Pancakes, Pickles And Other Staple Foods I Ate Growing Up In Soviet Russia
A podcast host asked me recently what it was like growing up during the Cold War in Soviet Russia. You can listen to my answer here, as we go in depth, discussing everything from pickles to eating disorder memoirs to behavioural change.
This is a little sample of my childhood.
I caught the very tail end of the Cold War - I was born in 1983, so I was 8, when the Soviet Union fell apart. I joke that I was "made in USSR", but that’s about it. I remember that we had portraits of Vladimir Lenin in kindergarten and sang songs about him, and celebrated his birthday. I still remember the date. It’s on April 22. If you were wondering.
As tempted as I am to launch into tales of courage and overcoming adversity, where I fought off wolves on my ten mile trek to school every morning, barefoot in the snow, it was a pretty typical childhood. I think.
I was born in a coal mining town, where residents’ lungs are as black as coffee. I might be exaggerating a little bit (not able to fight off temptation I mentioned in the previous sentence), but not much. Few years back, my mom bought a snow white winter jacket few years ago - right in time for her winter visit to Russia. She came back three weeks later, wearing the same jacket - now medium grey. The average life expectancy for a Russian male, has been dancing between 58 and 64, for the last few decades. To give you a point of comparison - the life expectancy for a Canadian male is currently over 80.
Few years later after I was born, my parents moved to a large city in Siberia, as that’s where we stayed until our immigration to Canada. We would still spend every summer with my grandparents at their summer cottage - “dacha”. I always feel funny calling it cottage, because it’s not really a cottage at all. It’s a summer home with a garden, that we maintained throughout the spring and summer. You didn’t exactly sit on the deck and drink beer. It was about 6,000 square feet of soil with everything planted on it from potatoes to strawberries to onions. That piece of land fed us through the winter.
I remember always having fresh vegetables on the table in the spring and summer - because we grew them. Lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes with unrefined sunflower oil - super fragrant! - that was a staple salad. In the winter, there were significantly less vegetables and fresh fruit, because you’d have to buy them, and they were really expensive. So pickled vegetables would make an appearance. Or, Russian potato salad - boiled potatoes, raw onion and sunflower oil.
We’d get fruit occasionally - like oranges for New Year's. The first time I was handed an orange, I think I was about five or six, and I bit into it, skin and all. I remember adults laughing.
We’d get bananas sometimes. I loved bananas - it was my favorite fruit. It was either one banana each, or my brother and I would split a banana. I remember it was my goal to one day eat “enough” bananas. I finally achieved that goal after my first visit to a foreign country - accompanying my father on his short trip to United Arab Emirates, where bananas were super cheap, of course. So it was my dad and I, and he just bought a pile of bananas and we ate them until we could not eat any more. It was… amazing. ????
My grandmother would bake a lot. Pancakes for breakfast were a regular occurrence. We ate a lot of dairy - milk, cottage cheese and sour cream. Have you ever had fresh milk? As in - just came out of a cow, still body temperature warm fresh? Depending on season, it can taste… grassy. Does that blow your mind or what? Oh, and the real sour cream gets so thick that you can stick a knife in it, and it will just stay standing up. I ate an entire jar once, spreading it on bread like butter, only thicker. My grandma was convinced I’d get sick (as most would). Nothing. Glo-rious.
A lot of it was cheap food. We ate soup almost every day - usually for lunch, sometimes, for dinner too. My grandfather would eat soup for breakfast. Soups were great because they were filling - it’s all liquid and vegetables, with an occasional chunk of meat in it, and that would always go to my grandfather or my father - the man at the table.
It was such a turbulent time politically, that people could not rely on anything or anyone but themselves - many would not get paid for months. Stores would be empty, and you could not buy anything, even if you had the money. So, when something did appear, you’d buy it, and you’d buy lots of it. The Soviet joke at the time was that when you saw a line-up on the street, you joined in, not even knowing what was sold. Except it wasn’t a joke. It was true.
Why does it matter? How does it matter? Does it matter?
As a health coach, I work with hundreds of clients all over the world - living in countries, ranging from United States to Nigeria to Singapore. I feel like growing up in a different culture gives me some additional insights when working with clients of different cultural backgrounds.
Sometimes, it’s easy to forget what a big role food plays in our upbringing. I have weird foods that I brought to my household from childhood. There are certain foods that I won’t give up - bread, potatoes - because they are a large part of my cultural heritage.
My parents eat healthier today than they have backhome, but I still can’t convince them to eat kale. It’s “bitter”. And I can tell you that cottage cheese in Canada is an abomination. That’s NOT what cottage cheese looks like or tastes like. Sorry.
Pasta for an Italian client, or rice for an Indian client is not just food, it’s culture. And I can appreciate that finding balance, as we walk the fine line between cultural traditions, family backgrounds, food as fuel and food as love, can be difficult.