I woke up jet lagged and completely famished on my first morning in the Latvian countryside. I also woke up to discover the lone bus to the village market didn’t make it’s run that day. With no groceries and no sense of the day or time, I slowly realized what I’d gotten myself into. I committed to spend three months in an old, off-grid farmhouse in the woods, my only companion an 86 year old woman named Velta. She speaks not a word of English. I speak no Latvian and know only four Russian words. But there I was, in search of yet another adventure.
I never really cooked with any gusto until after my Hashimoto’s diagnosis. In my previous life I was an overworked professional living in a city packed with restaurants that made beautiful food for me. I just never bothered. However, if I had any hope of putting my disease into remission, I needed to follow a strict elimination diet known as the Autoimmune Protocol. A friend of mine, who does cook with gusto every single day, spent months teaching me everything I needed to know. Like literally everything, as in his starting point was hard boiling eggs.
That first morning in Latvia I had to forget the rules, channel the muse, and get creative.
Velta had local eggs on hand, feathers stuck to the shell and all. She also pulled me under the attic stairs, showing me where her root vegetables hide. ‘I may need to eat this same meal three times today,’ I thought to myself, ‘but I can figure this out.’
My attitude for those three months In Latvia was dialed in to the speed of: I Can Figure This Out.
No running water or plumbing? Okay, I can figure this out. Build a fire for heat? Alright, I can figure this out. Haul water from the well to bathe from a metal mixing bowl? I’m in, let’s figure this out. A solid 80% of my motivation for going into these woods on the other side of the world was so I’d be forced to figure my shit out. Rely on myself. Strip every last pretense. Teach myself that I can travel with even less than I think I can. To rewild. To remember who I was, who was still living in my cells, from generations and lifetimes past.
So I chopped and fried potatoes, garlic, carrots, and onions. I seasoned it all with turmeric, local sea salt, peppercorns, and plopped two runny fried eggs on top.
It sounds simple, I know. It was. It was also spontaneous and resourceful. At my core I’m both spontaneous and resourceful, but my past life had been rigidly planned and spoiled and not at all wild. In that dusty farmhouse kitchen I looked down at my simple breakfast and thought, ‘You can actually can do this.’ It wasn’t solely about the food. It was about saying yes to experiences intentionally out of my comfort zone.
It took me a few days to get into a rhythm. Once I did it felt very natural and obvious to cook with what’s on hand and only with what’s on hand. Everything is earthy and plain in that poor countryside, the food is no exception. Creating every spontaneous meal as I went was totally liberating.
One night about week into my stay, Velta came in the kitchen to sit at the table and watch me cook dinner. She was curious, sorta smiling, mostly staring out the window at the slushy snow. I pointed to what I was making and then pointed to her, raising my eyebrows by way of inquiry. “Ya ya ya…” she muttered, her yes sounding exactly like that of my late Grandma Jessen.
Eventually we ate our veggie hash and rice in silence, looking up to smile at each other every so often. When she was done eating she tipped her bowl toward me with a silent flourish of her hand. She was announcing to the world that she ate all of it. I smiled an exaggerated thank-you in return. She toothlessly smiled back.
And then she clapped.
Actual applause. Like at the end of a symphony.
I sensed the applause weren’t for the food exactly, but more an indication of her reticent acceptance that I wouldn’t actually die in the woods. She’d been unsure of me. Probably rightfully so. On my first trip out to the well she flicked the hem of my thin sweater with her rough hands and muttered something as she walked away. I saw her watching me from the window the first time I went to the shed for firewood, not bothering with gloves or to lace up my boots.
But it was in this moment at dinner, the moment when I proved myself useful not only at the well and in the woodshed, but in the kitchen, in this moment Velta welcomed me to her home. I cooked breakfast for her every day for the next three months.
I even tore apart a smoked chicken at one point. That was a milestone because I get persnickety and overly sanitized with my meat choices. I surprised myself when I got all anatomical with it, obsessed with hunting down every last bit of meat like it was a competition or something.
My coup de gras? Using the bones to make stock for soup and saffron risotto. I watched my cooking instructor friend make bone broth every week for months, but now it was my turn. I didn’t have celery or carrots. It was Sunday again and the village bus wasn’t running. I did have onions, garlic, rosemary, bay leaves, salt + pepper, and smoky chicken skin. I hacked up the carcass and tossed it all in a pot with good ole’ well water. I blazed up the giant wood stove and tended my little fire for hours.
It was in those woods that I come to understand that the power of food isn’t only in connecting to other people. The power of food has become a way that I connect with the fearless, creative side of myself.
What’s your favorite food memory? I’d love to hear in the comments.
Stay wild, babe.
* All photos taken by me in Velta’s kitchen