Bacon Fat on a Stick in the Hungry Wilds of Russia

Shamu Sadeh • Falls Village, CT

 

In July of 1991, I joined high school students, biologists and environmental activists on a research expedition to the remote Koni Peninsula in the Russian Far East.[I] The peninsula could only be reached by boat or helicopter, and had no human residents except for the occasional seasonal fishing camp during salmon runs.

On our first day—a day during which I would experience exhaustion and deep physical hunger my body had not known before—a small fishing trawler dropped us off at the edge of a coastal lake where we expected to set up our base camp for the entire expedition. We unloaded enough food and gear for 45 people for a month. This included heavy canvas tents, cook pots, axes, saws and tarps. In the early 1990s, Russia did not have freeze-dried meals nor anything particularly light or easy to handle in the backcountry, so we carried 20 kilo sacks of flour and bags of potatoes, 10 kilo cubes of butter, and 2 and 3 gallon glass jars of pickled vegetables.

After moving all this stuff from the ship to a small boat and then onto the shore, a terrible discovery was made: the lake which the Russian trip leaders had identified as our source of drinking water was not freshwater but salty. We had to move our base camp. This meant that all day we had to heft thousands of pounds of gear and food across a mile of rocky beach. Add to this schlepfest the fact that only 5 of the 35 Russian teens were males, and being the heirs of Russian gender traditions, the majority of the females did not carry much.

At the end of the day I arrived at our new campsite (for the fourth time) worn to the bone. I was famished. The food, pots and fishing gear had not been unpacked, no pasta or potatoes had been boiled and no salmon had been caught yet. But the Russian girls, many of them of Ukranian descent, had unpacked the lunches their moms had packed before we set sail.

I collapsed onto the ground by the small campfire they had built. Anna, one of the teens, handed me a piece of black bread and bacon fat she has just toasted on the fire. Ukranians have a soft spot for bacon fat, or ‘sala’ as they call it. Without much thought I devoured the first pork I had ever had in my life. I remember nothing particular about the taste. What has stuck with me is the sensation, deep in mykishkes, of moving from hunger to satiety, from wandering to building a home.

1 If the term ‘Russian Far East’ leaves you confused, let me offer this point of orientation: This is where Siberia meets the Pacific Ocean.

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