Tar, halva and sunflower seeds. Maria Kalenska Gastronomy Blog about Odessa

Tar, halva and sunflower seeds. The street of childhood keeps a special smell…

When in the celestial chancellery God wrote out new travelling allowances for human souls, it was decided for me to be born on a street that smelled like halva or tar: depending on the wind direction, the Oil and Fat Plant chief technologist’s mood, the train schedule at the Odessa-Malaya station, and God knows what else. Perhaps, I was meant to be sent to the most fragrant Odessa street Chernyshevskogo, or Vorontsovskaya, as it was called in the old Odessa days. It happened that the aromas of this street determined the future of our family members: if it smelled like tar and coal when you were brought into the house – you were a railway man, if smelled like halva and vegetable oil – then you were into food. Those who were born and lived on Vorontsovskaya Street learned about the street aromas when we as “new settlers” were separated throughout the city. And us, being strangers, we began to feel it. The cozy nests of Odessa courtyards were dispersed. Old dilapidated houses were demolished. The heaps of sunflower seeds shells were wiped out, and the plant stopped working…

We ride with my mother on a red bus along the endless Vodoprovodnaya Street. Under the railway bridge, you make a wish, and if you are lucky at this moment, a train rides rail over you. You close your eyes, you want to concentrate, and get something most important and cherished from the wish-box. Here the bus crashes into aroma wave, a very recognizable one and purely gastronomic. Sunflower oil, fried sunflower seeds, some kind of sweet intoxicating aroma of halva hangs densely in the air. On a hot day, you can even physically feel its boundaries.
“Your homeland!” – says mom.
“Red Cross!” – passengers shout to the driver.
You greedily inhale the smell, you want to deliver it in yourself to a new house: a faceless concrete block, where everyone pretends not to know each other.

In our old rickety house with a wildly blooming lilac bush and a well in the middle of the yard, as in an Odessa anecdote, lived an officer, a cook, an Odessa-Moscow train conductor, a former prostitute and engineer, a retired singer, police officers family with two shepherd dogs and a dominant lady of an unknown profession with a feeble old man. There also lived hillbilly aunt Lena, who cooked such delicious borscht with beans that her husband, Uncle Kota, always had to return home. And we, small children, also lived there, clean as a white sheet, without a profession and other aggravating circumstances. We lived in a flock and we were common, namely ‘vorontsovskiye’. We ran to beg high hat woman for sweets at the railway crossing, we met trains at the Odessa-Malaya station, desperately waved at the perplexed passengers sitting in the windows of passing trains. That made their faces look like smoked sprats in a glass jar, and it amused us very much. In the summer, we slid down the seed husks heaps, climbed onto the molasses tanks and got a treat using sticks. We climbed up and down, never chickened out and then walked down the street, proudly licking ‘lollipop’ from Moldovanka.
And we usually ran to dinner where the food was ready. Aunt Lenochka is cooking the famous Vorontsovka-wide borscht with pork ribs. She generously pours it in Ukrainian painted clay bowls, it is thick and nourishing. On the street there is a primus, and on a primus, there is an electric furnace, and in that electric furnace, there is a miracle – an apple vertuta, roasting and getting crunch. So there will be a fight for caramel at the bottom, even if the apples are juicy and enough for everyone. “A man who baked no bread knows nothing about life!” – says the black-eyed aunt Lenochka, deftly twisting the bundles of dough with filing into round snails on a wooden table…

I remember my childhood only by smells. I was only five when our stuff and a huge teddy bear were thrown into an old truck, and we moved from Chernyshevskogo Street to a new bedroom community, and then the wind of change completely blew me away from my hometown. But I still remember the aromas that steal my years and take me to dusty childhood, where everyone read from faces and listened from balconies, knew who lived with whom and did what, spoke a language that sounded more like a crazy quilt of languages. We were one big cheerful and scandalous Odessa family. And one day, when my eyes will no longer see, and my legs will not walk, the aromas will return me to where it all began – to my home street, which smelled sweetest of everything in the world: like sunflower seeds, halva, tar and homeland…

Railroad station of old Odessa

Visiting old Odessa

Sunflower seed shells

Old Odessa railway

Old Odessa street

Streets of old Odessa

Old railway building in Odessa

A street of old Odessa

Doorbells in Odessa

Windows of old houses in Odessa