Monday, November 14, 2011

From Iron Curtain to Iron Chef: 20 Years in American Food

As of October 24, 2011, I have lived in the United States for 20 years. I’ll spare the reflections on growing up in two cultures, etcetera, suffice to say it’s been a pretty good run.
Let’s talk instead about these 20 years in food. My palate follows the typical immigrant child trajectory:  Instant infatuation with all things American; attempts to bring “American” food like tacos and lasagna into the immigrant household; followed by an eventual appreciation and nostalgia for the foods of the old country.  Let’s take a closer look:
1991: My family and I arrive in the U.S. from Russia.  The food we’ve known in the USSR is homemade and unvaried, made-from-scratch and pale in color. Fast food and snacks, wrapped in bright food packaging, are rare and expensive. Here, the sheer variety of food and its colors sends us spinning.  We eat our first American delicacy: Oreo cookies, purchased late in the evening from a hotel vending machine (we strategically go at night because we’ve never seen a vending machine and don’t know how it works). 
This is followed by daily discoveries: pink bologna wrapped in layers of plastic, tiny cups of purple-tinged yogurt with sprinkles, vanilla ice cream with strawberry streaks that make me think of marble, confetti-colored marshmallows in Alphabits cereal.  Life’s a kaleidoscope of color and gloriously artificial scents and flavors. My mom nearly mistakes a bottle of lemon-scented dish soap for lemon juice.
1991, later in the year: We acquire our first toaster and I spend an evening toasting piece after piece of Wonder Bread.
1992-1993: I’m mesmerized by the food American kids bring to school: diagonally sliced sandwiches that always include a piece of lettuce, pretzel twists in plastic baggies, Fruit by the Foot, gummy fruit snacks, fruit juice boxes with straws attached (“Americans think of everything,” my mom says!). Also, school pizza parties courtesy of Pizza Hut and classroom treats for every possible occasion, in an era before childhood obesity.  
1994-1995: I discover the microwave. My parents use it for reasonable purposes, like heating leftovers. I use it for eating my way through Pick ‘n Save’s frozen dinner selection. My favorite brand, for reasons that elude me now, is Kid Cuisine.  I ignore my mom’s borsch. Lunch is Lay’s sour-cream-and-potato chips, a box of Ocean Spray juice, and a Little Debbie brownie. My parents’ infatuation with American food is over. My mom declares that everything tastes like plastic.
1996-1997: Adolescent body image issues kick in: I decide I’m fat. It’s a good time to start eating “healthy,” since it’s the decade of low-fat everything: Snackwell’s, Healthy Choice, fat-free pretzels.  I oversee my mom’s cooking and complain every time she reaches for oil and butter. This causes some tension between us.
1997-1998: I dabble in cooking. Everything I want to make is “American”: lasagna, tacos, spaghetti. I’m not interested in borsch.
1998-2000: My infatuation with American food, both junk and home cooked, is ending. Weird, foreign food is kind of cool! Three cheers for multiculturalism. My mom goes on kick of Russian home cooking: pirozhki (little pies with meat, cabbage or mushroom fillings), pelmeni (Russian dumplings),  cabbage soups. I gobble it all up.
2000-2005: I continue to dabble in cooking, although my mom’s interest wanes. Food at home, and to this day, alternates between Russian basics like kotleti and the occasional lasagna. I watch the Food Network and read cookbooks.
2006-2007: Inspired by an explosion of food blogs and my very first kitchen, I launch Yulinka Cooks. My theme is Russian/Soviet food, and I stick to it, making vatrushki, tvorog, and kvass. Many of these multistep dishes are just okay and my photos are less than okay, but food blogging becomes my on-again-off-again creative outlet. 
2008-2011: Local and sustainable is big, and I dabble in some Milwaukee-area food coverage. I keep cooking and blogging, although with a bit less enthusiasm. I write about “American” food, which doesn’t resonate with readers—but Russian classics like kvass generate comments! 

Now: I’ve evolved into a decent cook and cook plenty, mostly Americanized basics, and mostly from scratch. I shop at farmer’s markets. I know better than to be impressed with Oreos—not local or sustainable!  
Still, at times I miss that fresh-off-the-boat innocence, that moment when packaged cookies falling through a vending machine seemed magical. (If I were making a movie, they'd fall in slow motion.) 
As my 20th Thanksgiving rolls around, I’m thankful that I’ve had the chance to experience both worlds—the dark one for a little while, and the colorful one for keeps.

