• Thanksgiving as an Immigrant Family

    Every year amidst the warm chaos of Thanksgiving, I look around at my family and think, “How the heck did we get here?”

    There are many answers to that. How did we get here physically? By train, then plane, then subway, and most recently: a long car ride to Florida. My family, as well as my husband’s family, are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. My family was sponsored by HIAS to come to New York in the 90’s. What the means is that they vouched for us to come into the country, promising that they would help get us on our feet in the U.S.A.

    Russian family in America

    I remember many Thanksgiving that featured, instead of turkey, roasted chicken, rice pilaf (we call it plov), and tomato and onion salads. Even after 24 years in this country, this cuisine is still pretty much standard in our homes. Maybe we had turkey early on, but I can’t for the life of me remember when we actually started putting it on the table.

    There was no mac and cheese here. Inside our home no one looked twice at a salad compromised of diced potatoes, eggs, peas, pickles and a healthy coating of mayonnaise. Obviously we learned about “American” foods from our friends over time, but it didn’t change how we envisioned our holiday.

    What did food matter when this was always a holiday to be grateful? Who could understand that more than a family of immigrants (and technically refugees)? We were always thankful, especially during this holiday.

    So now we eat turkey in addition to everything else, and the contrast of our traditions and “American” culture is basically the theme of my life. How much I feel that depends on where I’m living and who I’m surrounded by. It’s a feeling that immigrants understand because it’s impossible to escape.

    Whether you’re native born or an immigrant to the United States, Happy Thanksgiving! It’s more important than ever to share and embrace all the cultural variations that our country creates and encourages.

    Let’s remind ourselves and our friends to be thankful for where we are and to always leave a seat for someone at our table who might want to be thankful too.

  • Let’s talk about food, baby

    new year photo booth

    Food can tell you a lot of things about people. It can tell you what their tastes are, what kind of traditions they keep and, of course, how hungry they are.

    This year my husband and I invited our family and friends into our home for New Year’s eve. Since we were raised in the same culture, we see a lot of the same foods on holidays. I don’t know if this is true for other cultures, but Russians, we put the same dishes on the table over and over.

    Even though on a regular day my kitchen is a Pinterest laboratory, there was no escaping “the classics” for this party. Here’s the anatomy of a New Year’s meal in our home:

    More is better

    Dinner started at about 8 p.m. We begin with appetizers. Russians are pros at this part because of a simple motto: “more is better.” I mean if you love this part of a meal, a Russian holiday is your heaven. You definitely won’t see our mothers put a weak lettuce and dressing salad on the table.

    Courtesy of Wikimedia
    Olivier salad – courtesy of Wikimedia

    One really popular salad is called Olivier (pronounced like Sir Lawrence, but named after a Russian chef). It’s potato salad on steroids, with carrots, peas, pickles and meat mixed in with mayonnaise. (Update, I forgot about this until I opened my fridge) There’s also “holodets” — a meat jelly made by cooling soup in the fridge. My mom is the expert with these dishes!

    Holodets with the pumpkin pastries and a pickle. Perfect leftovers.
    Holodets with the pumpkin pastries and a pickle. Perfect leftovers.

    It all sounds like mystery cafeteria food, but trust me, it’s good. These foods are also really filling.

    And yet, there must be fish! Usually it’s smoked salmon or pickled herring (though never at my house). To top it off, you’ll see some kind of pastries with meat or vegetables. My mother-in-law was kind enough to make them filled with pumpkin.

    Entree, Part 1

    Planning for the meal involved coordinating with my mother and M.I.L. I decided to roast chickens for the entree, so that came out first with a side of potatoes and vegetables.  The main dishes obviously need to be large enough for the family to share and pass around several times. Don’t forget it’s possible that someone will get hungry again closer to midnight. Eat and repeat, guys.

    Interlude, and second entree

    I can still spell in 2014.
    I can still spell in 2014.

    After an awesome interlude of games and a makeshift photo booth, we sat down for another course. On the table were “manti“, which are basically steamed dumplings. Again, my husband’s family brought those over. These things are one of my favorite foods. Can you get tired of eating dumplings with spiced meat and onions? No, you cannot.

    Manti - courtesy of Wikimedia.
    Manti – courtesy of Wikimedia.

    That’s all?

    By this time, midnight had passed, everyone was cheery and it was time for tea. I don’t know why the British are known for loving tea because we drink it a million times a day and as a cure for everything. Unlike Americans, our grandparents tell us to never to drink anything but warm liquids with our meal. (Your stomach might explode, kids). Of course with the tea there are fruits and pastries. Maybe a cake. Ok, it’s me so always a cake.

    Berry upside down cake
    Berry upside down cake

    So that’s what we ate to celebrate 2014. You might see a similar meal in a different household, and possibly on a different occasion. I don’t know what it is, but the traditional dishes make everyone feel good. There’s no guessing about whether or not you’ll enjoy it (you will). Or if you’ll leave full and happy (definitely).

    And while I go tend to the leftovers, let me know what you eat on New Year’s eve in the comments. I’m looking for some new recipes…



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