*Please enjoy this delicious, intriguing childhood story from our guest blogger, Etya Krichmar
Nothing gives me so much pleasure as my connection with nature. Since I was a little child, the surroundings fascinated me. I loved being in the open air, touching, smelling wildflowers, and running through the open meadows filled with sunflowers.
I grew up in Ukraine, and where we lived, we had these beautiful fields belonging to kolkhozes, a governmentally owned farmland. Depending on the season, they seeded them with different vegetation. Sometimes, they planted snow peas, and at others, the entire farmland grew the sunflowers.
I loved being inside the fields when the sunflowers were in full bloom. Walking in between rows of hundred or maybe thousands of sunny round disks, I appreciated their beauty and admired the way their sunny faces secured by the strong stalks looked down from above on the earth. I took pleasure in purposely approaching, gently bending the yellow blooms towards my face in anticipation of inhaling the pungent aroma of the oilseeds.
Once considered the breadbasket of the USSR, Ukraine, was one of the fifteen Republics of the Soviet Union known for its fertile soil. Called "chernozem,” which in Russian means black earth. Such soil is rich in organic matter, and as a result, chernozem offers exceptional agronomic conditions for producing an extensive range of crops, especially grains and oilseeds.
Until this day, I love the smell and taste of the sunflower oil. I had recently discovered that Ukrainian sunflower oil has become available for purchase in America. It is now my favorite oil to use in making salads. Each time I swallow a bite of it, the memories of the carefree time I spend with the sunflowers in that faraway place, Ukraine, rush in.
Another pleasure that I associate with nature took place every year, at the end of the summer when the walnuts became ready for harvesting. As a child, I spent hours climbing the walnut trees. It was my favorite pastime. During the long summer school breaks toward the end of August in Ukraine, the walnut trees abundantly produced the most delicious and flavorful fruit.
Ukraine is a world-known producer of nuts. Its warm climate has the most favorable conditions for growing walnuts. I lived in Kotovsk, a small town a couple of hundred miles away from Odessa by train. Odessa region is a place abundant with black walnut trees.
In the small town where I grew up, the citizens used walnut trees as street decorations. Anywhere I went along the side of the road, I saw these majestic-looking trees standing watch and making a colossal mess during the harvest season. The ripened fruit fell to the ground in mass, and the hull covered the street like a rug. It produced a squishy sound underneath my feet as I strolled along an alley.
During the summer, I lived in the walnut tree. It was lots of fun. My friends and I could entertain each other by challenging the bravest to climb the tallest branch. In addition, we loved to find the thickest limb and sitting in a comfortable position, talk for hours about the young children's interests.
We climbed, we exercised our bodies, we rested, and we made discoveries in the school of Hard Knocks. Then, a few weeks before proper learning started, we went back into the trees.
Only this time we ascended the trunks not to enjoy ourselves for the last climb of the season but to collect the almost ready-for-harvest nut. I say practically ready because, on the outside, the greenish-brown color of the hull showed us that the fruit was almost ripe. The fully grown walnut has an outer shell closer to dark brown or nearly black.
We did not care if the nut was not completely dry inside. The fun of our adventure comprised of climbing the tree, unclenching the young nut's shell with a pocket knife, which every kid in the Soviet Union had in possession, and cutting out the flesh inside. It was the meat of the walnut our tastebuds were after. Looking at the white milky-colored, fully formed and firm flesh, we gently lifted the pieces out of the shell and put them in our mouths. The taste of the walnut at this stage is unique. It is sweet and milky and melts in your mouth. Decades later, I crave it.
Having the fill of walnuts, before descending the tree we collected some of the fruit to bring home to our parents. My father used these green, brown-colored nuts to make a medicinal tincture. It was helpful with upset stomachs. Papa would wash the nuts, place them in a large glass jar, and cover them with sugar. Periodically, until the fermentation was over, he fed the tincture with additional sweet calories. He then added pure alcohol or vodka and let it sit for months, even years at a time. It never spoiled
I loved indulging in the finished product. It tasted delightfully sweet, a sensation every child is familiar with, and it had a specific flavor that only a walnut can produce. The liquid's texture caused by fermentation was viscose and reminded me of honey.
By the time the fermentation stopped, the nut's skin wholly dissolved, and its fruit shrunk in size. The color of the tincture turned black because of all the large amounts of iodine the
walnut skins contain. Sometimes, I pretended to have an upset stomach so I could get a sip of the luscious liquor. On other occasions, I snuck into the pantry and poured myself a little drink.
As the windmills of memory take me back, I realize my parents were completely aware of my pranks, and just like me, they pretended to play along. I grew up in a loving family where alcohol was never a problem, and Mama and Papa did not think of it as a forbidden fruit.
When I was thirteen, my parents let me taste sweet wine for the first time during a secret Passover celebration. After that, none of my siblings or I ever became obsessed with alcohol. Looking back, I am grateful for how they raised me. I had the best parents because they never forbade us to experiment with things that triggered our curiosity. However, they insisted our experimentations took place in their presence only. I was blessed with having them in my life.
The recollections I have of my father and mother are another source of pleasure. As I travel down memory lane, in my mind, I relive the hardships and victorious moments of our lives. Living in the USSR, our family missed out on many material things that were not available in a country of not enough. But what we lacked in our family possessions, we compensated with the unconditional love we had for each other. And that by itself is a pleasure of its own.