Monday, September 26, 2011

WuPa Meals

A Finnish man who was being transferred to America decided to hire an architect to build him a new house. He asked that a sauna be built in the basement and gave specific instructions on how this was to be done. When he and his family arrived, the architect gave them a personal tour of their new home. It was a beautiful house, and he took particular pride in leading them to the basement, opening the door to the sauna. And what a beautiful sauna it was! The Finnish man, however, was a bit shocked to see wall-to-wall carpeting on the floor.

On Küüni Street in Tartu, among the myriad of other fast food joints that have appeared in the past couple years, there is a new place called WuPa Meals that sells bratwurst. Bratwurst, you may ask? It’s a German sausage. Russians may read the word and think “brother sausage”. WuPa Meals, you may ask? Hip-hop fans might get excited about the Clan. The Wu-Tang Clan.

Mrs. Mingus told me about the sign outside that advertised “German sausage”, fully knowing that I would be there within a few minutes. When I arrived, I just couldn’t believe my eyes. It was true. You can now buy “brats” in Estonia. Why am I so excited about brats?

Where I’m from, brats are a regional specialty. They are as common on the grill as “šašlõkk” in Estonia, and like šašlõkk in Estonia, brats are an imported concept, like racism. We typically boil them in beer, then throw them on the grill. You can buy them at bars, ball games, fairs and festivals. Fat men stand in the backyard sprinkling water on the coals to put out the fat flames dripping from the meat. Brats are served in a large hotdog bun with ketchup, mustard and sauerkraut. Estonians should be familiar with all three of these condiments.

Mine was served in a most peculiar manner. I was reminded of the Finnish man’s sauna. The brat was on the plate, next to the bun, which had been sliced in the wrong direction, ketchup and mustard on the side. This was the first time I’d ever eaten a brat with a fork and knife. Cut off a piece of meat, dip it in mustard, dip it in ketchup, make an awkward movement of putting the fork in your mouth while simultaneously biting off a chunk of sliced bread. But at least it wasn’t a standard hotdog bun. Freshly-baked mini-baguette.

But it was good. I grew up eating brats, and I can honestly say this WuPa brat was decent. Is it imported? Local? No clue. My only suggestion for the owners is that they serve it like a hotdog, and consider making sauerkraut available. Stick a grill outside too, serve them to go. They’ll make a killing! Less than two euros. This is a great, wonderful alternative to the mystery meat burgers that run rampant through the streets of Tartu.

Everything is cooked as it’s ordered. That said, ask Krista the waitress to serve the brat in the bun in the proper manner. If you order fries, ask her not to put potato seasoning on it, or salt. That was simply overpowering. Here’s an idea: when I make fries at home (not very often), I bake them, put them in a paper bag, sprinkle in some garlic salt, paprika and chili powder, close the bag and shake the hell out of it. Chili fries rock.

In WuPa Meals you can also get baguette sandwiches. Not sure where they get the baguettes from, as I didn’t smell anything resembling a bakery when I was there, but these baguettes are free of burned cheese on top and they are relatively free of spelling errors as well. Most places that have any sort of baguette describe them as “baquettid”, “bägett”, “paakueetid” or even “pägot”. That last one is a tad offensive. WuPa is the one place in Tartu that appears to have cared enough about their business to put their menu through a simple brat-damned spell-check before printing it out.

Afterwards, I went to the shop to buy some gum. As I walked through the security gate at the entrance and turned to go straight to the only register open, a rather tall man, studenty-looking, rushed in front of me with his basket and then snail-walked, not letting me pass. We got in line. One item at a time, he slowly emptied the contents of his basket onto the conveyor belt. Sour cream, bread, a kohuke, doctor sausage, a Red Bull. One…at…a…time… Krista the cashier gave him an exasperated look. Then it came time to pay.

