Although I’ve lived in the US for over ten years, only recently have I been more open about what makes my country of birth different from the country I currently share with my husband. As an 18 year old, I quickly picked up on the fact that talking about slaughtering chickens, using an outhouse, or the absence of running water made people look at me differently. When you are trying to make friends and fit in, it’s the last thing you want. So I put my background behind me and began the assimilation process. I was a precocious young woman, so I learned quickly what sorts of topics to discuss, how to carry myself, and what would make me more likeable.
I don’t regret choosing to assimilate into American culture. Some of that was necessary to really grasp and appreciate the culture I have chosen to live in. Yet, since getting married, I have began sharing my stories and the world of my childhood with my husband, and he has encouraged me to write them down and share them with others. Thus, you have encountered several stories about Moldova here on the blog. Today, I am sharing another gem 😉
Superfood or Snake Oil?
A few weeks ago Clayton got a cold. While he was napping I called my family.
“Bring him home. He just needs to drink some izvar, eat a little slanina, and sit on the lejanca. He’ll feel better in no time!” my dad winked as he cited the three most popular home remedies for colds in Moldova.
I laughed. That would be a sight.
But then later, I got to thinking about the differences between how we deal with a cold at home vs. here in the States, and I decided to do some research to try an determine if there is anything to some of those crazy Moldovan cold remedies, or if they’re all just snake oil.
Once a year, each family in our village slaughters their pig – usually around Christmas time. My mama would make sausage, bacon, liver pate, bone broths, and slanina, among other things. Slanina is slabs of pork fat (with or without the skin), which is cured or brined, sometimes smoked, and then aged in dark cold cellars for up to a year. It is not rendered, like lard. Once slanina is properly aged, it is sliced like cheese and eaten, typically with a piece of bread.
We eat it at parties, dinners, or for snacks. Nothing tastes better to a Moldovan who has been working all day in the fields than a nice big piece of salty slanina and some fresh baked bread.
I will never forget my first ear infection. I was in a lot of pain, rocking back and forth, and sweating feverishly. My mama didn’t give me advil. Instead, she fed me slanina on bread with a bit raw garlic on top. She also poured some raw garlic oil tincture into my ear. I’ve never had an ear infection since; the amount of fat and garlic must’ve terrified the virus out of me! But seriously, is there any legitimacy to eating slabs of pork fat and garlic?
Well, I think yes, Moldovans are on to something.
Slanina is chock-full of vitamin A, D, and B, which are incredible boosters for your immune system. Add some antiviral and antibacterial raw garlic and you got yourself a superfood. But that’s not all. Slanina has both saturated and monounsaturated fats, which help absorb fat-soluble nutrients, including vitamin A, D, E, and K. Fat is a source of energy, like sugar. Unlike sugar, however, fat is a major building material for our cells, comprising 30 to 80 percent of our cell membranes. And unlike sugar, fat doesn’t trigger the release of insulin, which promotes weight gain. Source
Many traditional cultures eat a high-fat diet. Dr Kate, in Deep Nutrition, explains “early North American Natives preferred the fattest animals, and valued their fattiest parts most of all. When hunting was especially good, they’d leave the leans muscle meat behind for the wolves”. Let’s not forget the Eskimos who eat raw whale blubber!
Afraid you might get food poisoning from eating it? Don’t worry. If the fat is exposed to light or aged too long, it becomes oxidized, which will give it a bitter taste and a funky smell, so you’ll know not to eat it. If slanina does go rancid, we use it to polish our shoes! Maybe this is what Americans should do with all the rancid vegetable olis being sold in the grocery stores as health food! I digress. You can read why I avoid vegetable oils here.
Here is a slab of slanina rolled in black peppercorns that my family shared with us during our dinner this summer. My American husband was lovingly forced to try this traditional food during a family picnic to prove he was one of us. Here’s the piece he was served, with a neighbor’s homemade feta cheese on top. Everyone cheered after he finished it. And I confess, I was ready to marry him again 😉
Next time a Moldovan offers you some slanina, try it. They are sharing a valued cultural tradition, not to mention a superfood, with you, and also testing to see if you would be willing to go out of your comfort zone. You will be repaid with lots respect and your body will reap good benefits.
