This essay was originally published by Kveller.com on Dec. 29, 2016.
I never thought I’d miss Russian food, the unassuming cuisine of my birthplace. I was self-conscious about Russian salads, for instance, referring to boiled and chopped root vegetables loaded with mayonnaise, not microgreens. Traditional Russian recipes use just one kind of cheese, called cheese. Growing up as an immigrant kid in the United States, it’s awkward having to always explain that sour cream really does make everything better, that Herring under a Fur Coat isn’t furry, that the jiggly meat jelly is no weirder than the processed American chicken tender.
Yet after leaving home, I began to crave those very homemade dishes I’d once taken for granted. Hour-long treks to the ethnic delis of Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach and Forest Hills in Queens to get my fix became the norm. On the way back, my precious cargo in plastic grocery “Thank You” bags suffused the subway with the odors of herring and cold cuts, smacking the passengers at every jolt of the train. But those journeys were worth it. Whenever life hit a rough patch or winter dragged on too long, I knew a savory pie and candy from my childhood with a smiling girl named Alyonka on the wrapper, shawl over her hair, would always be there for me.
There is a scientific explanation for the link between smell and autobiographical memory. Smell, related to taste, is processed through the areas of the brain responsible for emotions and memories. This is known as the Proust phenomenon, named after novelist Marcel Proust, who described the experience of dipping a Madeleine cookie into a teacup and being overcome with remembrances of boyhood.
To that end, expats often share a nostalgic bond over the dishes of their youth. And it’s not only true for the Russian speakers. Even my Korean roommate enjoyed Russian dill pickle soup: It reminded her of the kimchee soup she grew up with back in Korea.
“Ah, we grow zis in Sicily,” said an Italian man I briefly dated when I took him to a Russian café in Midtown. He dished out a pea from the vegetable and bologna salad. “It iz not Russian!” he announced. “We call zis capers.” Clearly, our Proust phenomena were different. It was our last date.
Yet later, with two of my own American-born kids who pick up English from their dad and Chinese from childcare providers, two things became apparent. First, visits to faraway ethnic stores and restaurants were not sustainable. And second, Russian food was no longer a shtick to impress somebody or to mend a broken heart. I wanted it in my home on a regular basis. I had to learn to cook.
Luckily, Russian dishes are interpretive. My late grandfather liked to tell the story of his walk through a Belorussian village after liberating it from the Nazis in World War II with the Soviet troops. The women came outside to greet the soldiers with homemade fermented cabbage. My grandfather tasted the cabbage from every household. Each one had a unique flavor. Or take borscht, the quintessential beet soup of Eastern Europe, originated in Ukraine. It can be beef-based, lard-based, or vegetarian; some recipes call for beans while others add mushrooms and even apples. Even its color ranges from orange to deep burgundy, depending on the sacrosanct tradition of each family.
So with room for improvisation (and error), I began piecing together the recipes I grew up with, including my grandmother’s staple: savory pies that she baked for every holiday and family get-together. Flakey and buttery, they’d glisten on the platter, bursting with mouthwatering fillings of potato and sautéed onion, cabbage and egg, ground beef and rice, poppy seed and walnut.
Trouble was, by the time I’d found an interest in cooking, my grandmother had lost her memory, and the recipe along with it.
I turned to the internet, discovering recipes in both languages, including those calling for rolls that pop out of cardboard cans and those measuring everything in grams.
With every failed baking attempt, panic set in. Whenever the dough wouldn’t rise, would end up tough or crumble, I wished I’d asked her while there was time, before the tradition vanished into that faraway space her mind now occupied.
Perhaps it didn’t matter. Nobody would starve or deny my heritage if I couldn’t bake. Isn’t that why the frozen section of the supermarket was invented?
And yet it mattered, in the same way a silly old nickname matters, even if it’s been years since anyone said it aloud.
Months later, when I’d lost hope of recovering the recipe, I stumbled on a new one, posted on a Russian expat’s personal blog. And as the pastries puffed up in the oven, my kitchen flooded with the familiar scent of family holidays, of glimmering glassware and laughter echoing through the chambers of time. It was my grandmother’s dish, rediscovered.
And that meant nothing would be lost, even when my toddler demands American Rice Krispie Treats or peanut butter cookies, in her impeccable English.
After all, it’s just a matter of time till she, too, discovers the pies and candy with the smiling girl named Alyonka on the wrapper, shawl over her hair. It’s as if Alyonka is saying, don’t worry, devochka, I ain’t going nowhere.