He pulled out his wallet, which I could see was completely empty save one card. He flipped through his wallet so slowly that even time got bored and started going in the opposite direction. He put his wallet back in his pocket. It was now three minutes earlier than when I entered the shop. He searched his pockets, turning them inside out. Now it was yesterday. He opened his wallet again, located the single card and put it in the payment terminal. He entered his code over the course of the last decade and then it was my turn.

Even though time was moving in reverse, Krista had somehow become an elderly woman. I wanted the man to move so I could pay before she retired. As I was handing her the pack of gum, the man interrupted and asked for a bag. Krista mumbled her dying words, “Ten cents”, then collapsed into a pile of dust. The man pulled out his wallet again and began the whole routine once more. I put exact change on the counter and started walking away. The man grabbed my sleeve and asked, “Can I have ten cents? I can’t find my card.”

I walked outside and almost got trampled by a horse. The rider shouted at me in German, eating a bratwurst. It was the day before the Second World War. I walked to the Estonian border and changed the direction of the arrow on the road sign that would tell the advancing Nazi and Soviet armies how to get to Estonia.

Seventy years later, when time caught up, Estonia had been spared the war, the occupation, the now-defunct political ideologies and massacres and deportations and decades of forced ketchup-consumption. Estonia had been free to develop in its natural manner. It was richer than Norway, the roads smoother than Sweden, the trains more modern than Denmark, there was not a single shaved guy in construction pants standing outside his old BMW drinking a Red Bull complaining about gay people. The man from the shop was walking ever so slowly down the street with a bag full of vegetables. I walked into a new restaurant that had just opened called WuPa and ordered a brat. It was served with chili fries and sauerkraut. Krista the waitress was smiling. A Finnish man moved to America and his sauna was still carpeted, however.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Mrs. Mingus and I had a craving for muffins. I’d recently made beer muffins with graham flour. Delicious. We wanted to see how they compared to Võru’s finest muffins, so we drove to Kohvik Muffin, on Freedom Street. In a beautifully restored house, the first thing you notice upon entering is a cake stand. No muffins. The bar is covered in a selection of homemade pastries. No muffins.

“Do you have muffins?” I asked the waitress, Krista.
“No, never? Or you’re just out at the moment?”
—We’ve had them a couple times. Why? she asked.
“Because your place is called Muffin.”
—Right, but we’re not named after muffins.

She said this in a tone that suggested, “You should magically know this.” Magic muffins. Now that would be a great gimmick for a bad restaurant. Pass them out to all customers before their food arrives, and people will enjoy their meals! They’ll get the munchies, too, and order more food. Great idea especially if you serve cakes, like Café Muffin.

The menu shows breakfast is served all day. They also have a section titled “Steaks”. These aren’t your typical steaks, however. They have cheese schnitzel steak, chicken steak, trout steak and pasta steak.

“What kind of steaks do you have?” I asked.
—We don’t have steak here, she replied matter-of-factly. I should have magically known. I could really go for a magic muffin.
“Because your menu has steak, but there’s no steak.”
—We have pizza.
“Oh.” I looked at the four pizzas on the menu. Chicken, something else, something else, and minced meat. “What kind of meat is it?” I enquired about the last one.
—Minced meat.
“Right, but what kind?”
—Minced meat. She looked at me like I was stoned.
“Beef, pork, mixed, chicken, turkey…?”

Naturally. Minced pork is an internationally favorite topping for pizza. I asked more about the pizza. Krista assured me everything was made from scratch in the kitchen, including the crust, and that their pizzas were huge, for at least two people. I was intrigued. I ordered the chicken pizza.

Mrs. Mingus ordered the daily special. Chicken and potatoes. In my mind, I ate several magic muffins. This made me hungry enough to eat a two-person pizza, and I would enjoy anything they served me. Mrs. Mingus’s food came first. It was amazing! I was completely in love with the wise selection of Santa Maria seasonings. The potatoes had potato seasoning, the chicken had poultry seasoning. The peas and green beans mixed in were fresh from a Bonduel can.

