Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Vilnius, Lithuania: Sausage & Vegetarians

Smoked herring, mushrooms & potatoes
When I first learned that the 2011 Annual Conference of the European Society of Criminology was being held in Vilnius, Lithuania, the first thing I did was go to Google Maps and look it up.  I had never heard of Vilnius and had heard of Lithuania only in passing.  The name evoked vague associations with Eastern Europe/former Soviet Union, i.e. stern men in uniforms.  I was looking forward to the conference but ambivalent about the Vilnius part.  Just goes to show, I still have lots to learn.

Vilnius is delightful.  A combination of grand boulevards and mysterious alleyways, the city has an atmosphere that is unhurried and calm.  It's a quiet place;  even in crowds, the sound seems muffled, which is remarkable and somewhat disconcerting at first.  The Westerner in me wondered if people were still, perhaps unconsciously, trying to talk in a way that wouldn't be overheard.  Maybe it's that, maybe it's just that people have a healthy respect for noise.  The places where I have spent most of my life - the NE part of the US, Miami and Spain tend to be loud - it was nice to hear something different.

As it turns out, stories of food and prison are central to the city's narrative.  What a lucky coincidence for me that the conference happened to be held there this year.

Today the food part, tomorrow the prison part.

It was about 9:00 pm when Jaime and I checked into our hotel.  We walked around the corner to the main street and found Prie Katedros, a restaurant/brewery that had been recommended to me.  The young waitress, a cultural anthropology student at the University, spoke English very well.  She not only helped us to order but also provided an orientation to the city, pointing out places to visit and local hangouts.  It was there in this basement cafe that I began to hear the city's food stories.  She recommended we try the "typical" Lithuanian foods:  sausage, smoked herring, potatoes, mushrooms, cabbage, fried cheese, dark bread, beer.  Yum, yum, yum, yum, yum, yum, yum and yum.

We continued to eat this food throughout our stay.  While my 4 day visit in Vilnius hardly makes me an expert in Lithuanian culture, the main themes of the story that this food tells are clear.  This is no frills food that can survive the elements.  It is stuff that you can make at home or grow in the garden.  It is food that makes you feel warm and full.  It is the food of survival, resistance and patience.
Sausage, cabbage and split peas with bacon crackling.

Smoked fish for sale.

Sausage and lard.

Warm beer with lemon and honey.
But these foods tell only part of the city's story.  Our young waitress was a vegetarian.  She didn't eat fish or sausage.  Interestingly, every restaurant we went to had several vegetarian selections.  One night, I had tomato blitzes with zucchini and caramelized onions.  Yum.  At a street fair, I got a vegetable stew with mushrooms, cauliflower and broccoli over rice.  Double yum.  This is the story of something new, young and searching.
Vegetable stew, upper left.
The places that our vegetarian waitress sent us to see were artist enclaves where work using all types of mediums (e.g. tile, metal, yarn, buttons, paint) was hung on the outside of buildings, graffiti was intricate and beautiful, people wore funky boots, homemade jewelry and built bonfires on the side of the river.  Restaurants offered vegetarian sausages with cabbage and potatoes.  This is a story of reinvention, or perhaps rediscovery of ideas long hidden.
On the bridge leading to the artist enclave, are lovers' locks.
You write your names on the lock, attach the lock to the bridge and throw the key into the river.

Jaime in a room at Fluxus Ministerija a free art and performance space in the center of town.

Graffiti at the skate park.

An exterior art gallery.
So, that is the food story that I heard in Vilnius last week.  A lot of this:

and this:

But lots of vegetarians as well.