Eating: Order or Disorder

Salad and Rakia Partners, I

Salad and Rakia Partners, I

The question posed to me was “What eating habit do you have that others might find strange?”

Most people have really strange eating habits. I once dated a woman who only consumed diet Mountain Dew and yogurt flavored Balance Bars. A friend of mine loves to eat raw liver and another one lives on saki and steak.

I often prefer salty snacks: smoked salmon, pickled peppers and olives. But, I also love sweets. Donuts have always been one of the most pleasurable things to eat. Discovering Indian food in the Tenderloin in San Francisco or seeking out sushi joints in Los Angeles were fun experiences and like all of my other memorable culinary moments, they involve the people that I shared them with.

It wasn’t until I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a small village in Bulgaria that eating became a way of life. Life was slow and it wasn’t uncommon to sit around a table for hours, talking, drinking and picking at food. A host could place a salad on the table and people would sip drinks and talk but it could be an hour before someone poked a cucumber slice and then rested their fork, facedown, on the side of the plate.

Salad and Rakia Partner, II

Salad and Rakia Partner, II

Despite this slow approach to dining, people ate. Their lives revolved around food, the soil that it sprouted from, the animals who provided milk and the ones who were raised to be eaten. I lived with Baba Tsetsa and Metodi who like many hard-working villagers, raised everything they consumed: chickens, melons, pigs, tomatoes, goats and garlic. The only things they consumed that they bought were beer, bread and cigarettes. Later, I would live around people who grew tobacco and made their own cigarettes and baked their own bread, leaving beer to be the only thing they had to buy.

While we had to go to the store for beer, everyone grew grapes and made their own wine. Then, when they finished the barrel, they would take the grape skins and make rakia, grape brandy. You can make rakia from apples, plums (Slivovitz), cherries, pears and a number of other fruits.

Most people also grew tomatoes and cucumbers and ate what we call a ‘Greek Salad,’ everyday. In Bulgaria though this salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, sirene (feta), onions and maybe peppers, is called a ‘Shopska Salad.’

In one of my favorite episodes of the Simpsons, the one when Lisa becomes a vegetarian, Homer taunts Lisa singing, “You don’t win friends with salad.” That is not true in Bulgaria, especially when rakia accompanies that salad.

For people who don’t grow up drinking rakia it may be an acquired taste. I did not love it at first but I loved being around people from my adopted country and grew to appreciate its cultural and culinary significance and without making a decision to do it, I had incorporated Shopska salad and rakia into my diet. Five years later, I make every effort to continue the tradition. Some things stand in the way, like the tasteless tomatoes I find in the grocery store here. No grandma in Bulgaria would ever eat some of the tomatoes we consider edible! With each bite and sip, I think of friends like Fehri and Subi, Nasko and Kontilov, Elza, Villi and Eva. I am reminded of adventures and the love of a community that welcomed me—a foreigner—with open arms.

Salad and Rakia Partners, III

Salad and Rakia Partners, III

That’s my eating habit that others might find strange. Oh, and I eat raw garlic, onions and hot peppers each day, something else I learned in the village. What eating habit do you have that others might find strange?

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