Eat, Memory - by Irina Reyn
Now, memory, pour some beer,
salt the rim of the glass.
— Ilya Kaminsky
The first solid food my mother remembers me eating is a book. My first years were spent in a Soviet communal apartment with ten other families; to keep me docile and palatable to our temperamental neighbors, my mother took to plopping me on the couch with a children’s book. I would sit there for hours, as she tells it, gnawing on its edges until the book would have to be flipped, a new corner begun.
In Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov remembers a similarly unusual early snack: “I used to chew a corner of the bedsheet until it was thoroughly soaked and then wrap the egg in it tightly, so as to admire and re-lick the warm, ruddy glitter of the snugly enveloped facets that came seeping through with a miraculous completeness of glow and color. But that was not yet the closest I got to feeding upon beauty” (24). Émigré writers, living simultaneously in two opposing spaces—the phantom past and the unstable present—may be uniquely fixated on oral memories. For us, food can unite and divide; it is filled not only with butter or sour cream, dill mashed potatoes or minced chicken, but with memory and longing, desire and disillusionment.
My obsession with food is directly linked with being an immigrant from the former Soviet Union. An immigrant first arriving in her adoptive county, short on funds, is bound to want. But the first desires in a new country tend to be the most primal ones, and suddenly, in America, food appears to be everywhere. Like so many other recent immigrants, I stood dumbfounded inside an American supermarket, with its dizzying selection of multiple brands of margarine, rolls of toilet paper, milk. It was overwhelming, especially since I had arrived from a Communist country, where the typical choices faced at the end of a queue were vanilla or chocolate, the last jar of pickles or shoes two sizes too large.
American television shows held little interest for me; instead, I waited for commercials, with their seductive images of food—gyrating Fruit Roll-Ups, cascading Cheerios snug inside a cereal bowl, a plastic casing being slipped off to reveal the bare torso of orange cheese. How I longed for the Stove Top stuffing of commercials, fluffy and mysterious; not pickled herring or beet vinaigrette, but glistening, rotating hamburgers, weighed down by onions, lettuce, and tomatoes, the water drops still coating their rosy outer skins. Living in the New York borough of Queens, I conjured suburban dreamscapes, running over to a friend’s house and rifling through her mother’s kitchen cupboards, the sugar temptations within, always Little Debbie coffee cakes, never smoked salmon. Only later did I realize that the hunger of immigration could never be sated by french fries or Doritos; it is ever grumbling, eternal, satisfied only temporarily.
In his book, aptly named The Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, Rodriguez writes that education (and the rapid acquisition of the new language) splits younger immigrants into two spheres: the public and the private. The public sphere is the English-language world outside the home, where our young immigrant dons a particular role, perhaps more formal, leaning more firmly on the intellect. In the private realm the young immigrant is enveloped in his first language, in the senses, in food and emotion. Outside, Rodriguez implies, there are Oreos, but inside there is the national food of the old country. This tension makes the family dinner table particularly charged. How can the two realms be united? In my own case, how can resentment not build when a sixth-grade child is forced to ingest marinated tomatoes at lunch rather than, say, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the crusts delicately removed? This desire, Rodriguez says, will eventually tear the immigrant child from the enclave of his parents, whose feet are still partially planted in the old world, for whom Stove Top stuffing is hardly appealing, much less recognizable as food.
For immigrants food is one of the few ways to re-create their home country (how many heartwarming immigrant films have we seen where families dig into an exotic spread, warmly passing the plates around?), but food can also be a way to reject their home country. I, for example, started a small bartering business in grade school, exchanging the herring and onion sandwiches my mother made every morning for the idealized peanut butter and jelly or the even more desirable stacked turkey clubs. American kids enjoyed an exotic lunch, while I merely wanted to blend, to deny, to regain the communal spirit of my youth. With few American friends, I re-established a connection with the favorite food of my youth, with books.
