Refusenik Doc Screening 4: Soviet Dinner, or Sausage Nostalgia

This is the last of my posts on the Refusenik documentary screening. Catch up on the earlier posts: Part 1: Defining Moments; Part 2: The Rescuers and the Rescued; and Part 3: We Weren’t All Refuseniks.

To give you a sense of how this little Soviet dinner event happened, it really started out as a whim, along the lines of “What a great documentary, and more Soviet Jews should see it. And ooh, I should have a discussion and film it, and wouldn’t that be neat? And hey, then we should have a Soviet-themed dinner after. Because wouldn’t that be even neater?” Suffice to say, it turned into a Production. Of Epic Proportions. (I know, was anyone other than me surprised?). Mostly it was the cooking, which took up several days. Russian food is time-consuming. I couldn’t have done it without the help of my family, especially my mother and brother. Consider this an internets shout-out to them for all their hard work.

If images of blinis and caviar are floating through your head right now, then you need to take a sharp right, out of Tsarist Russia and the Kremlin upper crust, and head on over to 1970s-era Soviet Russia, replete with grey concrete and long line-ups of babushkas waiting for bread. Think scary stuff like holodetz—that’s jellied beef to the rest of the world, which I secretly really enjoy—and “fish in aspic”—more jellied foodstuff, but this time fish. Other dinner highlights included “herring in fur coat,” which is herring covered in a layer of chopped onion, then shredded potato, then shredded beets, then a sour cream-mayonnaise blend. What, your mouth isn’t watering? Welcome to Soviet Russia.

(If you’re puzzled by the contrast between the charms of holodetz and the pretty china, rest assured, the hoi-polloi didn’t eat off such finery. The china is made by the Lomonosov factory in St. Petersburg, which was established in 1744 by the Empress Elizabeth. My parents used to run an import business selling it across Canada, so we’ve gotten into the habit of using it everyday-like.)

The reality is that even the items we served weren’t necessarily eaten on a daily basis by Soviets. Every immigrant family holds onto different traditions. Some people have continued to eat pelmeni (the Russian version of perogies), while others eat vinaigrette or drink kvass (fermented soda made from bread; Coke is helpfully bring an “authentic” version to the US now) almost every day. There were a lot of jokes and comments about sausages.

In my family, we fell out of the habit of eating a lot of Soviet/Russian food a long time ago, mostly to keep up with my mom’s love of cooking and experimenting in the kitchen. So some of these foods were new to me. Other felt special because we don’t eat them often. This was a problem though, since we didn’t know exactly which food traditions each of our guests have held onto over the decades. The best we could hope for was that there’d be enough variety that even if some items were mundane to some guests, everyone would see at least one special item that evoked a sense of nostalgia and remembrance of their Soviet past. And if all else failed, there was plenty of vodka.

As some foods fall by the wayside, others are incorporated into the daily table, where they end up hovering somewhere between Russian and North American cuisine. My family doesn’t eat explicitly Russian food, but we do continue to eat a lot of herring, for instance, which we frequently serve at parties. It’s just, we no longer think of it as Russian, but as “our” food. Maybe that’s driven by the fact that my family hasn’t clung to a strong Russian/Soviet identity. We even speak English amongst ourselves.

We started out with a long list of items—a collection of remembrances from my parents, party must-haves from my mother, and childhood favourites and vague recollections from my brother and I. We also pulled out the Russia book from the Culinaria series, which is a great general intro to Russian and Soviet food. Here’s what we ended up with (most of it pictured in the photo at the top):

  • Fish in Aspic (fish and jelly and pretty molding)
  • Holodetz (I should point out it traditionally also has pig matter, but for obvious reasons we leave it out)
  • Herring in fur coat (see above)
  • Pickles and pickled tomatoes
  • Vinaigrette (a beet-based salad)
  • Mushrooms in sour cream (Russians love their mushrooms)
  • Marinated mushrooms (made by Igor)
  • Cabbage pirog (a square pie with a bread-like dough, instead of pastry dough)
  • Salad Olivier (a potato salad with some meat, pickles, peas, eggs)
  • Pashtyet (pâté actually, but it loses its French pedigree when translated into Russian and served in a bowl)
  • Tongue (a big, boiled hunk of cow…)
  • Lamb Plov (a rice pilaf which is technically an Uzbek dish)
  • Napoleon (a layer cake adapted from the French version)

As for that sausage nostalgia? It’s a funny irony about having little in life, in that you tend to better appreciate what you do have. In the Soviet Union, managing to get some scarce bit of fish or meat was a celebratory occasion. It was enjoyed like nothing else since in anyone’s life. And so, the refrain around the table became one of slight nostalgia and slight regret that, after all these years, and despite all the success stories gathered at that table, none of it would ever taste as good as a simple sausage did back in the old country. This is not to glamorize poverty or scarcity, but just that when you have more, you appreciate it differently.

For those of you reading who are from immigrant families too, I’d love to hear about how your eating habits have changed over time. We tend to glorify the immigrant, or ethnic, kitchen and assume all immigrant families are the same in their steadfast clinging to the foods of home. Maybe the reality is a more fluid experience as people adapt to new foods, try things out, change their tastes, and so forth. Maybe it’s related to how strong of an identity people maintain from the home country.

I’d love to hear more on this. Please chime in with comments!

2 thoughts on “Refusenik Doc Screening 4: Soviet Dinner, or Sausage Nostalgia”

  1. Awesome post 🙂

    So you guys don’t cook these foods anymore? That’s really interesting. All of what you described is pretty much a regular Saturday night over at any of my family’s houses for me.

    My mom also experiments with “American food” (recently we’ve had couscous with carrots, vegetarian chili, pasta, etc. when we’ve been over at my house) but for the most part sticks to the basics: one soup every three to four days (can’t have a day without soup..that’s unthought of!), bliny and pirozhki, and all the salati-olivie, etc. for when we have a lot of people over.

    I don’t know how to make lots of these foods so I make mostly American cuisine but I am really proud of the fact that I know how to make borsch, mushroom soup, schi, and a couple of other Russian soups, and also sometimes I make bliny for a quick meal. I’ve also made plov before but it’s really hard and you have to be good to make sure it’s flavored correctly.

    I can’t wait until I have my own house/kitchen so I make more of this stuff for family.

    I don’t really think of the foods you described as Soviet as much as Russian because they are still key staples of a Russian diet.

  2. Hi Vicki, thanks for your comments! Yeah, my family is a little strange when it comes to all things Russian/Soviet. But I think also leaving in the 70s (and thus knowing that all connections were severed forever) and ending up in a place like Edmonton, w/o a large Soviet/Russian community, has also shaped a lot of our habits and such.

    And you’re absolutely right about Soviet and Russian – it’s something I stumble over a lot when I’m writing. The country we left was the Soviet Union, and then suddenly it became Russia, but we’ve never really lived in Russia. Etc, etc.

    It’s hard to cram in an entire post on Russian eating habits (wanted to stick to Refusenik event itself), but I think it’s probably most fair to say that Russian habits have leaked into everything we eat. We also eat a lot of soup, but we might have it with pasta after or something. And a lot of tomato/cucumber salads with sour cream. So a lot of things remain. But I feel like I don’t think of it as actively eating Russian food. And our habits have swung too over time — now there’s a large-ish Russian store in Edmonton, so we always have pelmini in the freezer, for example, which wasn’t the case when I was growing up through the 80s and early 90s.

    I would add though that I live across the country from my family, so that also changes what I personally eat, vs. what they eat. Now I live in a Polish neighbourhood and am constantly complaining about how they make borscht and the rest wrong 🙂

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