"Viker ... viker ... viker raadio", softly blared from the ancient (1980s) radio in our kitchen. Then old ladies with names like Laine or Ene would take to the air to wish each other happy birthday. Of course I didn't know what they were saying at that point. But the many mornings of listening to Vikerradio built up some sort of sound backlog in my head -- familiarized my brain with Finnic intonations.
From the kitchen would then springforth Epp, [students'] coffee in one hand, steaming bowl of tatrahelbed in the other. I had never drank 'students' coffee' until I moved to Estonia. Rather than boiling a pot like they did it back home, she would simply drop a tablespoon of ground coffee in a cup, pour boiling water on top of that, let that settle, then add milk, and voilla -- student's coffee.
But drinking ground coffee was the least of my concerns. What was on my mind was the tatrahelbed, which was, as usual, salty. That's right, in Estonia people eat salty porridge. And I was supposed to eat a lot of it. Salty bite after salty bite. Oh, how I yearned to drown it all in maple syrup. But I played along, trying to eat the mountains of salted porridge until one day I had enough.
After some more pressure she gave in and gave me my tatrahelbed with raisins and sugar, set aside especially for me before she adds her salt, and it's been that way ever since. And oh, how I eat it all. It tastes good. I just had some yesterday. Tatrahelbed has a mellow taste that counterbalances the sugar. And you can never add enough raisins. Yum.
"Do you think you could put raisins in it this time?" I asked demurely.
"But I don't think raisins will go with the salt," Epp responded.
"Well maybe you could put raisins and sugar in it, instead of salt?" I asked.
"But tatrahelbed is supposed to be eaten with salt, and sometimes some meat [you fool]," she retorted.
My revolutionary action of eating tatrahelbed with sugar and raisins did not go unnoticed in Estonia though. Epp quickly introduced the concept to her friends, all of whom gulped in disgust at the very idea of eating tatrahelbed with sugar and raisins. "How gross?" They must have thought. "Everyone knows it's supposed to be eaten with salt, and maybe [if you are lucky] some meat."
If anyone was gulping with disgust though, it was me the first time I laid my eyes on homemade sült, Estonia's popular jellied meat dish. This was the morning after I first met my father-in-law. I was seated at the family table. Everyone was digging in. And then it was presented: sült.
It's taken me various amounts of times to learn certain words. But I learned the word sült in one take. It stuck with me -- strike that -- it has haunted me ever since. The clear jelly surrounding the pieces of meat from unknown animals. The texture of the glimmering surface. Who knew what animal, let alone what part of the animal this stuff came from. It could have been chilled pig brains for all I knew. I was certain, however, that the shimmering, quivvering 'pie' in front of me was not pancakes and syrup.
Everyone smiled and loaded their plates. Everone except for me. I was appauled at myself. "I should be willing to eat this gunk to satisfy the curiosity of my new relatives," I thought. But every burst of cross-cultural bravery was extinguished the moment I took another look at the pieces of pig flesh floating in slimy goop. So I weasled out of it. I let everyone take second helpings, and loaded up on bread and cucumber instead.
When we visited Estonia after we had moved to New York our daughter Marta was then about 10 months old and eating solid foods. I'll never forget how awkward I felt holding her in my arms in the gray air of Tallinn in September, feeling that she would always be able to fit into this place, and I would always stick out like a sore thumb. I would always be a foreigner. She could change nationalities as she pleased.
Anyway, I was sent to Säästumarket down the street from our old apartment in Kalamaja to buy some badly needed Estonian food. We had survived for too long with out Tere! Pudding and that Latvian cheese with the long name and weird letters -- I could eat a whole chunk of that stuff in one sitting. Also on my grocery list for Säästu was one container of sült. I figured I could pick it up, so long as it was enclosed in plastic.
When I got back to the room I watched in horror as my wife opened the lid and began to share the contents of the gooey meat jam with our ten-month-old. And she ate the whole thing! It was then I knew that my child indeed carried with her some heavy duty Estonian genetic material. This was going to be 'their' thing, the same way that Marta and I could enjoy fresh mozzerell' together in solitude. It was official. My daughter liked sült.
One Estonian dish I expected to hate but wound up consuming with abandon is piimasupp, especially piimaklimbisupp [milk dumpling soup]. Epp once said that there can never be enough dumplings in piimaklimbisupp. Very wise. Very wise.
Whereas Estonian breakfast porridge is salty, Estonian milk soup -- usually consumed at lunch or dinner -- is sweet. Sometimes it is made with noodles, rather than dumplings, to great effect. Just add cinnamon and you are done. This is sort of indicative of a trend in Estonian cuisine as a whole, to take something that makes sense [soup] and add something that doesn't make sense [milk] to it.
Like this one time in London, where we were sharing a house with some Lithuanians for a few weeks, I decided to make pasta and the sauce, which means boiling down many tomatoes, garlic -- you get the picture. Because Brits call pasta "päästa" I had to scrounge for my ingredients. But I was working hard, and Epp got impatient. She began throwing frozen french fries into my sauce.
I was devastated. She had ruined my intricately crafted sauce with some base, useless food: fried potatoes. It took me several moments to regain my compsure while she assured me that the combination of fries with sauce would be quite good. And you know what -- she was right! It tasted damn good. I began to trust this woman.
What's on the Menu?
The reason I am telling you all of this is because one day in New York I was asked one of those questions you get asked when you have lived in a country that nobody has ever been to. Right up there with "what's it like?" and "what language do they speak?" is "what kind of food do they eat there?"
To which I replied, "salty porridge." This was followed by universal looks of horror and disgust, then a cautious, "what else do they eat?"
"Well they have this thing called sült. It's kind of like a jellied meat," I continued. "Jellied meat!?!" they reacted in horror. Now they started laughing. Like I was making it all up. "Anything else?" my colleague laughed, giddy with the knowledge of the disgusting new foods he had discovered.
"Milk soup." I answered. "Oh this is too good to be true," the colleague chuckled. And he wrote it up on the board in marker above his desk, "Estonian menu" it read, and below it "salty porridge, meat jelly, and milk soup."
As far as I know that menu is still sitting up on that board to this day, amusing my colleagues whenever they walk past it.