In Russia, literature and food have always been united. One of the most popular restaurants in Moscow right now would have to be Pushkin Café, where you can eat expensive blini surrounded by pre-revolutionary decor. At another Moscow restaurant, Shinok, tourists can eat inside a village directly out of Nikolai Gogol’s Evenings Near the Village of Dikan’ka, next to live horses, cows, and pigs, served by ruddy-faced waitresses in folk dress doing credible imitations of Ukrainian grandmothers. For conoisseurs of Ivan Goncharov’s novel of the same name , Oblomov offers lavish meals for those who would like to re-create the protagonist’s lethargic lifestyle by ordering the $60 prix fixe dinner. In St. Petersburg, Restaurant Dostoevsky offers Russian and European cuisine, and Raskolnikov Bar boasts a prime view of the city. In New York a theatergoer can pop into Uncle Vanya for hearty Russian cuisine, drawing on a hungry diner’s familiarity with Russian literary classics. Here I want to focus on Russian national and immigrant literature’s relation to food, but clearly this is a topic that can just as easily extend to any national literature. For meaningful eating scenes in contemporary immigrant fiction, we can turn to Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, Diana Abu-Jaber’s Crescent, Francine Prose’s Household Saints, and innumerable other works.
In Russian culture, food and vodka have always played important symbolic functions. Bread and salt have long been a symbol for hospitality and prosperity—a peasant woman in traditional garb stretching out a loaf of bread and salt in welcome is an iconic Russian image. As Dmitrii Stakhov points out in his article “The Prose (and Cons) of Vodka,” vodka is the country’s “cultural yardstick, a signifier. It is also firmly established as a kind of socioepistemological gauge ‘Do you know so-and-so? ‘Sort of, but I never drank with him so I can’t really say what kind of a person he is’” (25).
Historically, Russians’ relation to food has been a tormented one for religious and political reasons. The strict dictates handed down by the Russian Orthodox Church called for people to fast for up to two hundred days a year. Under this draconian spiritual regime Russian peasants were forced to alternate between binging and fasting, and over time fasting became equated with spiritual purity, while the image of feasts—messy, rowdy, and gluttonous—would later be linked in literature with representations of the lower class or the morally bankrupt.
We may observe
that in nineteenth-century Russian literature if a character is a hearty
eater, he is probably an object of the author’s satire, a person not
to be taken seriously. In Anna Karenina,
for example, Stiva Oblonsky, Anna’s brother and the adulterer we meet
at the novel’s opening, enjoys an elaborate meal with Levin. He orders
an immense amount of food: oysters, vegetable soup, “then turbot with
thick sauce, then . . . roast beef; and mind it’s good
In Nikolai Gogol’s short stories the cliché “You are what you eat” takes on a literal dimension. People acquire the attributes of food (one character, Peter Petrovich Petukh, for example, is described as resembling “a round watermelon”) and are often portrayed as eating, thinking or talking about eating, craving to eat more, or feeding other people. Gogol rarely lets a story go by without inserting descriptions of food, and his depictions of eating are grotesque and satirical. In his story “Old World Landowners,” for example, a charming old couple spend their twilight years in a bucolic, secluded village. However, unnamed danger and death lurk beneath this idyllic facade, and their relationship is wholly based on the serving and eating of food:
“Well, Pulkheria Ivanovna, isn’t it time perhaps for a snack of something?”
“What would you have now, Afanasy Ivanovich? Would you like biscuits with lard or poppy-seed pies, or perhaps salted mushrooms?” . . .
An hour before dinner Afanasy Ivanovich would have another snack, would empty an old-fashioned silver goblet of vodka, would eat mushrooms, various sorts of dried fish, and so on. They sat down to dinner at twelve o’clock. (8–9)
Is there something ominous about Pulkheria Ivanovna’s constant stuffing of her husband? Is it odd that the hours in Afanasy Ivanovich’s days are parceled out around mealtimes, that as soon as he has eaten, he is looking to fill his belly yet again?
“What shall I have to eat, Pulkheria Ivanovna?”
“What would you like?” Pulkheria Ivanovna would say. “Shall I go and tell them to bring you the fruit dumpling I ordered them to keep especially for you? . . . Or perhaps you’d like some jelly?” . . .
Before supper, Afanasy Ivanovich would have another snack of something. At half past nine they sat down to supper. (9)
We cannot help but draw connections between the couple’s childless state, the mysterious disappearance of Pulkheria Ivanovna’s favorite cat, and the pregnancies of the female servants of the house. But all these intriguing details are masked by Afanasy Ivanovich’s never-ending ingestion of food.
In Gogol’s story “The Nose” a bureaucrat discovers that his nose has absconded and is rampantly running around St. Petersburg. But first Gogol inserts the missing nose (an appendage described in sexual terms) into a loaf of bread:
“I won’t have coffee today, Praskovia Osipovna,” said Ivan Yakovlevich. “Instead, I should like some hot bread with onions.” . . .