Photos from ConAgra Foods and Nabisco


Nicole said...

I really enjoyed reading this, Julia! What a great refection on such an important topic -- food! I remember loving kiddie microwaveable meals, too, and my parents thinking I was nuts. Now I get it. :)

Jam-packed Life said...

Wow! A great description of the integration-nostalgia dichotomy, and of your 20 years of American living through food. When M. and I cook, we mostly go for ease and good taste rather than a particular cuisine, so it's often a mix of various countries represented at our table. Recent faves: sweet potato salad with dried cranberries & toasted walnuts; and curried carrots (onions, garlic & carrots sauteed in curry spice, thyme & olive oil. Delish!).

Ania Krysa said...

I grew up in a Ukrainian household and your food trajectory recollection is the same as mine. I remember hating my mom's soups (i had it so wrong - they are so delicious) and wanting Campbell's from a can. And i begged my mom for Spaghetti and Meatballs which she made but they somehow tasted Ukrainian. It must have been her tomato sauce. I loved this post!

flotsam said...

very well written! thank you:)have a good Thanksgiving.

Ruta Stabiņa said...

What a great retrospective, really enjoyed it! Very interesting to see how the preferences evolved. Although I moved to the US in my late twenties, and by then in Latvia (where I am from) everything was available, but not gallon bottles of Coke, and not Doritos, and not that terrible cheese dip in jars that did not need refrigeration. And to go with it, at first, I could not get enough of Jerry Springer - how a tender Eastern European soul can refuse something so explicit and ridiculous. Of course, all of the above makes me sick now :-) Nowadays at home I cook pan-European, mix and match, some Thai, some Middle Eastern, some American. Made excellent Rossolnik yesterday BTW, with barley and and meat/quinoa/rice frikadeli (meatballs) - a new variation, came out great. Thanks again!

i said...

Oooh, this post spoke to me too! My journey was in Canada, but similar in many ways. For me, the bellwether was salad dressing. Growing up, my family always made salads with oil (later olive oil), fresh lemon juice, sugar, salt, and pepper. And garlic. And herbs. Thrown right on the salad and tossed. And what did I long for? Creamy, chemically-tasting bottled salad dressings. Oh, how I wanted French dressing, and ranch, and Thousand Island, and blue cheese... every now and then we'd get a bottle, and I would simply adore it and long for more.

Fast forward a few years, and I spend some years in college with a salad bar that offered those options every single day. It didn't take me a semester to decide these salad goops were disgusting. Nothing was as good as what I had at home. Now, I make all sorts of dressings from scratch, and really hate most restaurant salads. They never taste truly fresh to me.

The only thing grosser than ranch dressing are ranch doritos, and darned if I didn't lick my share of ranch-flavoured powder off of my fingers as a kid and teenager.

(PS. My newest recipe on the blog is for a dish I would have thought unspeakably bland a few years ago... and now, weirdly, I had a craving for it. Strange how these things happen.)

Julia (alias Yulinka Cooks) said...

Thanks so much for the comments! Love reading this stuff. Glad to hear about similar immigrant experiences! (Ania--my mom's American food somehow tasted Russian, too!)

i said...

Ha! I really love the idea of the Ukrainian-tasting spaghetti. My mom would try to make a stir fry now and then, and it tasted nothing like what I had at my Chinese friends' houses -- it tasted "Romanian." I remember talking about this with an Indian friend, and she said her mom's stir fries tasted strangely Indian. That's Toronto for you -- all these ethnic mothers were trying to make Chinese food and failing. And no doubt when the Chinese moms tried to make spaghetti or pizza, it would taste Chinese, to the consternation of their kids.

post soviet vegetarian said...

Your description of your experience seemed a lot like mine. Although I did not have anyone with me, I had to "re-invent" the food I was used to, making vegetarian adaptations as I progressed. Thanks for the post, interesting to hear someone else's story.

i said...

post soviet vegetarian: I always joked that there was no vegetarianism in Romania, but only a few years ago I realised there really was -- it was just called Lent. My Romanian cookbooks have tons of "Lenten" variations, and so are actually quite rich in vegetarian options.

Malavika Jagannathan said...

As a fellow immigrant, I sympathize greatly with your experience and appreciated the retrospective. I loved your description of the vending machine fascination! Mine was the gumball machine. I remember thinking that was the most amazing invention ever. And my mom's "Chinese" noodles definitely taste Indian :)

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