Posted on April 20th, 2011
While some immigrants assimilate as quickly as possible, some stay foreign. The Laotian and Cambodian kids I played with as a girl were so Asian: barefoot all the time, weaving long Chinese jump-ropes from scavenged rubber bands, eating green plums from neighboring fruit trees, with salt and hot sauce. Some of their parents never really learned English, even after many years in Portland. The southeastern Asians pretty much stuck to themselves, and by the late 1980s, they’d formed little cliques of attractive, popular kids with highly-styled bangs and superior pencil erasers, and seemed to prefer their exclusivity to integration.
The Russians didn’t really go that route. They tried to adapt fast. I remember when my brother and I first met the Ukrainian kids that moved into the apartment complex across the street from ours. Alex (Sasha) was my brother’s age, and Natalya was my age, and having satisfied that basic childhood criterion for meeting, they were an easy fit for friendship. I loved how Russian they looked, in the dated 1970s-style of their clothes, their jarring bone structure. The word for their hair color is “rossiye,” meaning “of Russia” − dishwater blonde is the national hair color of Russia − and theirs was always boy-messy or held up with big clip-on bows. Even if you put these kids in brand new American clothes, you could spot them as foreign from a mile away, but most of them had completely ditched their accents by the end of high school.
My dad, having been a duck-and-cover kid during the Eisenhower administration, viewed the immigration of Ukrainians to Portland as very bad, indeed. He harbored the type of old-school xenophobia against Russkies that’s ordinarily reserved for dudes his dad’s generation. He was still pissed about the effects of the Russian Revolution on Volga Germans like us, as though it’d happened to him personally. He really didn’t like me or Jeremy spending time with our new comrades (aka Those Fucking Pinkoes), but was also usually too busy being pissed off about other things to notice we were still spending time with them.
I used to love going to the Krasnogorovs’ apartment. Like in so many FOB households, the smell of foreign food hit me in the face when I entered their home. It was decorated with precious keepsakes from the Motherland like wooden matryoshka and an Orthodox crucifix, and other such conversation pieces as plastic chrysanthemums in dry vases and inspirational greeting cards taped to the walls. The parents slept in a hide-a-bed in the living room, and Natalya and Sasha shared the single bedroom. This was so bizarre to me, that the parents’ privacy should not have priority, and I felt like my presence in the living room was an invasion.
We’d been over a number of times, trying to pick up bits of the language each time, scrawling down phonetic notes on polite greetings and thank-yous. More importantly, we were treated to nibbles of Russian home cooking, like homemade pork rinds, a spoonful of Ukrainian borscht (meatier and oilier than regular borscht, more garlicky, less purple), some tender white cake smeared with raspberry jelly and sour cream. These flavors of their old home were unusual, but oddly satisfying.
One time, Jeremy and I were invited to an afternoon supper at their apartment. I was actually fairly eager to try more Russian food (this being my glimpse into a world more interesting than my mundane own), and made up an excuse about needing to stay after school so I could accept the invitation. After we’d enjoyed a cup of hot tea with lots of milk and sugar, Mrs. Krasnogorova said something in Russian, and Natalya cleared some space on the table. Mrs. Krasnogorova proudly laid the food down in front of us. I was so excited to see what she’d prepared for us − what exotic fare was I to behold this time?
She’d cooked us macaroni and cheese from a box and hot dogs, but not being able to read the English directions, had taken a few liberties with the preparation methods. She’d boiled the macaroni and sprinkled the orange cheese powder on top like a seasoning. The hot dog was boiled like a sausage and served bunless with ketchup.
“America food,” she nodded shyly, lamplight glinting off a gold-crowned incisor as she smiled, her eyes searching for the reaction on our faces. Jeremy and I looked at each other, then at our friends, and giggled a little before digging right in.
The main difference between Ukrainian and other borscht is that Ukrainians add fatback that’s been pounded with garlic. A lot of recipes want you to boil everything separately and combine at the end, but who wants to wash all those dishes?
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 ribs celery, diced
1 cup diced onion
1 1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
6 cups beef stock
1 1/2 cups (or 12 oz can) chopped tomatoes
2 bay leaves
4 fist-sized beets, peeled and finely diced (into a brunoise, if you’ve an excellent knife and lots of patience)
2 fist-sized potatoes, diced
salt and pepper to taste
3 cups finely sliced cabbage
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons lard or bacon fat
1 cup (or 1 can) cooked white beans
Chopped fresh dill and parsley
In your finest soup pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Sauté your mirepoix (carrots, celery and onions) with the red bell pepper until the onion is glossy and translucent. This will already start your home to smelling lovely.
Add the beef stock, bay leaf, tomatoes and beets and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for about a half-hour. During this time, I recommend you start chilling a bottle of vodka in the freezer.
Add the cabbage and potatoes and add the proper amount salt and pepper, dictated by your palate and good sense. Smokers tend to require more seasoning to suit their tastes, and many Russians are, incidentally, smokers. Many chefs are smokers, too, and this is why their food is so highly seasoned. Simmer an additional half-hour.
While the pot is returning to a simmer, you’d do well to begin smashing the garlic in the lard with a fork or a mortar and pestle. Take a tip from me, and never do this directly onto your beloved Boos block. You’ll never get the smell out, and then one day you’ll be eating sliced pineapple and wonder why it tastes like charcuterie. Add the garlic and fat to the pot and give it a stir (this should’ve only taken a minute or so, so the garlic can simmer in the half-hour).
Add the beans and let the pot simmer until the beans are warmed through, about 5 minutes.
Ladle the soup into warmed bowls, and add a quenelle of sour cream (or a blob, if you’re coarse) and a sprinkle of chopped herbs to each. Serve with a small glass of chilled vodka. Na sdarovya!