This is maybe the only post I’ve ever written inspired by a short story. Yesterday, Adam turned me on to a story called Blue by Tom Maremaa, who’s clearly taken a cue from Polish filmmaker Kryzsztof Kieslowski, as this story is “Part One” of “Blue, Black and White.”
Are you onto something yet? Blue, black and white, when laid in that order make up the Estonian flag. Maremaa himself is of Estonian descent, and “Blue” is about just that — a young American man who travels to Tallinn to lay his mother’s ashes in the country of their origin. Adam said he thought of me the entire way through the read. And so did I.
Maremaa does well to capture the essence of that experience — the dull excitement and anticipation of traveling to one’s ancetral home. The tiny, security-devoid airport; the inability to sleep in the 4am sun; the unsettling deja vu of walking in a land that is at once foreign and completely familiar. It’s all there, on the page, and I could not have stated the experience more succinctly, as it paralleled my own story — sometimes closely and sometimes wildly far afield. Especially the part about the Russian mobsters, but you’ll just have to read “Blue” to find out about that.
I loved the story. And it inspired me to bake bread, I kid you not. In “Blue,” the protagonist Peter Lund stays with an aging Uncle Jaan. Who, in my mind anyway, was the equivilent to my mother’s cousin, Vilju, the small yet stout and elfin man who shuttled us around the denizens of Kardla. From the cemetary to the church to the Hiiumaa museum, he was our man.
On our day with Vilju, we were invited to his house where his wife, Ilmi had lunch prepared at the table that stood in the back of their warm and tiny kitchen. The five of us sat there eating, in between bits of conversation, the watery afternoon sky diffused by the lace curtains that hung behind my head. Ilmi shuffled around the kitchen, preparing red currant juice and coffee in preparation for dessert, known as sai.
Sai is simply bread. Whether kept savory or turned into a sweet bread, the basic recipe is the same. Ilmi has probably spent a lifetime standing in the kitchen of that house where my own grandmother grew up — from the time her children were young to the time we came to visit, from Communism back to more comfortable Socialism, the view out the window remaining the same — kneading the dough and anticipating a similar outcome every time.
When she put the sai on the table I was a child again. Any Estonian has tasted sai. It is a staple — every culture has one, this bread, it’s like perogi. The cinnamon sweetness and the slightly tangy yeast flavor hit the back of my throat as I chewed. I vowed then and there to get my mother’s rendition of the recipe when I got home.
I had enjoyed being in Estonia up until that point but the bread really drove things home. Here was something tangible and familiar that I had been acquainted with since childhood and could be quantified as prototypically Estonian. Not even the language, the other common denominator of culture aside from food, had done that to me. Esto Fever was high at the time, reaching its apex upon walking into the dilapidated house that was started by grandfather before the time of war, still standing, waiting to be finished. I wanted to stay there. Busy, Western culture seemed foolish in comparison to the quiet, historied life on that tiny island.
Then I got sick in Helsinki and the soft nostalgic glow dimmed. Once back in the States, the weather was warm and I found myself caught in the pitch and role of the daily grind. Later I found out that in order to get my EU passport, I must get myself to New York, Ottawa, or back to Estonia — the process is more difficult and the hoops to jump through more numerous than any of us thought at first. Sai, understandably, was the last thing on my mind.
Until now. Reading “Blue” flooded my mind with the memories from my trip. I called Mom last night to tell her about the story and ask for the recipe. All the ingredients I needed were at hand and tonight was free. When I got home from work, I rolled up my sleeves and, empty beer bottle as my rolling pin, proceeded to make two small loaves of sai. Technically, I haven’t really finished. They are waiting for an egg wash before ending up in the oven. Yet while assembling the flour and yeast, the butter and sugar and the warm milk, I felt very connected to my family, those roots. This is the same sai that’s been consumed over countless Christmas dinners, from tiny The Dalles, to my Uncle Peeter’s old house in Don Mills, to the cozy confines of Ilmi’s Kardla kitchen.
I understand a little bit better now the connection of food to culture. It seems accurate that the thing that feeds the physical body is also what nourishes the roots of heritage. While my bread may not necessarily have the same consistency as a loaf made by more experienced hands, it has still been made by Estonian hands.