My parents were refugees from Eastern Europe who fled communism and the reality of post-Holocaust Eastern Europe. When they came to New Zealand back in the 50s, the path for any immigrant not from the United Kingdom was very clear – assimilation. In their desire for their children to be real Kiwis, they made the decision to not expose us deeply to the culture of their homeland, rather trying as much as possible to bring us up as Kiwi kids.

One way in which we did absorb some culture from Eastern Europe was through food. Like most countries in Eastern Europe, Hungary has its own particular focus on food and we all, to this day, remember the taste and smell of dishes such as Cholent, my mother’s pickled cabbage salad, Rakot Krumpli or my father’s famous Paprika Chicken (hint: more paprika than chicken.)

I guess the takeaway from that most visceral of cultural connections is that food is both foundational and highly authentic. It’s hard to argue the toss with a Hungarian grandmother, for example, who has been nurturing her pickled cabbage recipe that she, in turn, was handed by her grandmother.

I got to thinking about food this morning while driving to the airport at the ungodly hour of 4am. Playing on National Radio was a delightful BBC interview in which two London-based food writers – one a Ukrainian and one a Russian – talked about their connection to food and their homeland and their thoughts on that within the context of the current conflict raging. It was a lovely interview, and bought home, in the simplest of ways, how bizarre the current conflict is and how, in these complex and chaotic times, something as simple as food can give some insight into potential answers.

As is my typical approach, I started thinking about the serendipity of mainstream media, and the fact that my particular choice in mainstream media, that is the non-commercial variety, offers me up these random, but interesting snippets that broaden my knowledge, give me insights into other cultures and help, in some way, to bring people together. It also got me thinking that while situational context is a complex and nuanced thing, sometimes the simplest lens is the best one. One of the interviewees told the story of the Ukrainian grandmother who, seeing an expensive Russian military drone flying beneath her high-rise balcony window, threw a bottle of pickled tomatoes at it, downing the aircraft and showing how one stubborn woman, ably aided by traditional cuisine, can change the course of history. It was a tomato Tiananmen square if you will. A vegetable David versus Goliath.

Contrast this, if you will, to some recent experiences I’ve had with acquaintances whose media of choice is what I would (admittedly judgmentally) describe as fake news sources. You know the ones – the websites with names that make them sound like they’re the web versions of legitimate mastheads but are in fact megaphones through which alternate realities are spewed. The ones with screaming headlines promising exposes of secret dossiers and scientific “proof” from academics with dubious credentials.

I’ve noticed something of late as it relates to people who frequent these websites. Whereas only a month ago their Facebook, Instagram, Linkedin and Twitter feeds were jammed full of anti-vax, pro-choice, anti-mandate and other Coronavirus-related pieces of “information,” today they have switched entirely and these people are now focused 100% on explaining just why the Ukrainian invasion is needed. I had a video sent to me the other day by a well-meaning person who wanted to explain to me that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, was actually protecting a secret neo-Nazi group that was creating weapons of mass destruction and it was for this reason that hero-of-the-day Putin needed to invade. The fact that Zelensky is the grandson of Holocaust survivors and knows only too well the mid-century horrors of unchecked fascism seems lost to this crew.

I made the mistake of corresponding with my informant and questioned how he, a Cantabrian who has never visited the region and likely hadn’t heard of Ukraine only a few months ago, had suddenly become such an expert on the arc of history for not only Communist Russia, but also Tsarist Russia before it. His response was simply that he was in the now and that we, the ignorant masses, had been having our minds twisted by mainstream media for too long to see the truth.

Of course my knowledge of Russian history, while perhaps slightly deeper than his (thanks to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and parents who enjoyed discussing world history and politics with us) is also limited. I’m not going to opine deeply on the situation, What I will do is rely on credible news sources and be comfortable that mainstream media, for all its faults, isn’t a hornets nest of conspiracies for global control by a secret elite.

Beyond that, I’ll take a deep breath and enjoy the smell of the sauerkraut and remember that the people bearing the brunt of impact from this aggression are those who simply want to get on with their lives and back into their kitchens. I’ll continue to listen to mainstream media and embrace the opportunity it brings to connect with culture, people and ideas across the globe. I’ll remain mindful that in these days of conflict, simple connection is a powerful force against division.

Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. Happiness for him is a morning spent listening to Kathryn Ryan or Kim Hill on National Radio.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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