1. Newly Domesticated: What were your diets like when you were newlyweds stateside? How did that change?
Corinne: Our diets in America were crazy. Our meals were based on our schedules. I was always in my car so my diet consisted of a lot of trail mix and dried cereal. Usually I had a bowl of cereal for breakfast or a baggie of dried cereal on the way to school at 6:25 AM. Then, for lunch: sometimes peanut butter and jelly [because it was super easy to prepare at 5:45A] and some trail mix. My coworkers joked that I ate like a squirrel, not funny. My recipe collection consisted of various hamburger helper recipes, frozen pizza of course, chicken seared in Italian dressing, and that was pretty much the extent.
Nick: Trying to work 2+ jobs on top of finishing a master's degree (Corinne) and theoretically preparing for graduate applications (me) left us with time for mostly high-fructose corn syrup. I would cook more often than Corinne but I rarely had time to go beyond basic frozen veggies, a boneless chicken breast, and some sort of starch. Our diet was pretty bad but not because we actually enjoyed what we were eating. I, personally, just viewed it as a temporary sacrifice.
2. What was the first challenge you faced when shopping for food abroad?
Corinne: First challenge?! First time in the supermarket: "OMG. WHAT IS THAT? A SHEEP'S HEAD? O.M.G."
So, I guess the first challenge is just the fact that there isn't a Food Lion or Harris Teeter or Trader Joe's within walking distance. It was a huge difference to have to ask for everything over a counter. You can't just walk around, browse and pick things out, you have to know what you want and how to say it, in Russian. So, in general, language would be the first challenge. Buying meat is also very difficult. Nick and I have been eating A LOT of soy meat and it is way better then looking at all the dead animals hanging in the bazaar.
Nick: All the problems really hit you at once. 1) No hamburgers. 2) No one understands you. 3) You don't understand them either. 4) The money looks like it might have been used in a steam punk film and is more or less indecipherable not to mention 8 different sizes. 5) People are much more interested in enjoying the foreigner's crazy charades than trying to ascertain the nuance of the "EGGS COME FROM CHICKENS WHICH FLAP THEIR WINGS LIKE THIS AND THIS IS HOW THEY LAY EGGS I WANT EGGS" motions. 6) Supermarkets are, if available, usually way too expensive for Peace Corps Volunteers which makes the first five problems inescapable (at least for the first few months).
3. What food would you kill for that you just can't buy there?
Corinne: I can only choose one? Can I choose a meal instead? :) For a meal that I would kill for that you just can't get here would be Chicken Brian from Carrabbas: the boneless, fatless chicken breast, the goat cheese, ooooh the goat cheese, the seasoning, the side of a vegetable, a green vegetable, perfectly seasoned. Kill. for. it. I. would.
Nick: This changes every day. The only constant, really, was my favorite food: a serious, backyard-grilled hamburger. I craved hamburgers daily for almost a year. Now the cravings are more casual. Once in a while I'll just think, "oh man, remember blueberries?" or I'll be surfin' the ol' internet and suddenly, "CORINNE! GREAT NEWS. GATORADE IS STILL AROUND!"
4. What local delicacy do you love?
Corinne: The only thing I've ever bought with any kind of frequency has been a pastry that is kind of scone textured with "tvorak" which is kind of like cottage cheese on the inside. It sounds really strange, but last year I would eat two of them for dinner and it was awesome. They can be eaten for dessert, dinner, breakfast, really, anytime.
Nick: Food here is a lot like the heat in Florida: you don't ever get used to it, you just learn to live with it.
Kazakhstan was basically controlled by nomads until Nikita Khrushchev's Virgin Lands campaign really changed the social makeup of the country. So, not surprisingly, the traditional foods here are those produced by a culture concerned with raw energy and long "shelf-life," as it were. Flavor: not a concern.
I will tell you that monti, a type of dumpling filled with meat and/or pumpkin, are usually very tasty when homemade and can be served with a little broth, ketchup, mayo, or just plain. I skip the mayo.
5. What was your proudest cooking achievement, here and/or there?
Corinne: My proudest cooking achievement has been preparing 7 dinner parties for both volunteers from Peace Corps and locals here in Satpaev and Zhezkazgan [our neighboring city]. I prepared Thanksgiving dinner, TURKEY AND ALL, my first time, while here in Kazakhstan. That night I prepared a turkey, peanut butter cookies, pumpkin pie, pumpkin muffins, and homemade stuffing. Not only did the fix volunteers and two locals totally LOVE the food, but the Americans said it might have been the BEST pumpkin pie they had EVER HAD. IN THEIR WHOLE LIVES. Awesome.