“Let the fool have bread: so much the better for me,” thought his wife to herself. “There will be an extra cup of coffee left,” and she flung one loaf on the table. . . . [Ivan Yakovlevich] sprinkled some salt, peeled two onions, took a knife in his hand and, assuming an air of importance, began to cut the bread. After dividing the loaf into two halves he looked into the middle of it—and to his amazement saw something there that looked white. . . . He thrust in his fingers and pulled it out—it was a nose! (216–17)
For Gogol there is something irresistible and ridiculous about the consumption of food—it is human frailty in its most externalized way. Unable (for his own tormented psychological reasons) to write explicitly about sex, Gogol channeled all his erotic energies into the depiction of food. Not surprisingly, at the end of his life Gogol refused to eat entirely—despite remedies prescribed by doctors, such as leeches attached to his nose and hot loaves of bread pressed against his body. Under the influence of a dubious quasi-priest Gogol starved himself to death.
Sometimes a scene about procuring food can thrust our protagonist into a new role; it can be a means of distinguishing oneself in unfamiliar surroundings. In Isaac Babel’s story “My First Goose” a bookish, bespectacled Jewish soldier earns respect from the Cossacks by violently slaughtering a goose for his supper. And with a single meal he has proved himself to be as much of a murderer as they, even if the triumph is a tainted one:
A stern goose was wandering about the yard, serenely preening its feathers. I caught up with it and bent it down to the ground; the goose’s head cracked under my boot, cracked and overflowed. The white neck was spread out in the dung; and the wings began to move above the slaughtered bird. . . .
The Cossacks had begun to eat their supper with the restrained elegance of muzhiks who respect one another. . . .
“Brother,” Surovkov, the most senior of the Cossacks, said to me all of a sudden, “sit down and have some of our grub until your goose is ready.” . . .
He produced a spare spoon from his boot and handed it to me. We gulped down the home-made cabbage soup and ate the pork. (122)
In Babel’s story a Jew crosses to the other side of the pogrom, as illustrated by his murder of the bird. Before the slaughter of the goose the Cossacks mock our wimpy-looking hero, but afterwards, by the sharing of his spoon, the Cossack is communicating to the narrator that he is now one of the boys and can be trusted to kill and rape alongside them. The story ends this way: “I had dreams and saw women in my dreams, and only my heart, stained crimson with murder, squeaked and overflowed” (123). In a certain way, we can read “My First Goose” as a kind of immigrant story—what we are capable of renouncing in our efforts to assimilate.
After the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, the issue of food became even more contested in the Soviet Union. The Russian Civil War, coupled with the First World War, brought mass famine in its wake, and later, during Stalin’s era, people were fed less with actual food than with images and propaganda of food. The myth of the collective farm’s wild success was often disseminated via paintings and movies starring robust, red-cheeked youth prancing around wheat fields, happily plucking turkey feathers and rolling around cartfuls of peaches. In the film Cuban Cossacks (Kubanskie kazaki, directed by Ivan Pyryev), for example, made in 1949 at the height of the post-war famine, a voluptuous female leader of one collective farm competes in exceeding production quotas with the handsome leader of a rival farm. The lascivious shots of plentiful food and delirious renditions of the hit song “Harvest” were in direct contrast with the actual dearth of the average Soviet pantry.
Soviet poetry, too, tried to convince the general public that their stomachs were more filled than they actually were. In the panegyric poem “New Year Celebrations, 1918” the poet Sergei Podelkov rewrites history by portraying the joyous victory of the Bolsheviks as one bringing about an immediate harvest:
Beyond weapons piled in rusty dumpheaps,
Beyond sorrow, lay vast fields of wheat,
Wonder-tractors furrowed their expanses,
And the barroom hummed with lively stories,
Tea was poured, the fireplace blazed away,
And on Sevres china rustic rye-rusks
Side-by-side with pop-eyed candy lay. (94)
Because of the length and severity of the Russian winter, pickled and conserved foods played an integral role in the Russian diet. Cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbage, mushrooms, watermelon, and apples would be compressed in enormous vats of salt, water, laurel leaves, and garlic. In Ukraine, for example, villagers relied on plum preserves to get them through the winter, as well as cherry conserves and apple, cranberry, gooseberry, pear, and even rose jams. Pears and apples would be sliced, threaded through the middle, and strung on spools of rope, along with onions and husks of corn. It was not uncommon to see walnuts toasting on top of the stove. The temporal relationship with food was hardly one of hours or days, but more typically extended to months or beyond. In July one would have to be thinking about one’s meals in February and March. All this necessary preparation against future hunger meant that food was constantly on the Russian mind.
Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the country once again swung from one extreme to the other—from famine to feast, at least in its capital, and for those who could afford the indulgence. But for Russian immigrant writers food continues to be something complicated, ecstatic, never nonchalant. Russian immigrants carry around with them the internalized issues of national Russian writers, but layered on top of them is a connection between food and nostalgia, food and authenticity, memory, nourishment, longing, alienation, integration. Food is both literal and metaphor, sensory and intellectual. It is a time machine, a weapon against forgetting.
For immigrants, food is, first and foremost, a shorthand to memory of the country left behind. Some of us can close our eyes and conjure the flavor, scent, and texture of a food that may no longer exist; for some of us that food belonged to a country that no longer exists. Even now I still remember a particular dessert we had in Moscow on special occasions, a dense, sticky confection that had to be shaped into logs and refrigerated, but to this day my mother denies any memory of such a sweet. Did it even exist?
In her fascinating book The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym points out that the nostalgic—a displaced person—develops keen senses about the distant place of longing that most often manifest in the gustatory. “The nostalgic had an amazing capacity for remembering sensations, tastes, sounds, smells, the minutaie and trivia of the lost paradise that those who remained at home never noticed,” she writes (4). It is the madeleine with tea that opens the mind’s portal onto a beloved world, one that is retrievable only through the arousal (or re-arousal) of taste buds.
It is not surprising that a nostalgic would make the connection between food and love, so an exile may unite memories of meals with images of the mother (in Russian and other cultures of a certain generation it is our mothers who served the food). In the poem “Praise,” by Russian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky, a mother is recalled in this way:
loving her is simple as putting
in my mouth. (55)
My favorite essay by Joseph Brodsky, “In a Room and a Half,” beautifully illustrates Boym’s example vis-à-vis nostalgia and food. Although Brodsky takes great pains to deny his own nostalgic impulse, he recalls the room and a half in which he lived with his beloved parents with such vividness, such detail, that it could only come from the inner realm of Boym’s nostalgic. The essay is Brodsky’s response to the fact of his parents’ death, parents the Soviet government would never allow him to see again once he defected to the United States, and his pain and anger become translated in beautiful descriptions of the tiny space they shared. Brodsky recalls life in a crammed communal apartment—identical to the one where I spent my childhood—and one of his warmest images is of his mother in the kitchen:
There is something tribal about this dimly lit cave, something primordial—evolutionary, if you will; and the pots and pans hang over the gas stoves like would-be tom-toms. I recall these not out of nostalgia but because this was where my mother spent one-fourth of her life. Family people seldom eat out; in Russia almost never. I don't recall either her or my father across the table in a restaurant, or for that matter in a cafeteria. She was the best cook I ever knew, with the exception, perhaps, of Chester Kallman; but then he had more ingredients. I recall her most frequently in the kitchen, in her apron, face reddened and eyeglasses a bit steamy, shooing me away from the stove as I try to fish this or that item from the burner. . . . "Go away!" she exclaims. "What impatience!" I won't hear that anymore. (456)
As a dissident, Brodsky never had the option of returning home, of reuniting with his parents. His lost world lacks the rustic simplicity of Proust’s. Instead, Brodsky attempts to make sense of a place as satisfying in its domestic harmony as it was punishing outside the home. How to reconcile the fierceness of his parents’ love with the virulence of his country’s rejection of him? How to parse through unreliable, selective memories? No wonder he denies his own nostalgia—for Brodsky, nostalgia is a sentiment he simply can’t afford.