Ten minutes later my pizza was served. “Enjoy!” Krista said.
—Thank you.
“Would you like some ketchup and mustard as well?” I looked at her. Yes, she was talking to me.
“Ketchup and mustard? For your pizza?” The poor girl was just being polite and trying to do her job well. And she was.
—No, but thank you. I nearly gave myself a bloody lip I was biting down so hard in an effort not to laugh.

Smothered in athlete’s cheese, my pizza was perfect food for the munchies. I was jealous I hadn’t ordered the daily special, but luckily the pizza had the exact same chicken on it. Pizza Santa Maria, it should be called. Or maybe Pizza Santa Maria di Heinz, or di Felix, to describe the sauce as well. When you’re as stoned as I wanted to be at that moment, ketchup on pizza is exactly what you want. With mustard.

Luckily my kids ate the pizza. They finished it in a couple minutes, wasn’t so big after all. And as I had had so many magic muffins, I was still hungry. “Let him eat cake,” Little Mingus told her mother. We each got a slice, and I ordered one of the homemade pastries, a maple syrup thing topped in sliced almonds. I have to say this was delicious, regardless of how stoned I thought I was.

The cake and pies were lime, orange and jam. The jam couldn’t be identified, but it was red. Strawberry? Raspberry? Don’t know. Wasn’t too impressed. The orange pie tasted very good for the first couple bites, but it left an aftertaste that stayed with me for a few hours. Orange-flavored burps. Not very pleasant. The lime pie was very good. I make a lemon pie, and this was very similar. However, I could clearly recognize the green colored sugar available in any shop. That specific shade. Real lime should be more than enough to color it green. Was anything here in Muffin actually made from scratch, and not assembled from pre-processed food additives?

A good friend of mine has also eaten here. To quote him, “Muffin’s warm food blew chunks.” My response: “You just have to be stoned to enjoy it.” This place was packed, after all. It filled up right after we arrived. There was a constant line at the counter to order. They all magically knew all about the steaks on the menu. They were regulars, they liked their ketchup, and they wanted more. Each table had three or four adults sitting in complete silence, patiently waiting the twenty minutes for their meals to be assembled in the factory kitchen. They had all eaten their magic muffins before sitting down and staring at the table.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Sunday in Võru

“Let’s get outta’ here!” Mrs. Mingus urgently suggested this past Sunday, early in the afternoon.
—You mean, go back to Tartu? I asked, afraid she was tired of being at our family’s countryside cabin in Võru County. I’d been cooking experimental dishes for days, and didn’t want to see the end in sight.
“No, let’s go to Võru. I want to try that new muffin café called Café Muffin. Get some coffee, too.”

That sounded reasonable. I was anxious to get some steaks, if I could find them. Surely from among the six or seven large supermarkets—which I think is probably a lot for a town of fifteen thousand—one would have beef. So we loaded up the Little Minguses and drove the fifteen minutes into “the city”, as locals referred to it.

Muffin was closed. It was Sunday. Not a good day for cafés to do business apparently, with everyone working hard. It didn’t look like people were working hard, however. There were throngs of pedestrians wandering the streets. Many were bald, many wore baseball hats that seemed to be a size too big, many wore suits and sandals with grey socks. We joined them, wandering around, looking for coffee.

“What about Õlle 17, on Jüri Street?” I suggested. It was closed. Looked like it had gone out of business. “There’s a Kalevi Café a couple blocks up,” I suggested as an alternative. It was closed. Now it was the Võru Café. It was closed. Next to it was an odor shop and café called Aroomipood or something like that. It was closed.

“What about the Spring Café, down by the water?” We’d been there before. The place is pretty cool, but the service slow, food bland. But they had coffee, and you could sit on a terrace overlooking the lake. We got back in the car and drove there. It was closed. There was a family camped out in a tent on the beach in front of it. I overheard a motherly voice say, “Quiet Kevin, they’ll open tomorrow!”

