, I have always cherished and taken pride in the cultural diversity that we were so lucky to enjoy in Ukraine. My paternal grandmother is Siberian, my mother has Jewish and Bessarabian (Moldovan) roots, my father was born in Uzbekistan and we have Armenian and Ossetian friends.

In it, the most beautiful recipes, many of them familiar, though perhaps differently accented. My grandmother’s pyrohy fillings were a little different from those made by the Ukrainian women whose sons married my father’s sisters. Her sweet dumplings were filled with yellow plums, because that’s what she had access to, whereas we ate gorgeous cherry vareniky in Ukraine. Similar dough, and the smetana we lavishly spooned on top was the same as my grandmother’s.

I look forward to cooking from this book. Right now, though? I’m feeling the loss of a large extended group of women at my side as I think about rolling out dough or simmering bones for broth, but maybe they’re here still, just in another way. In my hands, my wide hips, my love of growing vegetables and herbs and bringing them to the kitchen with a little soil clinging to them. Tomorrow night I’m making the Azerbaijani chicken with prunes and walnuts. I have other dishes in mind too. When my children come in the summer, we’ll choose a menu for a feast to honour this particular strand of their multi-textured family history. By the woodstove, the Black Krim tomato seeds are nearly sprouting, those huge pink fruits with cracked shoulders that are called for in many of these recipes. And I have the memory of those Edmonton summers, lying in the grass under the trees, lulled by women’s voices.

the pleasures of Eastern European dumplings, in the New Yorker, in Edmonton, in Grand Forks

autumn borscht
At the Borscht Bowl in Grand Forks

I’ve just read the most wonderful piece in the New Yorker online (we get the print magazine passed along to us in good time but sometimes I can’t wait) and it’s reminded me of childhood visits to my father’s family in Edmonton. (The article, “The Underrated Pleasures of Eastern European Dumplings“, by Olia Hercules, discusses those amazing creations and offers a recipe for Pork Manti, something I will have to try, probably when one or more of my children are here.)

These days, though, I no longer try to hide the fact that my death-row meal would, without question, consist of varenyky, the Ukrainian version of what in Poland are called pierogi. Even though the name comes from varyty, meaning “to boil,” these half-moon-shaped dumplings are sometimes steamed or boiled and then refried. My favorite filling is one of the simplest: homemade cheese curd, called syr, mixed with egg yolks and heavily seasoned with salt. The filling is gently wrapped in the thinnest of pasta doughs and boiled briskly. To serve, varenyky are dropped into a large bowl with about half a stick of melted butter and served with thick, full-fat crème fraîche called smetana. I can only eat about ten ravioli at a time, but I can easily pack away about forty varenyky in a single sitting. When I eat them, I feel like a euphoric child.

When I was a child watching my aunts, grandmother, and mother (her background was Scots Presbyterian but she adapted well to the communal experience of preparing a Eastern European feast), anyway (to wrangle this sentence back into line), watching them prepare mountains of tiny dumplings, I felt such anticipation and also comfort. Their voices murmuring, some gossip (spoken quietly because little pitchers have big ears), the soft sound of a long rolling pin pressing out the dough on a floured table, the smell of warm potato, snipped green onion, and ground pepper (a-choo!). And what about the name? Other people called what the aunts made “pierogy”, which I think is the Polish version. We said “pedaha”. I’ve looked online and find this, from Wikipedia (not my usual go-to reference source but there you have it):

Although called varenyky in standard Ukrainian, speakers of the Canadian Ukrainian or Rusyn dialect refer to them as pyrohy, which can be misheard pedaheh or pudaheh by Anglophones unaccustomed to the rolled-r sound, or alveolar flap. This is due to the history of Ukrainian or Rusyn (Ruthenian) immigration to Canada, which came predominantly from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Ours were filled with cheese curd, and my father said in his own childhood, his mother made the simple cottage cheese she used for their pyrohy (there. I’ve used what was probably the word I heard) with milk from the family cow. He always claimed they were better with homemade cheese. Potatoes went into another version. I don’t remember meat in ours, though there was a little ground pork in the cabbage rolls, or holubchi. And sweet plums in a dessert version, heavenly with sour cream (though I love smetana, a little more like crème fraîche, and I wonder if I’m remembering correctly that in the Czech Republic, smetana was a sweet cream rather than tangy? ). At the evening meal, for which all this womanly work was directed, our plates were piled high with plump dumplings, yellow with butter, flecked with green onions, and glazed with sour cream. If we didn’t count the number we ate, our aunts did. Gluttony was encouraged. We were good children if we went back for another plateful, then another. We reclined under the trees in the backyard afterwards, holding our stomachs in awe.

Every year, often about now, John and I head for the road, taking the Crowsnest Highway to Osoyoos where we settle into the Sandy Beach Resort. One day is spent visiting our favourite wineries—Tinhorn Creek, Wild Goose, and Desert Hills—and eating lunch at Miradoro (at Tinhorn Creek); it probably has the most stunning view of any restaurant anywhere. You sit on the deck and look out to the hills on the other side of the valley and almost every time we’ve been there, a thunderstorm has passed by quickly, lightning stitching hill to hill, the air filled with the scent of rain on dry rock. Another day is spent driving to Grand Forks, with a stop in Greenwood for coffee at the Copper Eagle. (Best cinnamon buns ever.) A stop in Midway—McMynn’s Store— for flour from the Heritage Mills in Rock Creek (because we’ve never yet found the mill itself open but their flours are worth the drive). And lunch at the Borscht Bowl in Grand Forks. Their borscht is Doukhobor-inspired and it’s wonderful, though nothing like the borscht we had at home when I was growing up.  I’ve written about that here and I know I’m repeating myself but isn’t that what food is about? Trying to capture a moment which itself is a distillation of memory, of history, of necessity and comfort?