On Easter Sunday, Sofya Hundt’s husband gave her an Easter basket. Contents: one chocolate bunny, one Cadbury creme egg, a couple mini Snickers bars, seven camo-pattern plastic eggs filled with gunmetal-gray M&Ms, and a two-pack of hunters’ turkey calls. “Our first year out turkey hunting!” she wrote later that day on her blog. “How very thoughtful of the Easter Bunny!”
Hundt, a 29-year-old Azerbaijani Jew turned southwest Wisconsin farmer, describes herself as a “cross between Sarah Palin and Julia Child”—and while she prefers to keep her political views to herself, at Rich Food for Lean Times (richfoodleantimes.wordpress.com) she extols hunting, fishing, farming, and whole-fat cookery with a passion that would make both proud. The blog’s subtitle, in fact, is “The Girls’ Guide to Guns and Butter.”
Until she was 20, however, Hundt—then Sofya Blyum—had little experience with any of the above. Born and raised in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic sandwiched between Russia and Iran on the Caspian Sea, she was in her second year at the American University in Bulgaria when a freak drought closed the school for several weeks. She and other international students were relocated to a resort in the mountains where, Hundt says, “I was completely blown away by the clean air, the natural beauty of the forests and the mountains, and the profound realization that country life moved at an entirely different pace. I knew that this was where I belonged.”
A year later she met Jacob Hundt, a new American transfer student from California’s Deep Springs College, in the university cafeteria. She helped him buy a ham sandwich and, in the course of conversation, told him her dream of country living—an unusual aspiration for most young eastern Europeans shaking off the privations of the Soviet era. He countered with tales of his childhood on a Wisconsin farm—and that was that. When Jacob graduated in 2003 and returned to his hometown, Viroqua, a town of 4,400 in the Driftless Area about 90 miles west of Madison, Sofya, who’d graduated a year earlier, came with him. They married in 2004; she became a U. S. citizen last year.
Hundt says that from the moment she met her husband she pictured them married and living in the country with a pack of kids. In 2005 they took the next step toward that vision, buying a ten-acre farm just outside Viroqua. They raise grapes and a few grass-fed cattle, which they butcher and sell, along with eggs and certified organic asparagus and elderberries. Jacob teaches at the Waldorf high school in Viroqua, and for a time Sofya taught classes in jam making, pickling, and bread baking at the Driftless Folk School, a nonprofit outfit teaching sustainable-living skills to the greater Vernon County region. (May’s calendar includes classes in blacksmithing, permaculture, and whole-tree architecture.) But the arrival of the couple’s first child put a crimp in her teaching schedule; they now have two children, ages one and four.
Hundt cooked a fair amount as a teenager in Baku, mostly Russian and Azerbaijani standards like stuffed cabbage and borscht. But when she threw herself into feeding her family, she really found her groove, mastering American classics like tuna casserole and pot roast and concocting new recipes drawing on both worlds.
So in January—in part, she says, “to have something to do with my brain” while at home with the kids—she started the blog. Technically she shares it with a friend she’d gotten to know through Facebook—Rebecca Bratten Weiss, who grows food on her parents’ farm in Ohio—but the bulk of the posts are Hundt’s, and she’s taken to blogging with the same enthusiasm she’s thrown into hunting and farming. Rich Food for Lean Times got more than 6,000 hits in April; among its followers are other back-to-the-land types and fellow eastern European immigrants, including the proprietor of AZ Cookbook, probably the definitive online English-language guide to Azerbaijani cooking.
The blog is a forum for inquiry into just about any culinary topic that catches Hundt’s fancy: churning butter, birdwatching, bread baking. But the body of it is detailed recipes for her experiments in what she’s dubbed Transcaucasian-Driftless fusion.
