“THE MOST HEAVENLY TASTE”:

Make the Ancient Road Snack of Central Asian Nomads: Qurt is salty, long-lasting, and packed with protein. (SUSIE ARMITAGE, MARCH 8, 2021, Atlas Obscura)


ONE WINTER MORNING, PRISONERS AT the Akmola Labor Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland, part of the Soviet gulag system from the 1930s to 1950s, trudged to a nearby lake. As they began gathering reeds to heat their frigid barracks, children and elders from the neighboring community approached the shore. The kids hurled small, hard white balls toward the women, and the camp guards cackled: Their charges weren’t hated only in Moscow, but here in remote Kazakhstan as well, recalled Gertrude Platais, who had been arrested in 1938 and sent to serve her sentence there.

While it initially seemed like an insult, the villagers had the opposite intent. One of the prisoners tripped on the projectiles, got a whiff of milk, and suspected they were edible. Back in the barracks, Kazakh prisoners explained that it was qurt, a traditional dried dairy product that had sustained nomads across Central Asia for centuries. Long-lasting, easy to carry, and packed with protein and calcium, the balls—described as “precious stones” in a poem about the incident by Raisa Golubeva—provided a much-needed supplement to the sparse prison rations.

LUBE JOB:

For Enslaved Cooks, Persimmon Beer Combined Ingenuity and Joy: A conversation with Michael Twitty about the powerful history behind a centuries-old beverage. (DIANA HUBBELL, NOVEMBER 12, 2021, Atlas Obscura)


MICHAEL TWITTY, THE JAMES BEARD Award–winning culinary historian, estimates he has brewed his grandmother’s persimmon beer about a dozen times. Made by fermenting Diospyros virginiana, the diminutive North American persimmon, with sugar, honey, and yeast, persimmon beer is more akin to fruit wine or liqueur than anything brewed with barley, malt, and hops. Twitty continues to make his family recipe for its sweet-tart flavor and striking amber hue imbued by red pine straw. More than anything, though, he continues the tradition of fermenting this gently boozy elixir because of its deep ties to Black American history and its power to start conversations.

In his book The Cooking Gene, Twitty describes the experience of sharing a batch with contemporary Civil War reenactors. “Persimmon beer became my social lubricant of choice, even with a whole troop of Confederate soldiers,” he writes. Twitty notes that it was likely the very same drink with which his ancestors would have toasted their freedom in 1865.

For generations of Black families across the American South in the 18th and 19th centuries, persimmon beer played an integral role in daily life. In his quest to uncover more about the foodways of his ancestors, Twitty learned that American persimmon trees are a genetic echo of fruit trees in West Africa, and that both the plant and the beverage provide a thread across the history and geography of the African diaspora.

With ’simmon season currently in full swing, Gastro Obscura spoke to Twitty about his family history, the importance and evolution of foraging, and how much a single recipe can reveal.