Word of warning: This is a slab of fat. Since you may not be not used to eating this much fat at once, you may feel nauseous. Best thing to have on hand is some mineral water and activated charcoal and/or digestive enzymes, which I always recommend when traveling and eating foods from different cultures.
This is a beverage made with red wine. To make Izvar, you heat the wine a pot with a few teaspoons of sugar and lots of black pepper, imbuing it with a rich spicy flavor. This is similar to “mulled wine” or German “Gluhwein”.
My parents make their own wine with no chemicals or additives – just pure fermented grape goodness! I still remember the pungent odor hitting my nostrils and the pressure in my my sinuses releasing at the first sip. When I was young, my parents boiled the wine so there would be a very little alcohol content. The best remedy against colds after hitchhiking from school in the cold of winter!
So, is this snake oil?
I’ll let you decide. Here are the facts.
1. The alcohol content of izvar helps to relax blood vessels, making it easier for your mucus membranes to deal with infection. Source
2. Red wine contains a polyphenol called revastrol which, besides protecting the body against obesity and diabetes, has also been found to reduce inflammation – as long as it is not overdone of course. Source
3. Black pepper is an excellent source of manganese, copper, and vitamin K. It also stimulates the flow of mucus, which helps when fighting an acute sinus congestion.
4. Sugar is not a great additive, as it slows down the immune system. But a spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down!
This is simple to make at home if you ever want to replace that OJ with a traditional Moldovan cold remedy. Remember to bring it to a boil, otherwise it may have a bit too much alcohol. Unfortunately your izvar will never taste as good or work as well as when you are sitting on the hot bed, burning your bum…
The Lejanca (Moldovan Hot Bed)
This here is a clay oven with a bed built into it, which we call lejanca. I grew up with one of these and so has almost every child in my village. When you build a fire in the oven, the bed warms up from the inside due to the hot hair circulating throughout it. The best way to keep warm in the cold of winter while you are munching on some freshly baked bread and maybe some slanina.
Our lejanca was often my bed, my homework desk, and my reading nook all at once for three or more months in the dead of winter. It was a magical time in my childhood when my country couldn’t pay for electricity so they would shut it down between 5pm and 10pm every day. We made our own candles and snuggled on the hot bed while watching shadows on the walls, listening to the wind howl outside, telling stories, and sipping on izvar.
The lejanca is warm but you can turn the heat up even higher by throwing a few more logs in the fire. So instead of a warm cozy bed you got yourself a sweat lodge! Bundle up in a few wool blankets, sit tight, and stay hydrated. Some Moldovans do this for a few hours, others, like my mother, would spend the night. The next morning she would often wake up feeling much much better. I was not a fan of the hot bed turned sweat lodge combo, but it seemed to work.
Does it work? Staying warm when you’re sick is pretty universally acknowledged to be a good idea. Some researchers suspect that sauna heat reduces symptoms because it aids the passage of toxins out of the body, while others speculate that the high temperatures help weaken cold and flu viruses. Source
Any foreigner visiting Moldova ought to sit on a lejanca. Most of the time the temperature is low, unless your host thinks you are getting sick, in which case they’re liable to be as generous with the heat as they with the food and wine. They are great beds in every season, too. In the summer time, their thick clay construction makes them the coolest places in the house.
What I’ve learned
I’ve learned that we have much to learn from traditional cultures. Sadly, most people of my generation in Moldova are reaching for more modern ways of doing everything, including healing colds. I am often one of them. Things like extra vitamin C and D have value, but I hope I can keep some of these traditions alive so we can continue to benefit from them in ways we might not even understand, as well as to understand and preserve my beloved Moldovan culture.
P.S. The last time I had to call in sick from work with a cold was last year. My sickness lasted less than 24 hours. This is a typical amount of time for my colds, and even that happens rarely. My husband brags that he’s never seen me sick. To what do I owe such a strong immune system? I don’t know. Maybe it was the izvar, the slanina, or the lejanca. Maybe it was simply living on a wholesome farm, breathing lots of fresh air, and eating clean food. Whatever the secret is, I am very thankful for my health!