There's no mistaking the scent of borscht on the stove top, filling the room with an earthy aroma and warmth that only a simmering pot of soup can offer.
Each week after services at St. Michael's Ukrainian Catholic Church on Eastern Avenue, the rich, beet-root soup is ladled into bowls and served to the faithful at coffee hour. So it's no surprise that it will be on the menu Saturday and Sunday at the 30th annual Ukrainian Festival in Patterson Park, alongside herring, stuffed cabbages, pastries and homemade breads.
"Borscht is a big part of our culture," says Maria Kaczaniuk, chair of the festival. "The contents vary by region, but we all have memories of eating it."
It's those memories Kaczaniuk and other Ukrainians in Baltimore have worked so hard to carry on. Many have a joint designation as first generation and baby boomers. That means they feel a constant cultural tug to foster the Ukrainian traditions their parents brought from the old country after World War II in an era of fast-food and gourmet-to-go. For the most part, they're preserving a lifestyle centered at the kitchen table.
"We still stand tall and want our children to know where they come from," said Kaczaniuk, who said recent immigrants from Ukraine help to strengthen the cultural bridge to the homeland.
She ticked off a list of traditions: "The Christmas dinner, the blessing of the Easter baskets, the making of Ukrainian Easter eggs, embroidery and the Easter breakfast. Some people don't want to be known as Americans, but as members of both cultures. We do not forget our roots."
Making a pot of borscht, which can be served hot or cold, blends the texture and many of the flavors of Ukrainian cuisine. The origins of the soup date back to the 15th century and relate to what's harvested from the rich soil of the homeland: beets, carrots, potatoes, onion, tomato and dill, to name a few of the ingredients.
Depending on the church fasting calendar - periods during the Christmas and Easter seasons when certain foods are not eaten - the borscht is made with a beef or a vegetable stock.
Its contents often vary by region. Borscht from Kiev contains no carrots, while the soup made in Odessa does, Kaczaniuk said. One thing that's common, though, is to add a dollop of sour cream in the bowl just before serving to add another layer of texture to the tasty soup.
Each week at St. Michael's, a parishioner brings in a pot of borscht from home. It is shared after liturgy in the social hall of the Byzantine-style church known for its golden domes that jut uncharacteristically out of the rowhouses near Highlandtown.
When the soup is paired with a steaming hot verenyky, a pierogilike delicacy stuffed with mushrooms, sauerkraut or meat and cheese, it becomes a stand-up meal that knows no boundaries. Soul food, Ukrainian style.
"Nothing says, `I love you' more than a Ukrainian grandmother, or a babka, putting a plate of Ukrainian food in front of you," said Danylo Dmytrykiw, curator of the Ukrainian Museum-Archives in Cleveland. Dmytrykiw said certain culinary smells trigger emotions for those of Ukrainian heritage: the plume of steam from hot flaxseed oil, cabbage boiling on the stove or sausage in the fry pan. "It's a state of mind," Dmytrykiw said.
He recalled how he became nostalgic for ethnic cooking when the pungent blast from a wayward garlic bulb overtook his apartment kitchen while he was living in Atlanta years ago. "The smells can take you back to the home fires." Along with the borscht at this weekend's festival, vendors are expected to serve about 2,000 verenyky, hundreds of cabbage rolls and countless links of homemade sausage and sauerkraut.
Loaves of freshly baked breads and trays of a fried dough pastry also will be sold. Look for medivka, a sweet, smooth, honey liquor, made by St. Michael's parishioners.
As a nod to past chairmen of the festival, a T-shirt will be sold listing each name. And those who attend the festival can observe demonstrations on how to make ornate Ukrainian Easter eggs and embroidered linens.
Dance groups in colorful costumes are scheduled to perform throughout the weekend and Ukrainian folk violinist Innesa Tymochko is scheduled to perform in the church hall. A group of seminarians from Washington are expected to attend and sing at the Catholic rite Mass in Patterson Park on Sunday morning.
"We are doing what our parents couldn't do in their own country," Kaczaniuk said. "For a long time they lived under communism and couldn't fight for it. The culture made them who they are."
2 pounds pork
1 1/2 pounds beef (shank or chuck)
1 carrot, peeled and cut into strips
1 parsnip, peeled and cut into strips
2 ribs celery, peeled and cut into strips
1 large leek, chopped
2 medium onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 cup dry white beans
1 pound cabbage, shredded
4 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces
8 medium size beets, baked in skins for about 30 minutes in a 350-degree oven and then peeled (divided use)