MINSK, BELARUS — As I traversed Europe from East to West, my journey turned out to be one long comparative pork tasting.
My first encounter was in Minsk, where President Alexander Lukashenko has issued an edict ordering all restaurants in Belarus to offer Belarussian food on their menus as a plank in his Slav nationalist platform.
What is "Belarussian food"? I wondered. Where better to find out than The Belarussian Kitchen restaurant at the Belarus Hotel in Minsk, the nation's capital.
I arrived one evening to find a cavernous, unlit hall, chose a table by the window where there was just enough light to read a menu, and waited for someone to bring me one.
Every now and then I caught the eye of one of the three waitresses. This was hard, given how far away they were, though it should have been easier because of the lack of competition: Only two of the other 22 tables in the restaurant were occupied.
After 9-1/2 minutes, one of the waitresses deigned to stop chatting with her boyfriend and came to see what I wanted. I asked to see a menu. She brought me one, and stood over me as I perused it. "Could I have a minute?" I asked.
As I flicked through the pages, she stood at attention behind me and counted to 60 just under her breath. She then moved off smartly toward the kitchen without a word. I called her back, and she tapped her watch angrily. "You asked for a minute, I gave you a minute."
Chastened, I asked what "Meat - Belarussian style" might be. "Meat and potatoes," she said.
Homely but authentic, I decided. I ordered it, and sat back and listened to a sad-faced man on an electric piano play versions of "Feelings," "Lady in Red," and other Western muzak staples while I waited. And waited. And waited
I saw my waitress again at the 30-minute mark, but not with my supper. Empty-handed and looking determinedly everywhere but in my direction, she strode the length of the restaurant and disappeared out the front door. That was the last I saw of her.
Eventually one of her comrades emerged from the kitchen bearing a plate, and placed before me a puddle of gray mush spooned over three triangular slices of what appeared to be fried bread. On closer inspection these turned out to be a Belarussian version of croquette potatoes, accompanying a fricassee of very thinly sliced pork with bits of mushroom in a bechamel sauce.
From then on, my journey to Paris turned out to be one long pork tasting.
In Bialystok, Poland, fried pork cutlets were a standard offering at the self-service cafeteria where I lunched one day. In Warsaw, at a self-consciously authentic Polish restaurant favored by tourists, I ate a roast pig knuckle as delicious as it was huge. And the next day at a truck-stop west of Warsaw I was served a pork chop that had been coated with beaten egg and croutons before being deep fried and topped with a slice of ham and a layer of melted cheese.
Next day's lunch in Slubice, Poland, was a salami sandwich, and the following day's was a bratwurst and fries at a German motorway service station. Supper turned out to be roast pork and gravy, and as I neared Paris my last meal was a helping of braised ham carved from the bone.
Although these meals all revolved around pigmeat, ancillary details suggested a different sense of place each time I sat down to the table. In Bialystok, for example, the kotleti on the menu were indeed cutlets. That might seem unexceptional, unless you were coming from Russia and Belarus where kotleti, for reasons I never fathomed, are meatballs.
The Warsaw menu that offered pig knuckle also offered salads, in a nod to Western tastes; and the truck-stop chop, though lacking the subtlety of haute cuisine, was freshened by the delicately carved radish that the chef had laid at the edge of my plate - the first time on my trip westward that I had come across an attempt at attractive presentation.
Though I chose to eat bratwurst in Germany, I could have picked a plate of spaghetti or an Asian-style stir-fried plate instead. That was the first time I saw dishes from different culinary cultures on the menu.
My roast pork and gravy that evening in Aachen, Germany, were served by an immigrant French-speaking Tunisian waiter, one of the millions of foreign workers who keep Germany running. And the next day in France the braised ham was offered with half a bottle of wine, which seemed unwise, to put it mildly, in a restaurant catering exclusively to people driving.
But at least the ham was served quickly.
* The next article in this series appears on Friday. Staff writer Peter Ford travels from Belarus to Poland and notes the emerging Western identity of Polish society. For an interactive map and related photos, go to the Monitor's electronic edition (www.csmonitor.com).