August 22, 2012
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№ 7 (July - August 2012)

Editor's Letter

Chewing the Fat on Greasing Business Relations with Salo

Pat Davis Szymczak

   This month I hope you’ll excuse my absence. I’m on vacation. But considering our Black Sea theme this issue, I thought I’d offer to repeat a missive I did on Ukrainian culture in our September, 2009 issue. Enjoy!

   If you didn’t think the fight for Arctic oil riches was getting serious: a close relative of Ukraine’s president Viktor Yushenko has told a journalist that Ukrainians discovered Alaska. His proof? One of the Aleutian Islands is called Poltava (a city in Ukraine where Peter the Great defeated the invading Swedes in 1709.)

   Visit if you read Russian and see what else is in his interview with the newspaper Stolichniye Novosti. But let’s get back to Alaska. It might actually be true! When I was growing up, one of the first things I learned about native people living in the northernmost part of Alaska is that they eat blubber.
That’s whale fat, a diet staple not much different from Ukraine’s national dish – salo. You may think I’m exaggerating but whalers from Russia (Ha! Ha! We know they were Ukrainians) did establish the first European settlement in Alaska in 1784.) But OK, so salo has nothing to do with whales, it is pig fat and it’s the same as “fat back” in the United States. But in Hollywood Westerns, the cowboys melt their fat back in frying pans to cook cornbread and other things that would over time qualified them for triple by-pass heart surgery (if there was such surgery in the 19th Century.)

   But raw pork fat? Eat it? It was 1991 and I was visiting Moscow for three weeks to celebrate the New Year with Russian friends. Moscow was not what it is today. I’m an American and in America there is a fast food restaurant on every street corner. But in 1991, in the center of Moscow, an 850 year old city of 11 million people, you had – for lunch – a choice of either Pizza Hut at the junction of Kutuzovsky Prospect and Dorgomilovskaya Ulitsa, or (Russia’s only) McDonald’s at Pushkin Square. In those days, commoners like me tried hard to befriend someone with U.S. embassy cafeteria privileges. That was the only place besides McDonald’s where you could buy a real hamburger and fries.

   Still, I didn’t believe my colleagues at the Chicago Tribune bureau or my Russian friends. And so I walked through the snow and ice along Kutuzovsky Prospect to the Ukraine Hotel where I believed I would most certainly find lunch. And there it was, at the bar, on a shelf among dozens of bottles of alcohol – plates of what appeared to be filleted chicken breasts on thin slices of white bread. Eureka! I ordered two, slapped them together to make an American style sandwich between two pieces of bread. I bit off a large chunk.

   Salo! I didn’t know what it was called then. All I knew was that I couldn’t eat it. Nor did I truly appreciate the role it plays in Slavic culture. My colleague Elena, who hails from Minsk in Belarus tells me that her mother moves furniture around the flat by putting Salo skin between the undersides. “Ok,” I said, “but doesn’t that make a mess on the rug?” Yes, “but it’s easy to wash off,” Elena replied.
I’ve also heard a story of how salo brought to a successful close some rather serious negotiations between a global oil major and a Russian oil major over a really big project. It happened at a formal dinner at one of London’s most prestigious hotels. You know the kind of place where the waiters all wear white gloves? Anyway, it seems that as “after dinner drinks” were being served, one of the Russians (obviously a Ukrainian pretending to be a Russian) reached under the table and out of a small duffle bag, he pulled out a knife, a chunk of salo and a red onion. While the white-gloved waiters struggled to keep straight faces, this salo chef started to slice and share the delicacy with his colleagues and his foreign dinner partners.

   See how this might ease tensions in the Arctic? No more competition to see who can plant their flag on the ocean floor from a mini-submarine. Just invite everyone to Poltava Island for a party and make sure your refrigerator (do they have those in the Aleutians?) is stacked with salo.

   Enough of “chewing the fat”. Now here’s another mystery solved. Did you know that Ukrainians might have built the Egyptian pyramids? I’ve watched enough of the Discovery Channel, National Geographic and the X-Files to know that the pyramids were built 10,000 years ago, that they are a representation of the stellar constellation Orion and that probably we’re all descendants of an alien race from Rigel or Betelgeuse (those are stars in the constellation Orion and the latter has nothing to do with the 1988 Hollywood comedy of the same name.)
But if you visit, you’ll learn otherwise. Ukrainians built the pyramids and even today any Slav will tell you that the roof on a typical Ukrainian house is in a pyramid form. OK, so maybe its “pyramid power” that gives Ukrainians electrical power during those predictably every New Year breakdowns in negotiations over gas prices between Kiev and Moscow. (EDITOR: Remeber this is reprinted from 2009. As you know, the gas wars have since, quieted down somewhat between Russia and Ukraine, at least with regard to EU deliveries. Maybe they have been eating salo and red onions to get negotiations on the right track.)

   So you see? Understanding culture and history is vitally important to doing business in a foreign country. Imagine if you’re not Russian (errrr Ukrainian) what conversation starters you now gleaned from my column, for your next negotiation with your Russian partner. And if you are Russian (errrrr Ukrainian) imagine how I’ve just raised your consciousness and pride about things you probably knew all your life at a genetic level but really haven’t taken time to think about.

   My colleague Elena, who inspired me to write this column and helped by researching the Russian speaking Internet is now so embarrassed that she vowed to stay off the web (or at least she won’t share with me what she finds on those Russian language websites.) Curiously though, she also stopped arguing with her Ukrainian colleague Anna over who was first to make what great discovery – Ukraine or Belarus. Could it be true? I’ve heard that they went to the Stolovaya a few days ago and broke bread with fresh salo from Kharkov!

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