The content and opinions expressed in this blog are mine. They do not represent the US Government or US Peace Corps - Jud Dolphin

Sunday, August 23

My Borscht - Your Borscht

About four months ago, I was re-introduced to the beet as an adult. If you missed it, you can read about it in the Beet Goes On entry of this blog (May 2009). It was a tentative meeting. A bowl of Borscht and a beet, bean potato salad. I found myself enjoying both and looking forward to the next time.

Moving into my own apartment gave me the chance to experiment and create my own version of Borscht. It seems that everyone has a version. The joke in Ukraine is that a daughter cannot make her mother's and a mother cannot duplicate the grandmother's Borscht. Each is unique evolving over the ages.

Borscht is truly historic. There is debate about its origins. The Russians claim it and the Polish too. Even the Lithuanians try to make a case. But since I am in Ukraine, I cast my ballot here.

According to historians, Borscht probably dates back to before Christ with the Huns and Goths who roamed these parts. They used a weed type plant called Borshchivnyks. It's a wild leafy plant that was easy to scavenger and got used in a soup instead of cabbage. Combined with beets, the first Borscht was made and it has been evolving ever since.
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Some start their Borscht with a pork base. Others like beef. I prefer chicken because it is affordable in Ukraine on a Peace Corps living allowance. I can buy a whole chicken for about 30 hryvna - that's less than four dollars US. To learn about Ukrainian currency, check out

I like to go to the Bazaar on a Saturday and get all the ingredients I'll need for Borscht.

Shopping the Bazaar is a happening. Instead of hopping into a car and pulling into the parking lot of the local mega market, I walk about a half hour to the Bazaar. Many others are headed in that direction or returning laden down with bags of fresh food and other purchases. I meet a new friend along the way and get an invitation to dinner tomorrow night. Walking has its advantages.

The Bazaar is a busy mix of vegetable stalls along with stationary, cosmetic, household goods, hardware and clothing sections. It's an outdoor Wall Mart with individual entrepreneurs selling their goods. Prices are mostly fixed so there is no haggling. It takes time to understand vendors as they mumble prices, but I am pleased to say that I usually get it the first time. Language progress!

Inside a long building are meat and dairy vendors. I use the same vendors each time. I was introduced to several during my first week in Konotop by the City's Director of Children and Family Services. It seems that in Ukraine having a personal relationship is an important and pleasant way to live and do business. You can be sure of quality, a fair price and a warm welcome.

I buy a chicken. I'll cut it up and use a leg, thigh and the back and maybe the wings for my Borscht. I buy beets about the size of oranges and potatoes a bit larger. I'll need three of each. Garlic, onions, cabbage and a few carrots complete the shopping list. This will be my dinner for the better part of the week. It's always better the next day and the next and the next.

Here's my recipe.


Chicken. If I don't buy a chicken, I'll use three thighs including skin.
3 medium size beets
3 medium to large potatoes
2 carrots about inch in diameter
medium cabbage
2 large onions
3 - 4 large garlic cloves
Bay leaves, salt, pepper.

I always start by browning the chicken in a very large pot. I was taught by my host family to include the skin. The idea is to create a brown glaze in the pot as the chicken cooks. At the same time, I par-boil the beets, potatoes and carrots. Do not peel the vegetables yet. I usually boil them for about ten minutes. It's important to not over cook.

While everything is cooking, I cut up the onions into thin strings and crush the garlic. I use 3 or 4 large size cloves. It will not over power since you are making a large amount. But you can use less if you wish. It's going to be "your" Borscht.

Now it is time to assemble your Borscht. Remove the chicken when it has browned and left a nice glaze on the bottom of the pan. Sometimes I pour out some of the chicken fat if there is too much. Add onions and garlic and saute until translucent.

Cool the beets, potatoes and carrots. Peel them now. I use a mandolin to cut them into strands that are about 1/4 inch square, like mini French fries. If you do not have one, then either cut by hand or grate using a large setting

Combine beets, potatoes, carrots with the onions and garlic and the chicken. Do not de-bone or de-skin chicken yet. Add about 6 to 8 cups of water. I guess you could use 1/2 chicken stock if you have it. Add 2 - 3 bay leaves, 1/2 tsp of salt +/- and pepper to taste.

