If salo had wings, it would fly to the heavens.
Slabs of creamy white fat trimmed with golden pigskin covered Maria Olexiev’s counter at the farmers market.
“How much for the salo ?” asked a middle-aged man in a stylish jacket.
“Just 150,000,” said Olexiev, expertly slicing off a sliver for him to sample. The price in Ukraine’s inflation-ravaged currency, the karbovanet , was about 50 cents a pound.
“It’s wonderful!” exclaimed the shopper, named Vitaly, who promptly placed an order.
Asked what could be wonderful about a mouthful of pig fat, Vitaly responded with one of many Ukrainian aphorisms in praise of the stuff, which would stagger a health-conscious Californian by the sight alone.
“There is no such thing as bad salo ,” he said. “It can only be good or excellent.”
Forget about Chicken Kiev. That was a czarist invention for bourgeois menus. And put away the cholesterol counters for a taste of Ukraine’s genuine culinary and cultural archetype.
If apple pie identifies Americans and the baguette is quintessentially French, nothing says Ukraine like salo-- the thick layer of subcutaneous pig fat known elsewhere as salt pork.
But where other cultures, including America’s, use the artery-hardening hunks of fat for cooking with beans or flavoring meats and vegetables, Ukrainians usually eat salo raw.
That idea might induce nausea in the uninitiated, but here it inspires salivation and reverence.
“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like salo ,” said Volodya Dydzhyk, an electrician on a southern Ukrainian collective farm. “That’s impossible in Ukraine.”
Rolling his eyes like a connoisseur describing delicacies beyond mere mortal appreciation, he summed up the classic components of a rustic feast: “A hundred grams of vodka, a chunk of black bread and a slab of salo .”
Although true salo -philes say they can tell what the pig was fed from the flavor of its salo , the fat is tasteless to the untrained palate.
“ Salo is stupid without bread,” said Dydzhyk, quoting a bit of folk wisdom as he shaved thin slices of the glistening pork fat onto bread, sprinkled it with pepper and topped it with a wedge of raw onion. Garlic and pickles are other traditional condiments, and the salo can also be smoked or marinated with herbs to impart a delicate flavor.
Like most of this country’s rural residents, Dydzhyk raises a few pigs in his back yard. Indeed, the “privatization” of Ukraine’s pigs--40% of them are in individual hands--is one of the few signs of a budding market in the Ukrainian countryside, where the state-owned collectives still farm 86% of the land. Those private pigs are the foundation of a nationwide cottage industry for quality salo production.
Unlike pigs raised on collective farms, where a muscle-building diet makes the fat tough, the private salo pig is spoiled, lavished with milk and grain and secret ingredients like honey or marigolds to produce the luxurious blankets of saturated fat that melt in the mouth like butter.
“It’s not a food, it’s a narcotic,” said Dydzhyk, citing a common salo-lover’s rhapsody.
Others jokingly call it “Ukrainian Snickers,” in a parallel with the chocolate bars that symbolize Western culture here.
Over the centuries, salo was in fact a kind of farmer’s candy bar. When meat was holiday fare and bread made up the bulk of the average Ukrainian peasant’s diet, salo was the most durable source of high-powered calories. Salted or smoked or rendered into lard for cooking, it could be stored for up to two years.
Like the whale blubber chewed by the Inuit, salo could fuel a steady metabolic glow during the region’s harsh winters. And when winter stores had been depleted but hard work still was needed for spring sowing, salo provided the needed jolt of concentrated energy.
Pantries bursting with salo symbolized wealth and well-being, inspiring adages such as: “If I were a rich man, I’d eat salo with salo on the side.”
It was immortalized in the arts at the turn of the 19th Century, when Ivan Kotliarevsky, the father of modern Ukrainian literature, wrote that his fictional group of Cossacks “set out salo " for a snack during their farcical romp through Virgil’s “Aeneid.”
Today, pamphleteers protesting corruption title their works “Who Stole My Salo ?” And in a modern variation on the old proverb “ Salo has little glory, but things are bad without it,” government newspapers regularly publish jokes linking salo with the country’s plunging, post-Soviet standard of living.
What’s your favorite food? Salo .
What’s your least favorite food? Salo.
How’s that? Because there isn’t any.
Actually, there is now plenty. But in a country where the average monthly wage is $30, few can afford the free-market prices.
While cutting salo consumption may not seem like a bad idea, especially in light of Ukraine’s high rates of heart disease, rooting it out entirely would be like eliminating hamburgers on the Fourth of July.
So embedded is salo in Ukraine’s collective consciousness that it is a regular image in contemporary art.
“We often hear about young artists using salo or a variant in conceptual works,” said Marta Kuzma, director of the Kiev-based Center for Contemporary Arts.
“They say it’s representative of Ukraine, a national symbol.”