Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Sämmi Grill, and Sohva

“Grassroots” is a term used to describe a popular movement that has risen from several places at once, from the bare basics. A grassroots movement begins without leader, it begins without aim. Many are criticizing the “Occupy Wall Street” protests that have popped up all over the world for these very reasons. It obviously started in New York City, then spread. There are now Occupy Wall Street protests in Canada, Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Japan, Australia, Germany, Holland, Russia—except in Russia they’re calling it “Occupy Estonia”.

Just kidding.

And the main slogan all these disgruntled people are using is “We are the ninety-nine percent”, meaning they are not happy because they are part of the majority of the world, not the wealthy elite. Even in Tallinn the other day, there was a small group protesting in front of the Parliament. The movement is spreading here, slowly but surely. It’s picking up speed in Narva, though. Just yesterday, thousands gathered in the pothole-infested asphalt parking lot in front of City Hall, chanting, “We are the ninety-nine percent…who don’t speak Estonian!”

Just kidding.

Some readers have written me lately, asking that I not make fun of Russians. “Say ‘our eastern neighbors’ or ‘non-Estonians’ instead,” I’m told. What a ridiculous request! A country of almost a hundred and fifty million people, a hundred and fifty times the size of Estonia’s population, and I should refer to them as “non-Estonians”? By that logic, the whole world is non-Estonian.

Genetically, we’ve recently found out, Estonians don’t have very much in common with the Finns, contrary to traditional Fenno-centric thought. Instead, Estonians are virtually indistinguishable from their southern neighbors, and the millions upon millions of non-Estonians in the northwestern corner of Non-Estonia, to the east. The only differences really are language and certain cultural/behavioral aspects. Estonian is not a Slavic language, yet the neighbors to the south do speak a Slavic language. Slavic languages, of course, stem from the Non-Estonian language branch of Non-Estonia. Therefore, from this moment on, I will use the term “proto-Latvian” to describe the people who “democratically” elected a former KGB agent their president and live in the land of Non-Estonia.

But all joking aside, we’re all on the same team, even though we don’t always know it. We all want to be happy, safe, comfortable, warm, loved. These are innate wants, wishes, desires, requirements. You could even call these things “grassroots” human needs. Problems start to arise when we get organized in our pursuits of happiness. When we allow people to lead us, and when these leaders disagree on the best way to be comfy, and that’s not safe. Languages branch out and become unintelligible to one another, churches split and form endless denominations, governments have non-stop parties, corporations avoid taxes with their endless affiliates and subsidiaries.

The United States used to have an unofficial motto, “E pluribus unum”, which loosely means “Out of many, one”. Then a few decades ago Congress made the new and official motto “In God We Trust”. I seem to remember something from history about a separation of church and state. Instead of celebrating our plurality, our diversity, we now chose to favor the religious. But that’s what all this “Occupy Wall Street” stuff is about. Favoritism.

Another popular phrase in Latin is “Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno”. Most would be familiar with this phrase in relation to the Three Musketeers. Soviet Russia and the early United States had the first part of this phrase in common at least. One for all. One land for everyone, or as it happened in later Soviet history, one loaf of bread for everyone. But today, the protesters are fed up with the “All for one” attitude of what they call the “One Percent”.

Now, you’re thinking, what the hell does any of this have to do with food?

Twenty years ago, there was basically no restaurant culture in Estonia. The few places where you could eat all served the same things. There just wasn’t that much that restaurant-owners could buy in terms of diversity of ingredients. Pork, cabbage, potatoes, pickles and ketchup (cucumbers and tomatoes, respectively, in summer).

Then there was a revolution. We’ve all seen the old Soviet-era Estonian commercials for lemonade and minced chicken. Tallegg, Estonia’s premier chicken manufacturer (yes, “manufacturer”…they’re not free-range), introduced the “chicken patty” (kanapihv in Estonian). The chicken patty is what I refer to as “mystery meat”. Roadside kiosks across the country sell these in oversized white buns under the name “hamburger”. But it’s not a hamburger. It’s a mystery meat burger. You can buy them by the hundreds in the frozen foods section of every supermarket. And frozen French fries. This is the most popular food in Estonia even today. It is an evolutionary step in restaurant culture, for it “combines” ketchup with mayonnaise, it replaces cabbage with Chinese cabbage.

Their biggest fans are the ninety-nine percent. They are the leaderless, they are the aimless, they are…are you ready? They are the rullnokks.

Of course, there are alternatives available. But only the one percent can afford them. Beef instead of mystery meat? Forget about it, unless you are able to drive a new BMW instead of a used one. Proper salad instead of Chinese cabbage? Forget about it, unless you are able to own a bank instead of build one. Barilla on your pasta instead of Felix? Forget about it, unless you are able to talk to people instead of text them.