Cook uncovered on low heat for at least an hour. The liquid will reduce and the potatoes should thicken the broth. Remove chicken, cool and de-bone now. Discard any skin.

Shred a half head of cabbage and add to the pot. Sometimes I delete the cabbage. Your choice! Replace diced chicken and add 1/3 cup vinegar and 2 Tbls. of sugar. I like this sweet sour taste, but you could have your Borscht without it. Cook for another hour on low heat. When the cabbage is completely cooked and translucent, the Borscht is ready.

This recipe will serve four adults easily. Serve with hearty brown bread and a block of cheese. Some fresh uncooked vegetable, like small tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, pepper slices, pickled mushrooms, will complete your Ukrainian meal. It's easy to make. And for this born again beet lover, it is delicious.

I think I'll have some now. Join me!

Sunday, August 16

Cold War in a Museum

It was not high on my "must-do" list, but Anton is eager to take me to the museum. All week long we traded text messages.

If you have never done it, texting takes time to learn. First you must adjust to typing with your thumbs. I have chubby thumbs. Then you have to find the letters that are imbedded in the keys of the cell phone. Remember the old letters on the rotary phones and how they use to be used in reaching your phone exchange? I still recall mine from childhood - Pilgrim 5.

Now these letters are used for texting. For example, to get a "B" on the screen, you have to click quickly two times on the # 2 key. If not quickly enough, you get two "As" instead. And of course this only works in text mode. Fortunately there is a delete key. I use it a lot.

Finally we agree on a day and time. Although it takes a couple of phone calls just to confirm details, we are off to the Konotop Aviation Museum.

Apparently, Konotop was a center of Soviet aviation. A military installation developed and built some fighter jets and a lot of helicopters. An air base nearby trained pilots. Throughout the Cold War, many people were employed at this military center. Konotop was a hub for the Soviet military industrial complex. Now-a-days it has been downsized to an aviation repair plant specializing, of course, in helicopters. The museum is comprised of a small office and five helicopters spread across a field.
"Do you want to take pictures?" asks the attendant. "Do you want to sit in one of the helicopters?" Our admission charge depends on the answers. It is common practice to charge according to functions. I noticed this practice at the art museum in Chernigov. Pictures were prohibited unless you paid an extra fee.

We opt for everything and pay less than a dollar US for admission. Now you can take a look at military readiness circa 1960 in the Soviet Union.

I find it fascinating to read about these helicopters. The tonage they can carry, Their range of travel and so forth. I get to thinking about the troops and bombs they were designed to carry.

It's 1960. The Cold War builds to a cerscendo and then wanes only to build to another cerscendo. John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev are our leaders. Propaganda from both sides fills our minds. American children hide under school desks cradling our heads against the unthinkable. I wonder what they do?

The attendant turns out to be the Director of the Museum. We get to talking. Nickolai explains, "I am the director, planner, worker, everything. There is no budget for more." He takes us on a bit of a personal tour. We get to climb into an old World War II bunker that is off to the side of the field. Two men are repairing it. They are volunteers. It should be open to the public next year. That's how this museum works. Nicholai makes friends and people volunteer. He is an engaging personality. I like him.

Nickolai invites us into his office. He shows me uniforms from the Soviet and Ukrainian Military. A picture frame holds photos of American Astronauts. He is proud to tell me that these pictures were taken in Space on the International Space Station.

Nickolai and asks me to sign the guest book. Many important people, like Ambassadors, Kiev officials and military leaders, have left comments. Here is what I wrote:

I am a Peace Corps volunteer and find your museum very interesting. I see that the helicopters were developed and built during the height of the Cold War. In 1961 President Kennedy had another idea. He started an organization called the Peace Corps to promote cross cultural understanding and peace. Maybe one day, the need for planes and helicopters will cease and they will only exist in museums like this one. Thank you for allowing me to catch a glimpse of the Cold War from the other side. Peace and goodwill...