Nick: There isn't a proudest moment that comes to mind for me; Corinne has had most of those. Anytime I made something that our host mom also enjoyed was pretty special, though. I've made burgers here, especially now that we live alone. They're hit and miss. Ground beef here is a different, ahem, beast.
6. How do you guys divide the kitchen duty?
Corinne: Haha. Divide the kitchen duty. That sounds awesome. Nick is awesome in the kitchen. We try to do the dishes as we work on dinner and Nick is great, if I'm cooking dinner, he is usually doing the dishes as we go, unless dinner is not as intensive. Usually we have the rule that if YOU made the dinner, YOU DON'T have to do the dishes.
I take care of most of the grocery shopping. I usually buy groceries every other day on my way home from school because we don't have a car so I can only carry groceries for about three to four days. The walk from our grocery store to our apartment is about 20 minutes and when it is negative 40 degrees it is LONG.
Nick: Corinne cooks, more or less. There are exceptions but she's the one who's really found joy in making things from scratch and spending a lot of time in the kitchen.
I'd rather spend my free time obsessing over the intelligence of ravens (WHICH IS TOTALLY NUTS! by the way) and foraging the interwebs for that magic graduate school with a fellowship called "The Nick Huber Attends For Free And We Give Him Health Benefits, a Car, and a House Award." So next time someone tells you that "you can find ANYTHING on the internet!!!!" make sure you challenge them with that one. And report back to me.
7. What was your biggest cooking failure, here and/or there?
Corinne: I've had two really bad cooking failures here. One, Nick and I had a dinner party with our counterparts, the people who asked Peace Corps to send them volunteers, and the first batch of Sloppy Joe Turnovers turned out GREAT, but then I made another batch and forgot about them because we were playing a board game and they were SO BURNT. bleh. My second failure was a banana bread mistake. I was trying to make banana bars and it turned into banana lava and spilt over the sides of pan and onto the bottom of the oven.
Nick: Here in KZ, I've made hamburger buns from scratch twice. The second time, they were great. The first time I misread a measurement and they suddenly became dense bricks of flour with a salt content so high they created a moisture vacuum in your mouth. Really, really awful but also sickly fascinating.
8. What's the first thing you're going to eat when you arrive back in the states?
Corinne: The first thing I want to eat is anything prepared by my mom. I miss her so much and there is something about the way she prepared things that just makes my heart and tummy happy, like only a mother can. First Mommy meal request: Nachos. ;)
Nick: The first thing I see. If that's a family member, so be it.
Nick and Corinne at the opening of their Resource Center last week.
9. Tell a little bit about your work in Kazakhstan. What is the best thing about the country and its people?
Corinne: I am a teacher of English in Kazakhstan. My bachelor's is in Music Education and my master's is in Teaching so I find ways to incorporate music into a lot of my lessons. Typically I teach children about 19 hours a week and then have a variety of clubs: English Club [young kids], Music Club, Girls' Club, Aerobics Club, Running Club, Theater Club and I attend Nick's club for teachers.
I am also planning a girls' leadership camp for the end of June [second annual]. We attend a variety of conferences and camps throughout Kazakhstan and just have a lot of fun learning new things.
The best thing about this country is the people. At first I was really intimidated because they are all very serious looking on the street, but once you get them into their own homes and into their comfort zone, they are the sweetest most hospitable people in the world. When they DO smile they light up the world.
When I first met the other Peace Corps Volunteers I was like, wow, this is a very interesting mix of people. A lot of people are here for their careers. This is a stepping stone in their future of working for the government or for NGOs.
I am the exact opposite. I am just here to be here. To have the experience. To help. I remember telling a volunteer last year, "I'm just here for the kids," and she said, "that will fade, you should find another reason." And I am so happy to say, it hasn't faded and everyday I love these kids more and more and this has been an awesome experience so far.
Nick: I teach 9th-11th grade English at a gymnasium (something like a school for gifted and talented, but seriously only something like that). I've done a lot of other things but that's really my core. The other constant has been a Colloquial English Club for adults which runs once a week. We've watched everything from It's A Wonderful Life to Beetle Juice to episodes of The Office.
We just opened a resource center in the town library here. The center consists of 1500+ books and magazines from the States which is pretty special. Most of the English texts they have here aren't authentic - they're translated from Russian or Kazakh or (innocently) corrupted in some way. The best thing about Kazakhstan is its people. There are so many hospitable, warm families here it sort of puts America to shame (in that one specific way). The world could use a lot more people like our host families we've lived with and the folks we see and work with every day here.