A Ukrainian Feast… and “Shout!”
If it’s not clear already, our lives largely revolved around food during our time in Zap. Family, sure. Booze, you bet. But food really “took the cake” (pun intended) when it came to life in Ukraine, and we’d be remiss to not talk about a true Ukrainian feast.
The Wedding History
Taking a step back, we need to provide a little context on our 2015 wedding (sorry, John).
In August 2014, Chipp had just wrapped up three months of training in the Republic of Georgia, and he had two weeks of leave prior to deploying to Afghanistan. Rather than burning two full days of that to fly back and forth to California, Jenna “met in the middle,” flying over to meet Chipp in Montenegro.
Still in girlfriend territory, Jenna had “the talk” in her back pocket. In fairness, it’d be a lot to ask of a girl to wait out an Afghan deployment without a little sense of commitment… But, Chipp raised her one, proposing on night one in Montenegro.
Romantic, yes, but this set-up posed a logistical challenge for a future wedding. Following seven months in Afghanistan, Chipp would return to California for a month or so then need to pack up and move to Virginia for his next set of orders. This didn’t leave a ton of time for a wedding, and it certainly wouldn’t have been fair to Jenna to ask her to plan on a big thing on her own.
Compromise? We just did a small wedding in California post-deployment and pre-move to Virginia. While certainly easier, this meant we wouldn’t be able to tackle the visa/administrative/logistical challenges of flying Jenna’s folks over to the States for the wedding.
Technology being what it is, at least Jenna’s parents could follow live via Skype, but it’s certainly not the same as being at your only child’s wedding.
A (Wedding) Feast in Ukraine
Three years later, on our first trip to Ukraine together, Jenna’s parents made up for this unfortunate absence, throwing us an awesome “wedding” party (all the food, booze, and fun with none of the associated matrimonial nonsense and stress).
On one of our first nights in town, they rented out an awesome outdoor venue - a delicious Armenian restaurant right in Zap. In addition to just being a cool spot, the night would be a great one-stop-shopping way to catch up with all of Jenna’s friends and family, people she hadn’t seen in five years (and who Chipp had never met!).
Oh man, what an introduction to a Ukrainian feast. It’s hard to even put into words the massive amount of food on the table when we arrived – and those were just the starters! There was barely any free space on the table – salads, cheese plates, pickled herring and onions, olives, tomato and cucumber salads, grilled chicken salads, and assortments of olives, just to name the things that come to mind.
Yep, those were just the “zakuska,” the snacks to pick at over a few drinks while everyone got there. Honestly, though, this was an entire (enormous) meal in and of itself.
But it certainly didn’t stop there.
Next up – heaping trays of kebabs, ribs, and grilled mushrooms appeared on the table – another couple hours (and thousand-ish calories…) of chatting, drinking, and eating.
Still not done.
In proper fashion, the restaurant saved the best for last – platters of beef and pork shashlik, seemingly piled in towers. For context, here’s shashlik: marinate tender chunks of meat for a couple days in a mix of onions, vinegar, and spices, slide them onto skewers with some big chunks of onions wedged between pieces of meat, then slow cook the skewers over extremely hot coals (no flames). End result? Crispy outside and soft insides dripping with flavor. Sorry to the vegetarians, but this was an absolute meat parade.
Being a Buffalo guy – and Jenna an adopted Buffalo girl – what’s a wedding without dancing to “Shout!”?
Surprisingly, figuring this out at a restaurant in the middle of Ukraine wouldn’t pose nearly the challenge one might expect. Armed with her native language skills and a few dollars, Jenna convinced the DJ to throw in onto the playlist. For more context, our restaurant had multiple areas rented out – some of which included actual weddings – so there was a dance floor in the outdoor courtyard to facilitate the associated not-so-good dancing.
“Welllllllllllllllll… You know you make me wanna SHOUT!”
Yep, you know what happened next. We got the whole crew out on the dance floor. And, the beauty of this song? You don’t need to know a lick of English to make an ass of yourself on the dance floor ripping it up to some solid Isley Brothers action.
But, the real cherry on top involved an actual wedding. About one chorus in, a bride and groom – tux and wedding dress and all – joined us on the dance floor. They may not have ever heard the song, but some awesomeness just has a way of crossing cultures.
Every time you travel abroad, you’re an ambassador for your home. Some ambassadors just choose to spread epic wedding/Bills songs rather than diplomatic overtures.
A Recurring Tradition
This night back in 2018 was absolutely awesome, so Jenna’s parents have been kind and generous enough to make it a regular tradition, reserving the same restaurant whenever we head back to Zap and inviting friends and family for a night of food, drinks, and fun.
This trip was no different, and we had an absolute blast of a night, to include…
Toasts… And their Danger
Okay, some more background. Taking shots of alcohol in the States has a certain, well, negative connotation – and understandably so.
In Ukrainian culture, things are different. You don’t take “shots,” per se. You toast! While many Italians wouldn’t imagine re-corking a good bottle of red wine once it’s been opened for dinner, once you pop a bottle of vodka at a big Ukrainian feast, you finish it.
But, once again, this sort of drinking is different than American-style, rip-through-a-bottle-of-booze-before-going-to-the-bar drinking. Some people may accuse us of simply playing a semantics game of rationalization, but Ukrainian toasts are far more communal.
Over the course of a multiple-hour meal (one where you almost have too much food in your stomach to drink), people propose all sorts of toasts. To friends. To loved ones. To lost ones. To anything else that warrants a moment of silence – or a laugh – or a tear. Bottom line, it’s not drinking for the sake of drinking (though, spoiler, it can become that by the end of the night…).
The booze is almost ancillary to the toast, with people often just “touching their lips,” that is, raising a ceremonial glass to their mouths in honor of the subject matter.
But yeah, by the end of the night, toasts have a way of opening up, being less about the subject and more about the excuse for another shot. And, one of the most beautiful phrases in the Russian language goes hand-in-hand with this reality:
Roughly translated as “a bit,” this ubiquitous phrase has come to mean “how about another one… just a bit?”
After one too many “choot choots,” Chipp, Jenna’s uncle, and her dad (though less so), had had choot choot too much to drink… Rough morning, but a hell of a night!