The best day of a woman’s life is often her wedding day – the day she’s dreamed of since she was a little girl. In Ukraine, this thought is multiplied exponentially, as custom demands for an elaborate, three-day-minimum affair with loads of homemade food. The food, however, is precisely the problem: having to make so much food, families are forced to prepare in advance. Food then often sets out for too long or is not cooked thoroughly, which are the two root causes of food poisoning; and salmonella-derived illnesses are exactly what often happen during these massive traditions.
Recently, in the Ukrainian village Nemyryntsi, 20-year-old Yulia Yukhimets was rushed to the hospital along with about sixty of her wedding guests because of food-borne illness, the day of her wedding. All of the infected guests had eaten at the pre-ceremonial meal.
A dinner for approximately 150 guests was held at Yulia’s mothers’ home the day before Yulia married 29-year-old Oleksander Yukhimets, a cell phone salesman. Valentyna Hrabchak, along with several family members and friends, prepared her daughter’s entire menu, including the slaughtered family pig. She says that everything was cooked fully and stored properly in a refrigerator or cool cellar.
The menu, made up of hoards of meat, included chicken wings, fried steak, smoked fish, pate, various meat patties and sausages. (Valentyna does not blame any of the meats, but the eggs that were used when cooking most of the traditional dishes.)
The day after the dinner, Yulia’s wedding ceremony was held in her hometown; by that afternoon, she and many of her guests were violently ill with vomiting, diarrhea and severe stomach pains.
Along with the three-day celebration minimum, and menu made up entirely of homemade food, Ukrainian wedding tradition dictates that hosts prepare at least 35 dishes, not including the dessert list. Who could possibly prepare 35 dishes for 200 people themselves? The answer to this question is no one – at least not safely.
Amazingly, however, most Ukrainians that were asked (including several of the ill wedding guests themselves) still deny that there is anything wrong with these traditions; they blame, instead, their own bad luck. “These traditions were made not by us, but by our ancestors, so we try to maintain them,” Svitlana Yukhimets said of friend Yulia’s fateful feast.
Olena Scherban, an ethnographer acquainted with Ukrainian traditions and beliefs, gave insight into the importance placed on wedding celebrations. Scherban says that Ukrainian’s believe in the idea that there are three pivotal moments in a person’s life: birth, death and their wedding. This helps make it understandable how sick people will still defend the tradition at any cost, even their own health.
Mykola Zozulya, a doctor at the hospital where Yulia and her guests – including fourteen children – were taken to emergency care, said, “It’s our Ukrainian mentality: We want for the table to collapse under the weight of the food.” He says that he does not agree with the traditional wedding practices, as they are, obviously, unhealthy.
One of the 60 attendees rushed into the hospital on a stretcher was only 2-years-old; Yulia herself was taken by ambulance.
Seemingly, these types of cases are all too common in Ukraine, where traditions are followed to the letter. It is not documented, specifically, how many cases of wedding food poisoning occur yearly, but it is certainly not uncommon for it to happen. The Summer months, when food is much more likely to spoil, are the most common times for weddings.
All of the wedding guests were able to come home from the hospital in Ruzhyn after about a week of treatment.