It’s actually not such an improbable pairing. Traditional Russian cooking has a lot in common with the pale cuisine of the upper midwest, itself a product of Scandinavian and German immigration. Wisconsin winters, points out Hundt, “like the cold Russian winters, call for hearty, rich, starchy foods necessary to keep you warm and cheerful.” She’s a believer in the theories of the late nutritionist Weston A. Price, whose Weston A. Price Foundation for Wise Traditions in Food, Farming, and the Healing Arts (based in D.C. and helmed by Nourishing Traditions cookbook author Sally Fallon) touts the benefits of whole foods, raw milk, and animal fats. She’s also a “huge, huge fan” of fellow blogger the Pioneer Woman, Ree Drummond—the city girl turned Oklahoma ranch wife and cookbook author whose tale of cultural transition was just optioned by Columbia Pictures as a potential Reese Witherspoon vehicle.
Like Drummond’s site, Rich Food for Lean Times features mouthwatering step-by-step photo instructions for artery-hardening delights, including venison-blue cheese stroganoff and dulce de leche fudge alongside Old World classics like hingal, a traditional Caucasian dish of boiled dough topped with browned beef or lamb, caramelized onions, and garlic-yogurt dressing.
And, like the Pioneer Woman, Hundt is hoping for a cookbook deal.
“I imagine a sort of a Russian-American-Azerbaijani fusion cookbook,” she wrote recently on the blog. “It will be a celebration of bright colors and flavors, of sorts, with an emphasis on seasonal, organic, sustainably raised, local, and homegrown foods. Except when it comes to ketchup. And sweetened condensed milk.”
Toward this end she recently issued a call for feedback from readers on her recipes. I was game, so one weekend in April I tackled some of the Azerbaijani classics. Coming up with a menu was a challenge, as I didn’t think my digestive tract could handle yogurt soup, mushrooms in sour cream, and venison-blue cheese stroganoff. Instead I paired dovga, the yogurt soup, with Russian salad and a plate of pelmeni, little stuffed, boiled dumplings that are a relative of Poland’s more popular pierogi. As a bonus, this was an all-stovetop meal—the igniter on my oven had gone on the fritz the day before.
Russian salad is basically a potato salad with the added excitement of sour cream and canned peas—though Hundt’s interpretation prompted one fellow expatriate to comment that for a true taste of the former USSR one should also include chopped bologna. The dovga, a sour soup made with rice and greens, was easy, and my personal fave—an exotic combination like nothing you’re likely to encounter at a Lutheran church potluck, and surprisingly light and refreshing despite the tendency of leftovers to thicken into a sort of sour, spinach-laced rice pudding.
The pelmeni were the most difficult. In retrospect, I think I didn’t roll the dough thin enough, and my dumplings were consequently pretty hefty. Once cooked, the meat—a mix of ground beef and pork that in the interest of keeping things local I bought at Green Grocer Chicago—was encased in a thick glove of chewy beige dough. Served with a dollop of sour cream, melted butter, salt and pepper, they tasted fine, but weren’t pretty. Hundt says this can happen even to seasoned cooks and recommends a honeycombed pelmeni mold to achieve thin, tender, babushka-worthy pelmeni.
According to Hundt, it’s pretty easy to reproduce just about anything from Russian or Bulgarian cuisine in these parts—the climates are similar enough for the purposes of growing produce. But Azerbaijani food can be challenging, as the country’s terrain ranges from alpine to subtropical, with some fairly arid desert in between. (Baku is in the desert.) Back home Hundt made dovga with six different herbs and greens, including garlic chives and sorrel. Here she sticks to cilantro, spinach, and scallions.
And she misses the wide range of locally grown fruit made possible by the wide-ranging Azerbaijani climate, recalling kitchens loaded with sweet cherries, persimmons, pomegranates, an “enormous variety” of table grapes, and Caucasian plums, or alycha, used in a versatile sour plum sauce called tkemali.
But the bounty of the free market makes up for such losses. When Hundt was a child in the Soviet Union, meat, eggs, and dairy were rationed and treats like asparagus were rare. Here, though she’s experimenting with ramps foraged from the woods near her in-laws’ woods, concocting recipes for wild ramp pesto and ramp-and-nettle borscht, exotica like bananas and blue cheese also get her creative juices going.
In the end, she says, it’s all about inspiring others to try something new. “In our world of oversexed femininity and fat-o-phobia,” she says, “I just like to present an image of a woman who is not afraid to occasionally get dirty, kill and butcher her own supper, and then cook it in good-for-you animal fat.”