y sister-in-law Sarah and I are walking through the art nouveau district of Latvia’s capital, Riga—though, more correctly, you might say we are wobbling, having just toasted our arrival with many glasses of Riga Balzams, the country’s famous tar-black botanical digestif. Its bitterness feels like a properly dour Eastern European tempering to the bald beauty of this city. Riga is ancient with big modern ambitions, full of manicured flower beds, a perfectly restored Old Town, vendors who sell amber and Latvian runes and thick woolen mittens year-round, and particularly vicious cobblestones. As the stones strain the straps of my sandals, a woman in swank culottes and high-heeled booties, carrying a huge bouquet of freesia, passes us like we’re standing still. In fact, every third person on the sidewalk carries a bouquet of flowers, headed to happy hour somewhere. Riga is but a portal to our real destination, the rural town of Aloja, where Sarah completed what she calls a “relatively cushy” Peace Corps service from 1998 to 2000, and which she hasn’t returned to since. But really, this story begins in Brooklyn, when, after leaving Latvia, Sarah moved into an apartment in Fort Greene with me and her brother, who would eventually become my husband. When we fought—for sure, we fought—it was always about food. It was no wonder we had a hard time sharing a kitchen. I was an ambitious young line cook practicing searing duck breasts, running up ridiculous grocery bills I expected her to split. She was a returned Peace Corps volunteer who brought home dusty bottles of practically lethal 70 percent acid Russian vinegar, and just wanted to fry up a couple of carrot cutlets for her own dinner. She had already learned to cook from the women in Aloja, and she still lived and breathed its flavors, its ethics, and its hardships. Looking back, I can see that she hadn’t fully left Latvia, and instead she was drawing me into it: We drank Balzams and fizzy fermented birch sap, and talked about the famed “fat buns” of Aloja, the speķa pīrāgi, or bacon and onion buns. This, the unofficial national dish of Latvia, has increasingly become Sarah’s memory trigger. So while I’m here to finally go to Aloja with her, meet her friends, and taste these dishes she hasn’t stopped talking about for the past 20 years, I’m also here to see the country through her eyes.