Above is a photo of a wonderful lunch I had on Saturday: smocked mackerel and boiled new potatoes with sour cream. Does that sound good to you? It tasted wonderful to me. But it saddens me to admit that few Americans my age would go for this repast.
This lunch got me thinking about how we develop food preferences. I love all things brined, pickled, smoked and fermented: fish, pickles, sauerkraut, kefir, and so on. I was weaned—almost literally!—on this stuff. In Russia, infants were given kefir instead of formula. I gave up pickles for potato chips after coming to the U.S. You don’t want to be the kid who eats weird crap when you’re nine, you know. In my late teens and early 20s, however, I rediscovered Russian food. It’s cool to be all diverse and multiculti when you’re in college! One taste of fatty, luscious smoked mackerel and I never looked back. On the other hand, I also love food that no one had ever heard of when I was growing up, and that my parents still won’t consider eating: sashimi, curries, tofu, etc.
Now, my boyfriend, who immigrated to the U.S. in his teens, has far more Soviet tastes that I do. Last week, he asked me to cook some buckwheat. “We could have it with kotleti,” he said. “Or hot dogs.”
Kotleti are pan-fried meat patties, kind of like burgers but served without the bun. They’re the weekday staple of Russian households, the Soviet equivalent of sloppy joes. Hot dogs, always boiled, never grilled, are another go-to Soviet protein.
When I sing praises to the foods of my childhood, I don't mean boiled potatoes, hot dogs and kotleti. This is the kind of food I never, ever crave. And if I were to make this stuff, I would cook a “gourmet,” Epicurious-ized version. Buckwheat with chicken stock, dried mushrooms and caramelized shallots. Kotleti with panko breadcrumbs and Indian spices or something. And hot dogs—well... I just don’t have much to say about hot dogs.
So when I heard the boyfriend’s request, I put on what I call my PR face—the look spokespeople have during news conferences. Open, fake-friendly and willing to answer questions—to a limit. “Sure,” I said. “I could do that.” Shallots, dried mushrooms and panko are on my shopping list.