Cutting board with chopped carrots and potatoes for soup

Why I stopped cooking Russian soups – on habits and muscle memory

(A version of this appeared in the February issue of my newsletter, the Soviet Samovar.)

Winter came late this year — it only properly snowed in early January and I finally felt like I could breathe again. Winter has always been my favourite season, and now I rely on that blanket of snow to, quite literally, blanket my climate anxiety for a few months every year. Last winter, our first back in Alberta, did not disappoint, delivering knee-high snow the day after Halloween that stuck around into April. I dug in, ready for a season of Le Creuset and soups.

Except I found that I suddenly couldn’t. Mourning the life and community we’d left behind, too caught up in memories — memories that had so rudely inserted themselves into my kitchen — I fled the kitchen. Cooking had been my way to connect with my Soviet-Jewish past for years, but during that time it had snuck up and twisted itself onto my own, Jewish-in-Toronto, life. No more meandering thoughts about my grandparents or insights into Soviet society as the knife went up and down, chopping carrots and peeling potatoes. Now it was the wooden Ikea countertops of our Toronto kitchen, which had looked so stunning when we’d moved in, but slowly became a source of grimy hatred, that filled my mind.

Standing at the cutting board, knife poised over slightly sloppy, not-at-all-uniform slices, I could feel a string pulling me back through lives and years, and so many dinners and moments in a kitchen I’ll never step into again. I could see the Billy shelves we’d re-purposed for a pantry, the peeling wood on the cupboard doors, the terracotta floor tiles, the breakfast nook my partner had built for us. The endless hurried breakfasts and packed lunches and dinner parties for more guests than we had chairs for.

I stopped cooking soups — and so many other favourite meals — for a long time. I dutifully clipped aspirational recipes, bought packaged snacks I once scoffed at, and left my We carried on through winter as if rassolniks, shchis and kharchos had simply never existed.

Cooking habits are like that. We think we’re doing something else — just feeding our family, with a side of identity for our kids — and while we’re going about our business, it imprints itself on our bodies and memories. Your knife keeps moving and when you look up, you expect to be standing where you always have. Except suddenly your cupboards are a turquoise-teal, your counters are a slightly marbled laminate and there’s a small burner on your stovetop where the large one is supposed to be. Only your knife and cutting board — and those uneven carrot slices — remain the same.

Of course, I have the luxury to stop cooking soups — it was always a choice, and has remained so, even as prices have been rising. I can cook something else, I can order in, I can buy premade meals. I can just stop and those pots of soup will recede into memory, become our “Toronto soups” instead of Russian soups. I could just let that happen.

New patterns are emerging, very slowly painting over old habits and spaces, pushing away the galley-like kitchen, and the particular hardness of that tile flooring. We’re on our second winter now, and soups are back on the table.

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