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My Prima Donna Swamp Princess: 28. KIBINAI

  • 2006-05-31
The princess was torn. Barefoot and tempestuous, she wanted to march into the Gate of Dawn and raise a ruckus 's preach to a few pious Lithuanians about the error of their beliefs 's and slap me for insolence. She was in the throes of her crusade, about to launch her initial assault against insidious Christianity, and I unceremoniously knocked her off the soapbox with my free linguistic associations. (In my defense, my colleagues in the States would not be the least surprised.) There's nothing like having the air let out of your balloon in the heat of the moment. Yet I could tell there was something else on her mind. "I'm hungry," she announced.

I wanted to rejoice. Could it be? Could my ploy have worked after all? Still holding her shoes, I grabbed her by the arm and led her back down the street toward Town Hall Square. "I have the perfect place in mind," I said.
We ducked into my favorite Vilnius coffee shop. The display case was packed with pastries and sweets and smelled like cake icing. I sat Arva down at a table and then ordered four coffees and four meat rolls. There was no alcohol unfortunately, though maybe that was for the best: after my near brush with ignominy, I would've downed a fifth of Tennessee's finest.
Expectedly, the princess was not pleased. "What is this?" she inquired about the food, looking as if I was offering a sow's ears (though she would probably eat that).

"They're called kibinai 's meat pastries."
"Beef?"
"With onion and spices."
Arva took one and nibbled into it. Her verdict: "Be tastier with squirrel meat," she said.
Leave it to a medieval princess to ruin your appetite. "Did you know that in English the word 'squirrel' come from Greek and means 'shadow-tail'? Greek 'oura' being related to British 'arse', which is's"
"Could you please shut up, American professor. You're ruining my mood and my appetite."
"Well, I should at least add that the kibinai is part of the Karaites' cuisine. You remember the Karaites, don't you?"
Arva didn't answer. She seemed to retreat deep into a forest of memories. She was born just around the time Vytautas brought some 400 Karaites from the Crimea to Lithuania, and no doubt she had run into them during her diplomatic travels around 1430.

After nibbling on the kibinai, she said, "Well, I suppose it's nice that they left a bit of their cuisine to posterity."
I smiled, but this quickly turned to a frown as I realized the caustic irony of history. So many Baltic peoples had been wiped out over the past 500 years that the princess just assumed the worst: all were extinct.
"Arva, dear, the Karaites are still alive. Not many, but they're still around."
The smile I subsequently saw in the princess' eyes lifted my soul. "Truthfully?"
"Truthfully," I said with a smile. "Why don't I show you."