Author combines comedy, calamity and cuisine

Book Baba's Kitchen: Ukrainian Soul Food will be read Sept. 27 at City Centre Library.

by Andrew Fleming

Writing a book that pairs true stories from the Holocaust and Stalin’s Great Purge with traditional Ukrainian cooking recipes and folklore may seem an unlikely choice for subject matters, but for author and cultural historian Raisa Stone it was a perfect way to commemorate her proud Ukrainian heritage.

Stone will be reading from her new book, Baba’s Kitchen: Ukrainian Soul Food, Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. at the City Centre Library (10350 University Dr.) as part of event meant to mark the 125th anniversary of Ukrainian immigrants first arriving in Canada as well as the 25th anniversary of Ukrainian Independence from the Soviet Union.

“This book is a lifelong labour of love,” said Stone. “We’ve lost so much as Eastern Europe’s indigenous people, and I am determined that our stories survive. Pairing them with Slavic cuisine is perfect; Ukrainians usually tell these stories over lovingly prepared meals. In fact, we compete with each other for the best dish, the best story, the best joke.”

She said that food plays a unique and fundamental role in Ukrainian culture.

“Ukrainian cuisine feeds your body, your soul and your spirit. It is an integral part of our spirituality and sense of community. For example, each grain of wheat represents a soul. Grain used to make bread is a symbol of community. We present lovingly home-baked bread and salt (for preservation of life) to guests. For someone who is acting in an unacceptable way, we have equally strong messages: ‘I would not even make borscht with such a person.'”

The author spent decades collecting stories from survivors of the country’s dark mid-20th century history, along with nearly 200 of their traditional recipes, and the book is written using a fictional narrator named Baba who is a composite of the women from the Old Country who nurtured her as a child. Between tales of magical encounters with Slavic spirits and how-to guides for creating time-tested bowls of borscht. She also recounts the confession of an elderly neighbour who murdered her abusive husband, a secret Stone kept until after the woman’s death.

“Creating a zany narrator is how, I think, I was able to handle the overwhelming sadness and loss related to me by our elders,” said Stone. “My paternal Baba (grandmother) died of infection when the Soviets denied her medical care for a leg fracture.”

Attendance is free and the event is being held in conjunction with the library’s photo exhibit of Ukrainian pioneer life that was curated by the University of Alberta’s Kule Folklore Centre. Books and handmade jewelry from Western Ukraine will be available for purchase on a cash basis. Call 604-598-7426 to reserve a seat.

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