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
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