In a pickle: Local historian serves up tasty Catskill-Carpathian connections

Linda Norris, an independent museum professional based in Treadwell, first set foot in Ukraine in the dead of winter two years ago. One of the first things she noticed was that it wasn't that different from January in the Catskills.

Over the months since, as she's visited the country as a consultant, the similarities between Ukraine and the Catskills kept appearing -- especially in the Carpathian Mountains, a rocky region of small villages and second homes, or dachas, as they are called in Ukraine.

Norris has also been fascinated by the differences between Ukraine and the U.S., particularly when it comes to food, farms, and ways of living off the land. Back in the United States, Norris is hoping to bring a little Ukranian experience and wisdom home.

She's founded the Pickle Project, a traveling research project about Ukrainian ways of eating that is raising money on the website The project's goal is to raise $5,000 by February 1, and it's more than halfway there.

Norris and her co-coordinator Sarah Crow will use the funds to return to Ukraine, where they will document Ukrainian foodways and create an exhibit about them that will travel throughout Ukraine and the United States. (The exhibit will visit the Catskills, Norris says, possibly in some kind of mobile food truck.) The exhibition will also have an online home at the Pickle Project blog.

We talked to Norris about the project and the similarities between the Catskills and the Carpathians. To help support the Pickle Project, click here.

Watershed Post: How are the Carpathians like the Catskills?

Linda Norris: They're not huge mountains. They're bigger than the Catskills, but they're not huge. In a way, they have a tourist element to them; people have gone to the Carpathians for a long time. There's that kind of similarity in the way that people think of them romantically. I Gardening, Ukraine-style: Norris (top left) with colleague Anna Perekhodko (top right) and Babushka Natasha and her husband.Gardening, Ukraine-style: Norris (top left) with colleague Anna Perekhodko (top right) and Babushka Natasha and her husband.think of the Carpathians as the way the Catskills used to be: lots of small farmers just kind of making do. There are still small dairies where people are actually making cheese. In all these places, it's like "sustainable" just is. And what's true of a lot of Ukrainian villages is what's true of a lot of Catskill villages: they're mostly old people now. Because there are no jobs. You are starting to see, in the Carpathians, outside L'viv, that people have second homes. It's kind of changing villages. A friend of mine took me to visit her parents' dacha. The kind of gardening and growing part of your weekend in the country is a huge part of your weekend in the country. Everybody has a root cellar. People who have dachas will grow and can and grow potatoes in the root cellar. In this village I went to, they knew I was interested in gardens -- which Ukrainians think is a little nutty -- so they took me to meet an 85-year-old babushka grandmother to see her garden. It was a huge garden. She got up at 4am every morning and she was out there gardening. This produced enough that she and her husband lived pretty much off everything they raised.

WP: What kind of foods do Ukrainians raise?

LN: People have flowers -- Ukrainians love flowers -- but people really raise things that they can can and put away. A lot of people raise things to make a little extra money. Outside every subway stop in the city in Kyiv there are ladies selling produce who come in from villages. They have little amounts of stuff to sell. You can tell that they're raising it. What people bring is really seasonal. The lady on my corner had strawberries and cherries and raspberries. In season. Which also means that they taste incredible. Because you're not eating them in the winter, and you're not eating the not-very-good ones that you buy in the supermarket.

WP: What is the goal of the Pickle Project?

LN: The main idea is to do an exhibit to look at what we can learn about sustainability and seasonality from Ukraine. There's really a lot that Americans can learn about the way that people grow and eat and gather. Foraging is a big part of Ukrainain life. And there are still some people in the Catskills who do that, too -- there are still some mushroom hunters and ginseng hunters here. That's what I think about the Carpathians and the Catskills: this idea that in a climate that is sometimes unforgiving, people figure out how to live with what is there. I think that many people in American feel that sustainability is the province of people who are well-off. And that's not the case in the Ukraine. In fact, there, it's people who are well-off who can afford to go to supermarkets. 

WP: What do these two places -- the Catskills and the Carpathians -- have to learn from each other?

LN: I think we have a lot to learn about thinking seasonally and locally in a way that's for everybody. The whole idea of a farmers' market I think would make Ukrainians laugh, because they're just markets in Ukraine. In Ukraine, cities still have urban markets with food vendors, small towns have markets, and you drive along the country in the summer and every other house has their fruits for sale. I think that's really great.

WP: You see local produce for sale outside houses in the Catskills, too.

LN: The connection between the Catskills and Ukraine is that it's not so easy to make a living here, and it's not so easy to make a living there, so this kind of resourcefulness about making extra and selling it to people as a source of income, it's something that happens in both places.

Photos contributed by Linda Norris and used with permission. For more on Linda Norris, visit her blog,  The Uncatalogued Museum.

1/22/11 Update: This article has been corrected. Norris visited a village in the Carpathians outside the city of L'viv, not Kyiv.