Jud Dolphin
Konotop 2009

Anton offers to translate my comments into Russian. It's a strange feeling to be at a former Soviet military base surrounded by attack helicopters and talking about peace. But then again, that's one of the reasons I joined the Peace Corps.

The next day they are having a commemorative gathering of men who once worked and flew the planes and helicopters at his facility. Nickolai encourage us to attend. So Anton and I return.

Nickolai is holding the Ukrainian flag up front before about 250 people. He is very pleased to see us and gives us a nod and wink. Later he comes over and gives me a warm greeting with the traditional Ukrainian handshake and an embrace.

The program is a series of speeches and a moment of silence for those who have died this year. Each name is spoken in a solemn tribute. There are seven. I could easily be at a VFW gathering in America. We all honor those who have served.

Anton translates so that I have an idea of what is going on. I am struck by the comment of one older man. He says, "Military people have to do some awful bad things...." He pauses and then adds, "But remember...we are still good on the inside."

As I leave the Aviation Museum, my mind is filled with thoughts of the Cold War, Soviets, and Americans. I think about good people who sometimes have to do bad things. It's sad when people are haunted by the past. And this past was beyond individual will or control. "We are still good on the inside...." I have a lot to think about. Maybe we all do.

Saturday, August 1


August 1st has always been a day that I remember. Back in 1956 when I was 11 years old, I had a dislocated hip pinned back into place during an operation that took most of the day. It was a pivotal event in my growing-up. Each year I give it a nod of remembrance.

This August 1st comes at the end of the work week. For me it's been a funky week. I was not feeling terrible, but not good either. In my life, I have come to accept these times and try to keep in mind that the sun will come out tomorrow. YIKES! That would make a great lyric for a song...huh?

I have been struggling with language. Well to be honest, I have been mostly ignoring language. I have not devoted much time to it. There is always something else to do.

For sure, I think about studying - a lot. I imagine opening a book or drilling through vocabulary cards. Like a computer, I'll never forget a word. I imagine having real adult conversations in Russian. And then, it's back to reality. I procrastinate. I always have a good reason to do something else.

My language tutor came by this week. The Peace Corps not only invests in 11 weeks of intensive language classes, but also provides modest funds for a local tutor. He is a great motivator. We have a two hour session. We have been working on the 200 most common Russian verbs. I know about 40.

I try to learn the sounds of these words in the context of a simple sentence. Russian sounds are mostly foreign to western ears and while there are some cognates, most words must just be memorized. Repetition upon repetition. In one ear and out the other. More repetition. It is not easy. At times every fiber in my brain rebels.

“Stop, no more!” I think that's procrastination reason number 11. “Forget it. You'll never learn Russian.” That's reason number 12.

Today I get up early with new resolve. No matter what, I will sit at my desk and study some Russian. I work through simple sentences and vocabulary drills for about 45 minutes. I feel better. I figure that if I only learn two verbs a day, I'll know all 200 in about 3 months.

“Yes I can! Yes, I can!” YIKES! That sounds like my first anti-procrastination reason and not a bad idea for a political slogan. If you want to hear some Russian, you can visit me or listen via this link

I get to the office a little early and meet Valaya along the way. She has a son with special needs and is devoted to him and her younger daughter. Along with Yelena, she is at the Children's Center every day. They make a great team.

Today, she greets me with a special surprise.

Out of her hand bag, she pulls a set of keys for the building. As you can see, these keys are huge. They're like nothing I have ever seen outside of an old cowboy movie when the sheriff jails the bad guy.

Carefully, she explains how each is used. One is for the gate and two are for the door. One must be turned three times to lock properly. Another won't lock until you nudge the door a little. “Now, you try it,” she says. We go through all the mechanics of locking and unlocking the door and gate.

I never asked for keys, but apparently something has changed. Unknowingly, I passed from American visitor to someone who can now be trusted. “Here, these keys are for you.” Maybe I am making too much of the passing on of keys, but I like to think that trust is connecting me in lots of ways to my new friends.

Amazing things continue to happen. My funk is gone. I'm learning Russian a little more each day. And the gift of keys gives me new reasons to remember this time of year.

August 1st – I'll be remembering you again.