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A Recipe of Happiness

Dariya Tsvek, 94, whose cookbooks were when they were first published both a sparkling event in the monotony of Soviet life and to a certain extent a subversive element. She remembers the pre-Soviet times when life was radically different from what the Bolsheviks later made it, and there was a place in life for joie de vivre which was totally absent in the grim and gloomy and bleak Soviet era. Things which are ancient history for us are part of her life. She remembers the wonder of electricity entering the everyday life, civility being part of socializing, table manners as an integral part of social behaviour, and cooking and laying the table and entertaining guests as natural features of everyday life.

Western Ukraine, Lviv and other big towns in particular, retained more features of civilized, easy going life than the rest of the country because it was Sovietized later. It is probably why Dariya Tsvek managed to preserve joy of cooking and aestheticizing meals, and pass on her fascination to her readers.

Natalya Kosmolinska, a freelance journalist, talked to Dariya Tsvek, the legendary cookbook writer.

Is there in your earliest memories anything that is connected with cooking and having meals?

Yes, of course! I vividly remember that the tablecloths were always snow-white and perfectly ironed. Both my mother and my grandmother were excellent cooks, and my father, Yakov, was responsible for laying the table he knew exactly where and how to put all those forks and knives and spoons and glasses. He worked as an inspector at the Ministry of Finance in Warsaw and was often present at all sorts of official receptions and dinners. He knew the intricacies of table manners and of table appointments to perfection. He was very careful in being a smooth official in all respects the thing is that in those times it was very hard for an Ukrainian to reach a high position in the social hierarchy and he had to try so hard to stay where he was. Social and table manners were of particular importance. When he took me along on business trips, or later to receptions, I had to be on my best behaviour doing everything the right way the way a girl from a respectable family was supposed to do. I knew very well how to handle the knife and fork at the table, what I was supposed to do, and what I was not supposed under any circumstances. The waiters were very well trained as well discreet, helpful and watchful.

I remember many receptions of all sorts, balls, carnivals and picnics. Guests were lavishly entertained and for the hosts it was not a burden it was a joy. If guests arrived some time before dinner, the host would offer everyone a glass of vodka, tomato juice and one-bite sandwich that is a sandwich so small it could go into your mouth without causing any inconvenience. Once fortified in this manner, the guests could spend the time remaining before dinner in a pleasant conversation. Dinners began right on time, exactly at the appointed hour. It was not customary to wait for those who were late. When the guests were seated, the host would pour some wine for himself, taste it, and if he approved it, it was offered to the guests, with the oldest guest being served first.

What if the oldest was a woman? Women do not generally like to make their age publicly known.

Oh, nobody minded it was considered an honour.

Where were you educated?

Upon graduation from a secondary school it was called himnaziya then, I went to study at a teachers training school in the town of Kolomiya. I wanted to go to a university but young people of Ukrainian descent were not admitted to universities in those times when western Ukraine was under Polish domination.

I wanted to experience as much in life as I possibly could classes, cinema, dances, playing in an orchestra. I could play the flute. At first I studied playing the violin but the local orchestra needed a flute player, and my uncle had a nice flute and thats how I wound up being a flute player.

Biology was my favourite subject and after finishing the course of studies I went to teach biology in a place not far from the city of Lviv. It was at a party I attended at the Lviv Polytechnic that I met my future husband, Lev Tsvek. He taught at the Ukrainian himnaziya, the one I had studied at, and sort of had fallen for me. The students at the party knew he fancied me and they, mischievous as young people often are, prevented him from inviting me to dance they kept passing me from one to another, each time after we had taken just a few pas. Prank or no prank, everything was done in a very civil manner and within the code of politesse. The young men were obliged to wear white gloves, and the young girls were to appear at balls and dances always accompanied by chaperons.

Do you remember what kind of dress you had on on your wedding day?

