Friday, February 8, 2013

Linda Norris: Moving beyond the butter churn

I’d been tossing around in my head what to write in this blog post, and thought I would be writing it from eastern Ukraine, but circumstances intervened and I’m actually home in chilly upstate New York. Luckily, this photo appeared in my Facebook feed one January morning, with Katya’s caption, “my daily winter tea.”   And somehow, amidst this glorious tumble of collected herbs, my thoughts began to crystallize.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel and work in all kinds of different places, but one place that has captured more of me in the last four years has been Ukraine.  I first went in 2009 as a Fulbright Scholar and have continued to return on an irregular basis, co-founding the Pickle Project with fellow Fulbrighter Sarah Crow to encourage conversation in both Ukraine and the United States about food, culture and sustainability.

When I asked about the tea in the photo, Katya replied, “I don't know the exact meaning of those herbs, but I believe they are much better for me as usual tea from a shop, because gathered by my mom on my motherland.”  In that one phrase—her mom and her motherland-- she shared both the intensely personal and the intensely political nature of food in Ukraine.   

The personal means that the local food movement isn’t a movement in Ukraine; it’s a way of life for many.  The idea of a local food movement generates many bemused smiles. But that way of life depends on shrinking generations of mothers and grandmothers who still make the time to collect herbs, to pickle and to preserve, either in their home villages or in their dachas (summer homes) where intensive small cultivation is how every weekend is spent.   

The political nature of local food is harder to see than the village gardens and root cellars, but like the old Soviet system, it pervades every part of Ukrainian life. Most Americans have never heard of Holodomor, the enforced famine of 1932-33 during which Stalin’s orders starved millions of Ukrainians and other Soviet citizens to death, despite living in the region known as the Bread Basket of Europe.  And few Americans understand the full extent of the extreme privations that happened on the Eastern front during World War II. But most of us do know a bit about Chernobyl and the contamination that continues to resound on many levels—including the food supply.    

Those 20th century events created powerful national and personal memories.   Those memories mean that the political is personal.  For many, the safest path in the food chain is to rely on your own family’s hard work--or the babushka at the market selling homemade pickles--no matter that every day you pass a McDonald’s outside the metro station.

The transition from a peasant economy to the Soviet collectivization of agriculture is something virtually unaddressed in Ukrainian museums, much the same way American local history and outdoor museums often take a pass at the transition to corporate agriculture.  It’s complicated—so it’s often ignored.   If museums everywhere cannot address the big changes of the 20th century, it’s equally hard to imagine how they will address the big changes of the 21st.  

I think of my extended experiences in Ukraine as a continual, surprising, process of turning my own thoughts and assumptions around, looking at them from different angles and perspectives.  As public historians, I think that’s one role we can play, no matter where we are, creating situations where farmers, foodies and everyday people can look at food from different angles.  We can create dialogues that cross boundaries, including those of class and location. I’m interested in exploring how historians could contribute to--and how museums might create--a model such as Conflict Kitchen, the amazing Pittsburgh pop-up that only serves food from countries that the United States is in conflict with as a way of encouraging conversation, including international Skype parties between citizens of Pittsburgh and those in Iran and Afghanistan.

In 2011, with support from the Trust for Mutual Understanding, the Pickle Project sponsored a series of four open public conversations in four Ukrainian cities.  Such open conversations are unusual in Ukraine—and not surprisingly, we found that the food conversations opened up much broader conversations about politics, memory, a sense of place, and the future.   (You can read more about the conversations both on our blog and in an article in the Spring, 2012 issue of Museums & Social Issues).   

Such work means though, that we have to go out of our comfort zones, as historians and as museums, take a hard look at our own biases and assumptions and move beyond the butter churn.

~ Linda Norris


Tea by Katya Kuchar

Preserves and pickles for sale at the market in L’viv by Sarah Crow

Workers on a collective farm, undated.


  1. What a simultaneously moving, succinct, and provocative post, Linda!

    Your discussion of the Stalin-enforced famine caused me to reflect a moment on the issue of trauma - personal, cultural, political - as it relates to food systems and values. One of the conversations I brought to my work on interpretation at Strawbery Banke was to encourage reflection on the conditions in the US that preceded the "green revolution" of the 60s, which we now perceive to be a complex and often negative legacy. The privations of the various depressions in the late 19th century, the shortages and hoarding of commodities in World War I, the widespread hunger of the Great Depression, and the forced rationing and home food production of World War II were all factors contributing to to the desire to do whatever was necessary to ensure a steady, homogenous, and abundanct supply of food.

    So it's interesting to consider how the notion of home production in the Ukraine my be in part a reaction to traumas and threats, as well.

  2. My thoughts really echo Michelle's here. I wrote something similar on Diana's post, wondering how we deal with the submerged, denied, unrecognized, or pushed-away realities of actual hunger when we're dealing with interpreting and talking historically about food. These acts of interpreting and discussing, by definition, take place on the "safe" side of hunger, in the same way that touring battlefields takes place on the safe side of war and learning about the Industrial Revolution at industrial history sites is only safe and interesting for people who don't actually have to make their living working on an assembly line.

    So how do we touch on the subject of actual hunger when we're interpreting food? (This clearly also relates to Tyler's post about connecting to issues of contemporary food insecurity.) And how do we get people to realize the seriousness of thinking about food without getting them to think seriously about hunger? How to balance the feel-good aspects of food interpretation with that seriousness?

  3. I really like this post. It's so inspiring. I do conversation in ukrainian skype at but read this on my break and I can't help but realize a lot of things. thanks a lot for this