While food both transcends and encapsulates nourishment, often nourishment is not enough; in many cases food may disgust rather than attract, highlighting the emptiness at the core of the immigrant myth of success. In Nina Berberova’s story “The Waiter and the Slut,” a down-on-her-luck Russian émigré in Paris prowls the city’s Russian restaurants, hoping to catch the eye of a wealthy man and escape a life of poverty and prostitution. What Tania discovers in the restaurants is that they are merely temporary shelters for empty lives of short-term pleasures and bleak futures. Berberova sets her story in restaurants and Tania’s apartment, alternating between scenes of food and degrading relations with men. This scene, for example, is not so different from the story’s dark outlook on the greedy hopelessness of exiled male/female interactions: “[The waiter] reappeared, sailing through the air carrying a narrow platter of marinated mushrooms. He uncorked a napkin-wrapped bottle of wine and rolled the cheese trolley to the far corner. ‘What does a man like that live for?’ she asked herself. But the waiter kept flitting to and fro, carrying away dirty dishes. All of a sudden Tania saw him in the waiters’ room close to her, greedily shoveling food from someone else’s plate into his mouth. She was disgusted” (55).
To keep eating is to go on struggling another day, but for an émigré adrift in a new country, those struggles can begin to feel meaningless: “That time when I bought lobster and mayonnaise, I should have bought a gun instead,” Tania despairs (74). The longer she remains in Paris, the more Tania becomes all body—she alternatively feeds it and gives it away.
The protagonist (also named Tania) in Lara Vapnyar’s first novel, Memoirs of a Muse, realizes that the first American supper offered by her immigrant relatives is an attempt to show off their own dubious successes. They ply her with food and offer her cynical advice on how to get by in the new country—Tania should purchase cheap nosebleed seats at operas and then grab an empty orchestra seat during intermission; she needs to snag a millionaire boyfriend; she has to throw away her humiliating Russian clothes. By the end of the meal Tania begins to feel nauseous: “I thought that maybe it wasn’t such a wise idea to mix smoked salmon with stuffed chicken, chocolate cake and ice cream. It was probably even more unwise to wash it all down with cherry-flavored Manischewitz—my uncle and Maya’s wine of choice. Yet I drank glass after glass of Manischewitz and ate spoon after spoon of ice cream, as if hoping that this might cool me under their melting stares” (77).
Tania throws up her meal, rejecting her relatives’ depressing advice along with Russian immigrant values, which strive for ostentatious wealth and status, or at the very least to get something for nothing, such as free gefilte fish at local Jewish centers. The food Tania’s relatives serve her, an abundant facsimile of food they could not get in the Soviet Union, is an excessive reproduction. Does eating abundantly really signify that we’ve made it in the new country? If at first we aim for a full table, eventually it is not enough; in every unsatisfying bite we may feel the absence of wholeness.
Anzia Yezierska, Eva Hoffman, Bharati Mukherjee, André Aciman, and hundreds of other writers have written about the fractured nature of immigrant identity, and I will not attempt to rehearse those theses here. In any case, it is all spread out at the immigrant dinner table—the Thanksgiving turkey next to the shredded meat in aspic that is the holodets; the roasted yams beside the boiled potatoes massaged with oil and garlic and parsley; a wedge of cherry pie alongside a slice of poppy seed cake, its crust glowing a deep orange. Do we reach for a shot of vodka or a glass of Yellow Tail Shiraz? Our choices are pregnant with memories, with ambivalence, with the future we are creating for our more fully American offspring.
As a writer, I long to depict that seminal meal, with all its interlocking emotions, its contradictions and longings and repulsions—it is my eternal (perhaps even unattainable) ambition. But that is a book I would like to eat.
Babel, Isaac. Collected Stories. New York: Penguin, 1994.
Berberova, Nina. The Tattered Cloak and Other Novels. Translated by Marian Schwartz. London: Vintage, 1992.
Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
Brodsky, Joseph. Less Than One: Selected Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986.
Gogol, Nikolai. The Complete Tales of Nikolai Gogol. Translated by Constance Garnett. Edited by Leonard J. Kent. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
Kaminsky, Ilya. Dancing in Odessa. Dorset: Tupelo Press, 2004.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory. New York: Vintage, 1989.
Podelkov, Sergei. “New Year Celebrations, 1918” in Lenin in Soviet Poetry. Translated by Dorian Rottenberg. Edited by B. V. Yakovlev. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1980.
Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. New York: Bantam, 1983.
Stakhov, Dmitrii. “The Prose (and Cons) of Vodka.” Translated by Thomas Newlin. Gastronomica 5.1 (2005): 25–28.
Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Translated by David Magarshack. New York: Signet, 1961.
Vapnyar, Lara, Memoirs of a Muse. New York: Pantheon, 2006.
Irina Reyn is the editor of the anthology, Living on the Edge of the World: New Jersey Writers Take on the Garden State. She divides her time between Pittsburgh and Brooklyn.
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