Mystery meat is full of chemical additives. Potato seasoning is full of unhealthy salt. White bread buns, soda, sour cream, potato chips—all full of fat. Estonia is the unhealthiest country in the European Union. Yes, all this stuff is extremely popular and, well, let’s face it—it’s easy money. But if you open a fast-food joint, you are committing manslaughter—unintentional homicide. The same can be said about burning coal or gas to keep warm or drive around, and a number of other ordinary, everyday activities as well. But this is a food blog. I’m just talking about the food. So allow me to speak for the ninety-nine percent (even though I am a non-Estonian): We demand better.

Or instead, maybe a better thing to do would be to speak to the one percent (even though I clearly do not represent them): It’s your responsibility. But you don’t care. And neither do they, because they don’t know. So nothing I’ve said in this review really matters.

Oh right, the review! On the way to Tallinn, somewhere near the halfway point, eat at Sämmi Grill. You’ll see signs to it on the highway. The interior is crap, as are the side dishes, but the beef is excellent. And when you get to Tallinn, do not eat at Sohva. I think it was on Rataskaevu Street in the Old Town. The interior is excellent, but the food is crap.

I was in a hurry to catch a train and I stumbled across this attractive basement restaurant. “How long does it take to serve your Houseburger?” I asked Krista, the waitress. She looked at a woman on a sofa reading the comics in the Õhtuleht newspaper.
—How long does a Houseburger take? she repeated my question. The woman replied that it would be less than ten minutes.
“Ok, I’ll order one then.”

And in three minutes, a plate of fries covered in potato seasoning was delivered to my table. The Houseburger was steaming. Steam is what happens when you microwave bread. The bread was soggy. The grated cheese hadn’t melted inside the white bread bun. Kanapihv. I began to wonder if, when the concept of a beef patty was introduced to Estonia, someone hadn’t translated the wrong word. Does “pihv” really come from “beef”, even though it means “patty”? Anyhow, there was a pile of Chinese cabbage, a slice of cucumber and tomato each, and a small dish of sour cream. As hard as it is to admit it, I would have preferred ketchup. This cost six and a half euros. Go up the street a bit, get a much better burger for the same price in Drink Bar.

Sohva is where the one percent go to be seen eating mystery meat. Photographs were not allowed.


Mart said...

I get that the genetics part was lighthearted, but here's a review of an interesting study on the matter (with pretty graphs):

In a nutshell: Estonians are still very much different from both the Slavs and the Balts while Finns are even further removed.

And the beef in Sämmi Grill is indeed excellent. I can attest to that.

*** said...

Maybe I don't get it right here, but in your non-Estonian paragraph it kind of seems that you think Latvian is a Slavic language. It isn't. It's a Baltic language and one of Indo-European languages.

Mart said...

I don't really see how my post could be interpreted as saying that Latvians are Slavs. The Slavs in this case are, of course, Russians.

Mingus said...

As far as I thought, Latvian is a Baltic language, which is a branch of the Slavic languages, which are Indo-European. A tableful of linguists sitting here with me now agree. But I'll double-check on that...thanks!

*** said...

I also took another look and this source stated that Baltic-Slavic is one branch of Indo-European languages, so that Baltic languages make up one (tiny) half and Slavic another (huge) half. But Baltic languages are not considered to be the branch of Slavic languages. More like equal partners. Some suggest other division, but it splits them even further and does not make Baltic languages a branch of Slavic languages. But I'm not a specialist and maybe these linguists have new data. If so, I don't argue with that.
To Mart: sorry, the comment was about the main entry.

notsu said...

More about Baltic languages and Latvians (sorry, I'm a linguistics nerd) - if we are to believe the hypothesis of Künnap, Pusztay and Wiik trinity (much disputed hypothesis, I know, but intriguing nonetheless), then Baltic, Slavic and Germanic branch - all three of them - have a common feature: finnic influence/substrate (as opposed to Basque influence on Celtic and Iberian branch).

Even if we don't care much for this controversial hypothesis, it's still generally accepted that Baltic is a separate branch of Balto-Slavic (if we are to think in language-tree terms, then we could imagine a generic Balto-Slavic protolanguage of which both Baltic and Slavic branch emerged).

And then, Latvian looks as a Baltic language spoken by Finnic people to a linguists eye: a pidgin-Baltic language, if you wish.

As for the genetics, I once peeked into a study about different blood types in Estonia - according to that, Estonia appears as something of a melting pot - all the blood types of our neighbours are represented here, but nowhere further (so there are Finnish blood types present here that are missing in Latvia and vice versa; Russian blood types that are not found in Sweden and vice versa). A satirist once expressed the same idea in short: "everybody has raped our women".

notsu said...

Oh, and also, Baltic half of Balto-Slavic hasn't always been so tiny. Part of Baltic languages have gone extinct. Kind of same thing happened to Celtic languages - it was a huge branch and where are they now?

notsu said...

There just wasn’t that much that restaurant-owners could buy in terms of diversity of ingredients.
... annnd there were no restaurant owners, of course. Everything was state owned, remember? A huge monopol.