Editor’s Note: This is the first of what I hope will be many personal memories showing the astonishingly varied diversity of experiences and insights that our Collington residents bring.
Thanksgiving in Ubeki-what?
By Ginny Mintz
It seemed strange going to Uzbekistan after three years’ absence with no project planned. So many of my friends had decamped for Tashkent (Uzbek capital) and Moscow to find jobs or to the suburbs to start families. On previous trips I’d arrived with plans for projects to help the artisans: hold seminars; translate measurements into sizes tourists would understand; make posters showing the many difficult steps needed to make the items and make labels telling where the items were made along with size and care instructions.
Periodically I translated recipes for American breakfasts to comfort deprived, finicky American tourists. But now more tourists have learned where “Ubeki what?” is and many artisans have observed the competition at New Mexico’s Santa Fe Folk Art Market.
This time I was going just to visit the many friends I’d made over the past six trips. What a great feeling it was to walk through the old city and have people exclaim, ”You’re back!”
I chatted with the blacksmith, the spice man, the jeweler and gold embroiderer, the wood carver, the block printer, metal chaser, and other friends. The carpet weaver had recently set up a carpet repair shop and carpet weaving school. The guy making chess sets had so much competition he is now making decorated furniture. The silk weaver had branched out and now has a shop full of exquisite silk creations and several women are making carpet bags. The 14th century Silk Road trading domes are bursting at the seams with artisan shops and tourists. Some of the ambitious young girls who used to just hang around now have their own shops, husbands and babies.
This was a far cry from a winter trip several years ago. Then, I held a cooking school and enlisted the entire hotel staff to prepare a genuine American Thanksgiving dinner for themselves and hotel guests, thereby stretching the limits of American ingenuity. With a Herculean team effort we assembled an approximation of necessary ingredients, which forced me to improvise and learn Russian terms at the speed of sound. Cranberry jelly? Nyet! Squeeze the juice out of a pomegranate, “granat,” and add gelatin. Owing to local confusion over the critical temperature for setting, we eventually fell back on a single can of cranberries smuggled from Kyrgyzstan. Sage—“shalfei?” Scour the town and eventually find some ancient herbs. Celery—“selderei?” Hope the leaves taste like the stalks. Ground nutmeg—“muskatnii”? Cloth bag and hammer will do the trick! Turkey—“indyok?” Put out an all-points bulletin and eventually find a couple of scrawny birds near the Afghan border sporting AA minus breasts. Pumpkins—“tikva”? The Uzbek variety are strange-looking green things, but will do.
One small oven necessitated a militarily exact “process” to be followed. But Uzbeks are independent, so five kilo of potatoes got cooked, hand-mashed and cooled before the turkeys were half done. Then the gas quit. The hotel owner’s home still had gas so we caravanned over there to finish the cooking while solacing ourselves with her homemade wine. Soon the all-clear was sounded, and we returned.
By this time, the guest list had grown to 26 and the dinner hour had come and gone—as had some of the guests. Raisa, the hotel owner, was fretting because it was past time to eat and food was not on the table. To calm her, I quickly brought in the coleslaw (lettuce was unavailable) while Beth, from Aid to Artisans, ate, opted the story of the first Thanksgiving.
Meanwhile Rusha, the hotel cook, carved the birds. The guests devoured them so fast I wasn’t sure I’d actually brought them in. However, the bones provided the proof.
Note: Ginny Mintz toured Central Asia in 1996 and became impressed with the skills of many artisans and craftsmen there. Then, In 2004, she made the first of six trips to Uzbekistan to help these people market their exquisite crafts and obtain a UNESCO Seal of Approval for their wares.