“What about Katariina Café, on Katariina Alley?” one of us asked. I can’t remember who anymore. Caffeine withdrawal was affecting my memory. Talk was their pastries were good. Their food was not. It was heated-up, readymade, store-bought meals. We drove there. It was closed. Renovations. Not open on Sunday anyhow. There were confused people walking around outside. They looked hungry. They were holding wads of euros in their clenched fists.

We ventured to a local mall called Kagu Keskus. There was a corner café called City Coffee in it. It used to be a burrito joint. Burritos, in Võru of all places. They were very good, and cheap. Friendly staff. They were closed. The new place offered Russian ravioli and sour cream. There was a line for sour cream. The coffee machine had a sign taped on it that said “Accident”.

We’d heard about an Asian restaurant, in Võru of all places. We searched for and found it, on Freedom Street. It was in a gravel parking lot in an old, abandoned Soviet factory. We drove on. Probably closed. Sunday.

“Fine, let’s go to Ränduri,” Mrs. Mingus acquiesced. We like Ränduri, on Jüri Street again. Thing is, we go there too much, and it’s pricy. It took us a while to get there because of all the passers-by traveling via the network of crosswalks that connects the city. The Võru Transit Authority, a friend once called it. There was a line. The place was packed, I should add. Ränduri knows how to do business. I saw a black guy sitting at the public computer, watching YouTube videos. In Võru, of all places. Two kids walked in from the street and approached him. “It’s our turn,” they said in unison. The potatoes and house cake are amazing in Ränduri.

On the way home (no beef at any of the shops…Sunday?), we passed a nightclub called Club Tartu. Out of town we found a village called Sänna, on the highway to Valga. There was a sign that advertised a “Skywalk”, and it sounded interesting. We had time to kill. At first, our kids were eager to use the playground, then they saw the goats wandering across the village square in front of the manor house. We found the sign for the Skywalk and followed it.

This is actually pretty cool. A tiny little village, and the manor house is being renovated. It already houses a library with WiFi. Never understood that term, “wireless fidelity”. We’ve been married eleven years, and we’ve never needed wires. We started walking down the wood-lined path, between the buildings and toward the tiny creek, called the Pearl River. The goats were off to the side in a tree-canopied pasture, running away from us, leashes dragging behind.

Basically you walk through the manor park, which has been partially restored, and every few meters you see a sign that displays information about a planet. This has absolutely no relevance to anything in the manor park, except that you’re on a planet when you do this. But still, I didn’t know that Venus had an axial tilt of just over two degrees.

Moving on, you eventually come to a hill with steps leading to a large model of the sun suspended over a platform with benches, shrouded in trees. It’s a nice walk, in fact, very easy for kids. “Where’s Pluto?” my older daughter asked. She cried when I told her it wasn’t a planet any longer, so probably wasn’t on the tour.

We decided to rent some bikes, as we’d seen an ad for it, and see the rest of the Skywalk. We asked an Asian guy (in Sänna, of all places!), who was wearing an official T-shirt for something, if the bike rental was open. “No, it’s Sunday.” We decided to stop by the shop, but it was closed. On the way out of Sänna, we saw hundreds of head of cattle. A cattle farm? In Sänna, of all places.

“Maybe they have steak,” Mrs. Mingus suggested. The autumn sun was high in the trees on this beautiful day in Võru. In Tallinn, there’s a Club Hollywood. In Tartu, there’s a Club Tallinn. In Võru, there’s a Club Tartu. In Sänna, there’s a library and a map of the solar system.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Deep at the heart of the “Athens of the Emajõgi”—wait a moment, let me clarify that epithet a bit. Athens is a Greek city that needs no introduction. The Mother River (Emajõgi) is a river that does need an introduction. Tartu, a.k.a. Athens, sits on the larger branch of this river, known as the “Big Mother”.

Deep at the heart of the “Athens of the Emajõgi” sits a small restaurant on Town Hall Square called Lõvisüdame, or “Lionheart”, apparently named for Richard I of England. Richard the Lionheart, the king of England, neither spoke English nor lived in England. Estonia has lots of experience with leaders like these.

