I have this one memory. It’s pale gray. In it, the white sky and the white snow fade into the one, and the pale gray buildings stand only a shade darker. Only the deep black splotch of my fur coat stands out. It is immobilizing on me, only four or five years old, too young to truly remember the exact day.
Even at that age, I am starting to recognize things, to develop associations between actions and feelings, feelings and people, people and memories. My mother takes a photo of me as I start fidgeting.
“Papa prigotovil borscht,” she tells me, and I get even more impatient to leave the white snow and the white sky behind; to press my chilled hands against the bowl of soup which my mother says my father has spent all day preparing; to taste the stringy beef and soft, crumbling potatoes, dyed burgundy by the beets poking out at precarious angles from the dark broth; to sneak from my parents’ plates slices of salo, white lard, frozen and salted, slippery in my hands and between my teeth; to attempt once again to enjoy the crunchy, juicy, stinging hoops of onion my parents claim is so vital to the meal; to scrunch my nose and pretend to gag when my mom turns her back to ladle more soup and my dad hands me his shotglass of vodka to smell. What a privilege!
For someone who grew up eating borsch, at the mere mention, the phantom smell of it, the intense savory-sour heat, appears immediately, as if a steaming bowl has just been conjured and slid under their very nose.
And I know it’s not just me. Our warmest childhood memories all doubtlessly involve food. The Slavic culinary tradition isn’t lavish or gourmet, it isn’t world-renowned. It doesn’t boast any Michelin stars. Slavic food is humble and homey, comforting, comfortable, nostalgic. This is why it brings back so many memories; we Slavs love to eat, and every get-together involves a food-laden table.
We express our love and caring through food. Whether a child is eating enough and whether the food is healthy, and whether they’re getting enough soup in their diet (imperative for a well-functioning digestive system) – these are the perennial worries of fretting parents and grandparents that have turned into inside jokes among the younger generation (but let’s not kid ourselves, this will be our foremost concern one day with our own children). We joke about the kolbasa in our fridge, the semechki, whose shells we’re constantly cracking between our teeth. We drink vodka and chase it with pickles, we snack on slick, salty salmon roe spread on soft white bread, just as our mothers made for us as children, just as we will make for our own brood. We go to our grandparents’ houses for holiday lunches, where we are stuffed full of heartwarmingly familiar dishes: the same olivie, vinegrette and shuba we’ve had at every holiday lunch as far back as our memories go.
And when we are finally ready to go home, our jeans unbuttoned, our lungs unable to fully expand over the fullness of our stomachs, our grandmothers pack up the leftovers and send us on our way, supplied with a week’s worth of the same food we’ve been eating for years, for decades, for centuries. We are connected to our ancestors – our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, to Peter the Great, to the Cossacks, to serfs, the medieval peasants and the gaunt, bearded Orthodox priests in their black robes, to Kyi, Schek, Horkyv and Lybid, who stopped their ship along the Dnieper shore and called that spot home – to the founding of our civilization, we are connected through the food we eat, through the food we will continue to feed our kids even as we pass into an otherwise unrecognizable future.
This is why we hold our cuisine so dear. Because it serves as a symbol for who we are, a neat and hearty package to describe the indescribable: the shifting, complex nature of identity.
Inevitably, our children will grow up different from us, shaped by an unfamiliar time and place into someone independent and alien. But the kolbasa in their fridge and the olivie on their holiday table will be there, and through them, they will remain always just the same as us.