Saturday, May 26, 2007

My Roots Are Made Of Food

I live in the oddest neighborhood. It is populated, in equal proportion, by ultra-orthodox Jews, loud college kids, and Russian retirees (I live next door to a giant retirement home half the windows of which are covered in tulle – a sure sign of Russian occupation). The elderly Russians are the funniest of the bunch. They very calmly, and with a great sense of dignity, promenade down the street in pairs or quadruples, all wearing berets. It’s the strangest thing – like an ex-Communist occupation rule that all people over the age of 65 must be in constant possession of a beret. Men, women, lap dogs, it doesn’t matter - they all have berets.

With such a neighborhood come certain perks. There are a ton of Russian food stores around (and Russian book stores as well, which is really convenient). Some days, I need a little boost, a little jolt of comfort and familiarity that mac and cheese approaches but can never quite reach. Every once in a while I need the kind of serenity and peace that a really good burger promises but doesn’t always deliver. When even Indian food fails to soothe (the community I grew up in was way more Indian than Russian), I turn to Russian food. When clicking my heels does me no good but I really want to go home – as in, I want to eat the food I grew up with, I stop by one of the many Russian grocery stores around my house.

A sure way to tell you’re in an authentic Russian grocery store? They’re rude to you. Yep, that’s how you know. I think I have successfully worn my local people down. They are constantly surprised to hear Russian come out of my mouth since I look so American (lacking a beret and all) and big smiles seem to work magic. Even a cranky Russian can’t resist a big smile. Well, except this cranky Russian. I can resist a great many things.

How do you say smorgasbord in Russian? For that matter, how do you say it in English? Well, that’s what I have here. A Russian comfort food bonanza, a smorgasbord of childhood favorites. I can already hear the “ewws”, but give it a chance. Eww later, read now. Clockwise beginning with the white shredded cabbage, we have: pickled cabbage, eggplant caviar, eggplant “Georgian style” with cilantro and walnuts (can you tell I like eggplant?), herring with dill, onions, and vegetable oil, and in the center, the piece de resistance - cabbage stuffed with ground beef and rice, poached in a dill-laced stock.

The store eggplant caviar will never be as good as my Mom’s (which is not to say that it isn’t good in its own right – it is, really), the pickled cabbage is almost (almost) but not quite as good as my grandmother's - tangy, crunchy, and light. The herring is fantastic – even my parents get grossed by how much I love it. It's salty and soft, dissolving at the slightest prod. The stuffed cabbage is beautiful – the cabbage leaf is soft but still has body, the stuffing is tender and infused with dill. It serves its purpose.

Sometimes I need to scratch that itch that misses childhood. Food is the quickest way to do it. Taste and scent memory is very potent for me – I can remember everything I have eaten at every restaurant for at least the last 10 years. Food helps trigger all sorts of other memories, some good, some horrible. Whenever I need to selectively trigger memories of me, the me I no longer am, the me two decades ago in my Mom’s house, food is the ticket.


JC said...

Great post! Russian food is something that I have almost no experience with whatsoever. About the closest I have come to Russian food is the beef stroganoff that my dad used to make. And I bet that's not very close at all!

aimee said...

Pickled herring! Oh man, I've not had that for so long, I really must. It reminds me of my uncle. I have no idea why, he was a fussy eater and would not touch anything that came from the sea.

My long term memory is terrible - it's quite upsetting really, and is exactly why I should write that diary I've been talking about for years. mum often talks of places we've visited and I have no clue what she's talking about until she says something like - "we went to a restaurant by the sea" at which point I'll chime in and recall the entire menu for my family. Yeah, I'm totally with you on the food memories thing...

Anna said...

JC - I find stroganoff to be controversial. I only recognize the version made by my family when, apparently, there are about a dozen variations. I am anti-mushroom. It's just not right. How did your father make it?

Aimee - You're going to spite your uncle with herring?
So cool that you remember food as well! I associate it with experiences so much. I find that my long term memory tends to present me with false versions of events - I guess I remember things the way I want to remember them, good or bad.

JC said...

My dad used mushrooms. It also had onions and sour cream of course. Served over noodles. For some reason my parents saw fit to garnish it with poppy seeds.