I WAS RECENTLY CLEANING out my refrigerator when I found an old glass jar buried deep in the back. It contained an intriguing gold-colored liquid and tiny white slices of apple that looked like sprats. Across the front, a faded, peeling piece of masking tape upon which some poor hand had written in marker, õunakompott, kaks tuhat seitseteist, “apple preserve, two-thousand seventeen.” I set it on the counter, not quite sure what to do with it. I assumed it was safe to eat, but I didn’t know and I have to admit it didn’t arouse my appetite. Those apple slices did look like dead fish. The truth was that I just couldn’t remember where the jar had come from. These Estonians were always giving me things that I didn’t know what to do with. I never asked, but they always gave.
Just a year ago I had to toss a whole bag of something called ebaküdoonia, a hard, bitter fruit that in English is translated as “flowering quince” but some also call the “nordic lemon.” We didn’t have ebaküdoonia where I grew up, and so I wasn’t really sure what to do with it. I took one of the fruits and sliced it and then tried to eat it raw. I imagined it was of some value for the Vitamin C content, and the fiber no doubt, and that it was perhaps a healthy food, maybe the healthiest, but I just didn’t have the time or will to chew through a whole paper bag full of ebaküdoonia.
This bag had arrived into my possession via the mother of my children, who had received it from an Estonian who lived on the prairies of southeast Estonia. It seemed odd how these Estonians seemed to be traveling the countryside with bags full of fruit in their cars. Then they would pull up to strangers at gas stations and offload the goods. “Here, here. Take it. Take it.” That twisted sparkle in the eyes. “You want some potatoes, man? Some homemade apple wine, man? I’ve got it all here. Some jars of sauerkraut too? And more ebaküdoonia? Just take it!”
I suppose for them, it was some kind of currency in those parts, as good as gold. Why, one could walk into, man a little general store in a place like Niitsuku and buy sugar or coffee with an ebaküdoonia or two. Three ebaküdoonia could get you a bag of makaronid from the Tartu Mill. They worshiped these fruity hunks of gold, but I had no use for the bitter things. Maybe they could be used for jams or juices? One or the other. The paper bag sat in the cold, limp and sad.
There was another situation in the summer where someone had gifted me a giant yellow squash. It was as big as a saxophone and delicate, so I didn’t want to just throw it in the back of the car. So I held it in my arms like a baby, and even buckled my seat belt over the squash, so that it would be safe in case of a collision. We drove like that, from one end of South Estonia to the other. The driver was an Estonian friend. When we neared Nuia, I turned to the driver and said, “Don’t you think it’s a little weird that we’re driving around the country with a giant squash?” The driver looked at me and the squash, shrugged, and said, “Noh, mina ei tea.” “Well, I don’t know.” It was all just normal, I guess. Normaalne.
If you ask the Estonians about these things, you’ll likely get a lecture about food shortages during the Soviet time (“It was all so hard, you know, so hard”) or they’ll even reach further back and talk about the old agricultural economy of the peasant days, how food actually was a traded commodity, sometimes more valuable than whatever the money of the day was. It’s also a symbol of trust and belonging. When the neighbor shares his apple wine with you, then you will know that you’ve finally made it and they accept you as one of their own. Being Estonians, they won’t actually tell you how they feel, but they will use free bags of fruit to express themselves. Then you’ll no doubt hear about the cold climate and the need to survive the harsh winter frosts. “That jar of sauerkraut could save your life!”
Meantime, I’m in the kitchen, staring at this archaeological artifact, a jar full of floating, shriveled two-year old apple slices that look like pickled fish. Yet when I told my friend, she thought I was joking. “Two-thousand seventeen?” she said. “But that’s fresh! I just found an old jar from 1997. By the way, do you still have that bag of ebaküdoonia?”