Kerry Shawn Keys minibio

“I don’t know who I am, but I have many names and live in Vilnius,” says Kerry Shawn Keys, an American living in Lithuania of nineteen years now. He is a human orchestra: translator, poet, prose writer, author of children’s books, dramatist. Kerry has already become part of the Vilnius landscape and culture. The poet Sigitas Geda said about him, “by his presence and participation in the everyday life of Lithuanian poetry, he has made us stronger as well.” Kerry, though, calls himself an “outsider”, and outsiders are generally better at seeing certain things than locals or those ensconced in everyday life, in the “system”. A view from the side is always interesting, and with that in mind, the Vilnius Review has decided to begin publishing Kerry’s short, witty essays about Lithuania and Lithuanians. So, here, each month you will find "A Palmer's Chronicle".

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reflections on belonging

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By Kerry Shawn Keys


The heavy black rye breads of Lithuania are famous throughout the world. Rumor has it that in the Soviet Union there were plans to send forth a loaf on the first spaceship to the moon until it was realized that even a compacted loaf would weigh more than the spaceship itself. One of the engineers then suggested, “why not send a loaf of Lithuanian bread to the moon instead of the spaceship.” There was a big debate, something similar to the Arian controversy, and in the end the poor chap was accused of heresy, sacked, and given a one-way ticket to Siberia. But not without provisions. He was given a loaf of delicious Lithuanian, heavy black rye bread which was estimated would get him through the rest of his lifetime.

There are other tales which bear out the mythic status of this food of the Gods. It is said in the old annuals of the times of the Great Helix, that the first woman (Lithuanian of course) was molded by the Creator out of dough, and not from dust as dubious texts from the Middle East would have it. She then went to the loo and molded the first male.
And it is also reported that Noah took dozens of atomized pieces of the bread onto the ark with him – please remember that a whole loaf would have sunk the Titanic – to feed the crew, the homeless, and the pigeons. Many of the Lithuanian exiles throughout recorded history have taken the yeast and starter with them to the ends of the world, and farther, to make bread that everyone knows is how “Grandma” used to make it – the best!

I can remember the first time I tasted this delicacy. It was on a small island some hours north of Toronto, Canada, where a clan of Lithuanians lived. The visuals are still clear to this day. There we were, sitting around the dinner table with a loaf of heavy, Lithuanian black rye bread in our midst as a kind of sacred centerpiece, and no other food to be seen except for some slabs of bear lard. There was a moment of silence followed by prayers to Perkunas, and then suddenly the grandfather appeared from the woodshed with a chainsaw and began to cut it. And the feast began. I broke a tooth. Some events in our lives are, indeed, unforgettable.

But I don’t want to frighten the reader away – most Lithuanian heavy, dark rye bread won’t break your teeth, and it is incredibly delicious smothered with smoked cheese or peanut butter or ketchup. And there are lots of kinds – some breads as dark as a December day in Dzūkija, others closer to your Palanga variety, mulatta brown like a good cup of coffee with a little cream and just as tasty. It would be oxymoronic to have a snow white variety though some KKK breeders are working on it. In general, the breads in Lithuania are just great if the bakers stay away from trying to imitate the French or the Sicilians. It must be the special yeast, the dough, the care taken so that even the supermarket varieties often seem homemade. Though I wouldn’t call pizza “bread”, it is made from dough, and there’s no pizza crust from New Jersey to Dante’s Hell better than Lithuania’s. My suggestion is that the next time you sit down to dine, order some garlicky, fried rye bread sticks to go with your beer. Then another beer. Then some more of the bread sticks and another beer, instead of cucumbers or greasy American fries or peanuts. If you want to be patriotic, bread is the national hors d’oeuvres. You’ll save a lot of money and not offend the surviving partisans who lived on the stuff for years and years. You’ll leave the table satisfied like never in your life. Maybe too heavy to walk away, but just imagine being carried home like a maharaja or rani on a breadboard the size of a palanquin, the palace of your thoughts fragrant with garlic and the aroma of freshly baked bread like no other in the world or even on the moon.

The plan for Vilnius as the European Capital of Culture for 2009  was to have a black-bronze statue (and I mean statue, not sculpture) of a loaf of heavy, dark Lithuanian rye bread erected next to the statue of Žemaitė. She always looked a bit lonely in her obscure, dirty alcove off Gediminas Street, and like any worthwhile Lithuanian woman, she must have baked bread. Unfortuantely, the plan was nixed and a ceppalina statue was erected instead, but was shortly gobbled up.


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