If I had to pick one, I would say that my favorite dish is one that hails from the memories of my childhood. Freshly picked wild mushrooms, potatoes, and butter fried up in a cast iron skillet. That’s it. When I was growing up in Belarus many members of my extended family, including my parents, were given plots of land outside the city (called “dachas” in Russian). Although these functioned as summer cottages (I spent many weeks out of my summer vacations at my grandparent’s dacha), many were primarily used as fruit and vegetable gardens. I remember seeing tomatoes (the smell of greenhouses still takes me back to being a kid and watching my parents tend to their tomatoes), potatoes, radishes, lettuces, herbs, raspberries, strawberries, apples, pears, plums, cherries, cabbages, carrots, beets, turnips, cucumbers, peas, flowers, the list goes on and on. Much of this produce was consumed during the summer months, but many things were also brought back to the city for canning. I remember at one point our apartment being filled with tubs and tubs of tomatoes that I started eating like apples…just because I guess. I also remember fondly my mom’s patience when I made her sample many strawberries after I had already taken a bite out them because I was convinced that I had found a particularly delicious one!
One of the best memories of my childhood was getting a bag full of freshly picked pea pods from my grandmother and going out to the neighboring woods, where we had hung up a hammock, and lazily munching away on the peas while watching the tree tops above me sway in the summer wind. The sunlight playing through the leaves and that slow moving hushed sound of rustling leaves high above. The hammock slowly swinging back and forth….bliss.
Not only did we grow our own food on the dachas, we also went out into the forest to pick different types of berries…and mushrooms! My family members (and I assume much of the Belarussian population at the time) were/are extremely knowledgeable about wild plants along with keen eyes for spotting these hidden natural treasures. One of the times I went back to Belarus to visit, my uncle took me out mushroom picking and I remember walking through the woods, the ground completely covered in pine needles, and hearing him exclaim “Oh there is a gorgeous fellow right there!”, then proceeding to walk a few meters, kneel down, wipe away the needles, and show me a beautiful mushroom that I did not even see until it was uncovered by him. Let me just say that I was thoroughly impressed. And despite the fact that my uncle and my parents claim this is just ability that comes from experience, I can’t help but think that there is a certain pride that comes from being able to not only find, but also identify the various species of this sometimes-poisonous fungus. Although my parents may deny this, I get the impression that their egos may have been ever so slightly bruised when, following a family summer getaway, they discovered through further research that the mushrooms being picked by our neighbors at the resort, which my parents had been sure were of the poisonous variety, turned out to be perfectly fine to consume. If nothing else, the fact that this story comes up every so often over family dinners, suggests to me that this was not an error to be quickly forgotten.
However, the fact that this misjudgment was such an uncharacteristic one, also says a lot about this “folk” knowledge that my family members possess. The best way to illustrate this would be to bring you back to those days at the dacha when the mushroom pickers would return with baskets and baskets of mushrooms to be cleaned, and consumed or saved for canning. Perhaps my memory has been exaggerated through the lens of nostalgia, but from what I remember we had a few good hauls of wild mushrooms (and berries) every season. And although I look back at this as a really cherished memory now, I would be lying if I omitted my other memory of my reluctant efforts to help with the sorting and cleaning of whatever was brought back from the woods. But that was just me being a kid I think.
And that’s where we circle back to my favorite food. Wild mushrooms, butter, potatoes. Simple, flavorful, and full of many memories, without which this would just be some food on a plate.