Estonia also has lots of experience with other things, like this restaurant, that don’t really belong. I’m not talking about dirty Finnish farners or neighbors from the East. I’m talking about attitudes. A lot of press has recently been given to the whole “love-it-or-leave-it” attitude. If you don’t like Estonia, leave.

And, well, there is a certain logic to it. I personally don’t feel that it’s a healthy way to look at things—either as the expunger or the expunged—but I will say that I think the wrong people are heeding this advice. Young professionals, promising university students, tons of valuable people are just constantly leaving. I’ve known a lot of them. They want a better future, so they go sell books door-to-door in the States, they pour beer in London, they work for the European Union in the Athens on the Mediterranean (this last one makes balls-all sense to me!).

Sit down and have a conversation the next time one of your friends wants to leave. “Money,” they invariably reply. “It’s too expensive here.” Well, that’s true. Beer in Holland these days costs less than twice as much as Estonia, but the salaries are much higher. Property in Estonia is generally on par with most Western markets in terms of price, but not quality.

But once you start this conversation, you have to have a couple drinks. Here’s where it gets interesting. Money quickly ceases to be the reason for leaving. “I don’t know, people are just so negative here. Grey.” I’ve heard this a million times. Or rather, a few hundred thousand. The whole population is only a million now. “People are just nicer abroad.”

It is not my intent to justify or defend this attitude. Just to catalogue it. Yet if I’m not wrong, and all the people who appreciate kindness and courtesy are leaving, who’s left?

The people who are left are the people who tolerate greyness? Mediocrity? I don’t think so, not necessarily. But I do think that the people who are left are specifically those who tolerate places like Lõvisüdame.

Lõvisüdame is the very first place anyone who sets foot on Town Hall Square will see. It’s the world’s first impression of Tartu. Compared to what else is available, the prices aren’t bad, but this review isn’t about price. It’s about tolerance. And taste. Mrs. Mingus and I ordered a couple of daily lunch specials here, and we were finished eating before we knew we’d been served. That’s how memorable it is.

Boiled potatoes with potato seasoning, a carefully and exquisitely chosen salad mix of cabbage, carrot and Luunja cucumber (Luunja is near Athens, just down the Big Mother). I should start calling this salad the CCCP salad (P is for pickle). I wasn’t sure, until I saw the receipt, if I had eaten chicken or pork. Yet as a meal, I can honestly find no fault with it. I would have no problem with my kids eating this in their elementary school cafeteria. This, however, is Tartu’s premier restaurant locale.

But as someone who chooses to stay and fight for a better life in the country they call home—as opposed to just going away—I must ask this question of all who would knowingly eat in Lõvisüdame: Have you no national pride? Don’t you expect better of your fatherland? I mean come on, there are literally dozens of better places for the same price within a two-minute walk. Why is this place even allowed to exist?

I recently ran to a Rimi grocery store in the evening to pick up a couple ingredients (I think I was out of Santa Maria’s kartulimaitseaine and Knorr’s kanapuljon). I couldn’t justify buying a plastic bag for my goods, but I didn’t have any pockets to put them in, either. The free, clear plastic bags had recently been removed from the customer’s reach at the register. Cost-saving measure, I assume.

“Could I have a bag, please?” I asked Krista, the cashier. She was a big mother, too, with a bad attitude.
—I don’t understand.
“A bag. Please.”
—What? I don’t understand you.
“A sack made of plastic, that I can put my stuff in,” I explained.
—We don’t have any, she said, staring at me vacantly.
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing behind the register.
“That clear plastic stack of things.”
—That’s a “plastic bag”.
“Could I have one, please?” I repeated.
—I don’t understand.
“What the hell is that?!” I pointed behind her again, this time into the distance. When she turned, I took a bag.
—Hey, you can’t do that! she protested.
“What? I don’t understand.” And I left. I decided I wasn’t going to tolerate that stuff.