Yes, I do. I was married in Warsaw in 1931. In those days wedding receptions were rather private affairs, not like today with dozens upon dozens of invitees, and the brides dresses were much more modest than these days. I remember that my dress was cream-coloured, with long sleeves, and my hat was small and made of the same fabric as the dress, with a twig of myrtle on it. The wedding party was held at home, and all the cooking was done by my mother. We had borshch served in large cups, then stuffed fish, followed by pancakes with mushrooms. An almond cake was our dessert.

Cooking in Halitsiya, as that region of Ukraine where I am from was called then, was held in high respect. The local cuisine was basically Ukrainian, but the Polish, Jewish, Armenian and Austrian cuisines made their own contributions to it, adding charming touches. I often helped my mother and grandmother who, as Ive already mentioned, were very good at cooking, and watching them prepare food and doing things myself, I learned a lot.

My cooking skills helped me survive the toughest years of the Soviet times. The wives of local party bosses hired me to cook meals for their VIP guests from Kyiv. In the 1940s, I taught culinary classes to the wives of Soviet army officers. I found these women abysmally ignorant. For example: once I told them that at the next class wed study how to carve a cooked chicken in such a way so that itd look elegant and every guest at the table would get a portion, and asked my students to bring a chicken into class. They did, but the chicken turned out to have been baked together with the entrails. In another class I explained how to stuff potato cakes with meat, mushrooms and boiled eggs, and I was asked whether the shells of the eggs should be removed first

Were your classes only of a practical nature?

Not only. I also delivered lectures, a great number of lectures, on the art of culinary, on the ways of serving the table and table appointments, on flower growing. I had to watch every word I uttered, because if you said something wrong, something which could be interpreted as anti-Soviet, you could lose your job or even be exiled to Siberia.

When we celebrated Easter, we had to put blankets and sheets over the windows to prevent anyone seeing what we were doing celebration of religious holidays was a crime in those days. We took all sorts of precautions, but there was always a great danger of being discovered. I think I survived thanks to my culinary skills. I was regularly invited to cook meals for the local communist party bosses and their VIP guests, and I could see how much food they had meat, fowl, caviar, and it was at the time when ordinary people were starving and dying of hunger.

What motivated you to start writing cookbooks?

Not what but who. It was the prominent Ukrainian writer Iryna Vilde who was instrumental in getting me to write books. She was a friend of my cousin and was a frequent guest in our house. She admired our cooking greatly and kept saying that I should write books about cooking. I refused saying that I couldnt, I was not a writer. She kept encouraging and urging me to start writing, and once she took me to a publisher in Lviv and introduced me to him and said that I could write a cookbook but just needed a little prompting and a push. The publisher said a book like this was likely to be a success and talked me into writing it. My grandmother, my mother and I, we all of us had notebooks into which we wrote down the recipes, and I used them for writing my first book which was called Solodke Pechyvo (Sweet Biscuits). The Kamenyar Publishing House published it and the demand was so high that the book was reprinted nine times!

Do you have any favourite dishes? The ones that you particularly enjoy making?

Im too old now to cook myself, its my daughter Zoryana who does it. I like sweet things varenyky (dumplings) stuffed with poppy seeds, a walnut cake well, theres still a lot of things that I like.

What is your favourite holiday?

The Feast of Easter. Its the most delicious holiday of the year. The Ukrainian traditional twelve dishes that have to be served at the Easter dinner is a sort of a test of cooking skills, particularly so in Western Ukraine. In the days of my youth, paskas (Easter cakes) used to be made in every household, and every paska was meant to be given to someone in particular for grandpa, for grandma, for children and for friends. We wanted our paskas to be of a nice yellowish colour inside and we added saffron for this. If your paskas were of a prescribed shape, not lopsided or crooked, then it was a sign for a good year ahead of you. Paskas which were taken out of the oven were placed on special towels to cool; then several of them were loaded into a big basket we called it paska-holder together with butter, cheese and sausage, salt, horseradish and a candle. The butter, cheese and sausage symbolized well-being; the salt symbolized wisdom; the horseradish symbolized Christs passions and crucifixion, and the candle symbolized hopes for the future. Then the basket was taken to church to be blessed. The candle was lit and if you managed to prevent it from being blown out on the way home it was a good sign for the whole family.

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