Odessa has been on my mind recently, and not just because I miss the perogies at the New York City diner of the same name. First, my parents went on a 14-day Black Sea cruise, only to come home raving about the port city so avidly, I was convinced they’d discovered an ancient Ukrainian branch of the Mah family.
And then I read Moonlight in Odessa, a charming first novel about a young Ukrainian woman navigating the world of Eastern European mail-order brides. Written by my friend and fellow Paris expat writer Janet Skeslien Charles, it’s a wry and darkly funny look at love, identity and culture shock. And did I mention that it’s set in Odessa? I sat down with Janet to find out more about this city perched on the edge of the Black Sea, and to discuss food in fiction, and Ukrainian cuisine.
You spent two years living in Odessa teaching English as a Soros Fellow. What’s the city like? How did your experiences inspire your book?
I loved the city of Odessa, which has beautiful beaches, lush parks, and French and Italian architecture as you can see from the photos of the opera house (above) and arcade (below). The city is known as the “humor capital” of the former Soviet Union, and Odessans love theatre, concerts, and literature. It is a very cosmopolitan city. Yet growing up, and even now in magazines like The Economist, I only see photos of old women bundled up in scarves when the media talks about Ukraine. I wanted to show the beauty, not the stereotypes, of Ukraine.
Two of my Ukrainian friends married men they met through international marriage brokers. An estimated 10,000 women who meet American men through international marriage brokers enter the U.S. each year on three-month fiancée visas. I wanted to talk about this phenomenon in Moonlight in Odessa.
I loved seeing American food through the eyes of your heroine, Daria, a young Ukrainian woman. What are some of the biggest surprises for her? How do Ukrainian and American cuisines differ?
Daria was surprised that you could order food from a restaurant and someone would bring it right to your door. She was shocked at how much food is pre-prepared, for example, when she went to a restaurant, she thought that the bagged lettuce tasted like formaldehyde.
When I was in Ukraine from 1994-1996, everything was cooked from scratch. You could not find soup in a can, sauce in a jar, or pre-made tortillas or pie crust. If you wanted hamburger, you had to grind it yourself. If you wanted jam, you had to can it yourself. Daria’s grandmother spent her entire life in the kitchen cooking, so Daria liked that American women had more free time to spend time with friends and family.
I like to eat Chinese food to celebrate being with friends, and French food when I’m feeling romantic. What’s the perfect mood for Ukrainian cuisine? What are some of your favorite dishes?
Ukrainian food is perfect for the broken hearted. When you’re feeling blue, there is no better comfort food. To be honest, before I went to Ukraine, I was a ‘picky eater.’ While there, I tried a lot of new foods and learned how to cook. My neighbor taught me how to make vareniki, dumplings stuffed with potatoes. Mine never taste or look as good as hers! I also love her olivier, which is a potato salad with peas, carrots, and a bit of pickle to make it tart. Finally, stuffed cabbage leaves are divine. So tender!
Can you find good Ukrainian food in Paris?
I recently went to La Table Russe (1 rue Ecole Polytechnique, 5e) and found that their borscht was a work of art. It felt like I was sitting back in Odessa. (Many people think of borscht as Russian, but it is actually a Ukrainian dish.) If you feel like splurging, Petrossian (144 rue de l’Université, 7e) is a great place for lunch. I love their store on the ground floor, which is full of champagne, caviar, and desserts. Upstairs, their restaurant is so elegant. A real treat!
How does food in fiction inspire you?
I’m one of those people who live to eat, so I love to read about food! I love cooking blogs for recipe ideas and inspiration. One of my favorite novels about food is Like Water for Chocolate. I also love food memoirs such as Tender at the Bone in which author Ruth Reichl describes learning about people by watching what and how they ate when she was a child. She shows us a new way to look at food and at people.
Love, mordant wit, probing questions about romance, money and identity… Moonlight in Odessa is a smart and funny read. Curious? I’m giving away one copy of this charming novel. To win, leave a comment below. The winner will be chosen at random next Friday, September 25 (family members not eligible). UPDATE: The winner is Shawn! Thanks for playing, everyone!
P.S. Special thanks to my dad for allowing me to use his beautiful vacation photos to illustrate this post.