Kveller: Embracing borscht, pies and mayonnaise for the next generation

This essay was originally published by Kveller.com on Dec. 29, 2016, titled “Embracing the Russian Food of My Youth for the Sake of My Kids”

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.

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Russian Gluttony 101

Once, in her interview with Boris Yeltsin, Barbara Walters asked the late Russian leader a pointed question: “Do you drink too much?”

“Nyet,” said Yeltsin.

Walters then wielded her biggest weapon: the silent stare. She knew silence makes people talk even if, in retrospect, they wish they hadn’t.

“Well, okay,” Yeltsin conceded. ”On holidays. Or with my college buddies. Don’t I look like a healthy man to you?” he pleaded.

My diet is like Yeltsin’s sobriety. It’s conditional.

That’s because, sometimes, I side with the old school notion of eating: do it if you have to. And sort out the consequences later.

Sure, there are vitamins, protein and whole grains in my meals. I go to the gym to lift things and I ride a bicycle – around the city, not the stationary sort.

But sometimes life throws a curveball, and fresh leafy greens just won’t do. A Russian-born woman once said at a swanky party in New York: “Lettuce? What am I, a cow?” The other girls stopped talking and looked at her, outraged by this insult at common decency. I, too, pretended to be angry. Yet, a traitor to the weight-obsessed and pseudo-nutrition-conscious American diet, I secretly agreed with the girl: we are not cows.

I’d like to share something called the emergency Russian binge diet, partly to unburden myself of the guilt for knowing what it is, and partly to send a message of hope to my sisters who sit on their beds at midnight clenching buckets of ice cream, or with chocolate bars bleeding on their fingers – and feeling hopelessly dishonorable. Because dishonor is the last thing a person needs when her foundation – be it a job promotion, relationship, or friendship – is already crumbling underneath her feet. Stuffing face without losing face is the answer.

Russian diet starts with the starches. The best way to enjoy a filling meal is to boil a couple of peeled potatoes.

Then chop or mash them, right in the bowl if necessary. Slather the potatoes with butter, add a glob of sour cream, and voila.

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