My parents left everything behind in the Soviet Union for a better life. Their friends, clothes and careers couldn’t follow them aboard Delta flight 217, but poverty did. The picture is bleak, but there is hope. While they trudged to work in 99 cent stores and slept on cockroach-infested floors, they never lost their culture. Despite living in a new country with new customs, my parents were still Russian Jews at heart. I like to think that as they worked towards their American Dream and raised a family, one aspect of culture fueled them, both literally and figuratively — their food.
Living in the Soviet Union’s lower class, my family traditionally ate peasant food. And, like the noodles of East Asian peasants, it was hearty, dense and delicious. Potatoes were a staple, featured in nearly every dish. Back in the USSR, with a food shortage stemming from communism, there were only a handful of dishes people could have prepared. In the U.S., however, grandma saw no limit to the versatility of potatoes, and like Bubba Gump with shrimp, created a myriad of potato dishes. We ate fried potatoes, potato pancakes and potatoes stuffed with meat. One whiff of the greasy, thick aroma of fried potatoes with mushrooms and I knew I was home. Not surprisingly, at eight years old, I began to take on the shape of a potato.
Alongside the starchy staple, we indulged in fried cabbage pancakes, sour cream cakes and fried calf’s tongue. Eventually, our greasy diet clashed with our doctors’ recommendations. As my parents acclimated to American life, they became cognizant of weight, cholesterol and blood pressure. With added wealth and a stable middle-class income, we adjusted our diet to accommodate our health concerns. The neighborhood international foods store gave way to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Veal and pork were left on the shelves, in favor of chicken, turkey and steak. Slowly, the rich, greasy aroma disappeared from the kitchen. Our food was healthier, but it was noticeably more American.
Now, in college, it is more important than ever to reflect on where my family came from, and food is the perfect metric. It wasn’t potatoes’ nutritious properties that ingrained them in Russian cuisine, but their low cost and availability. Under communism, people struggled for sustenance, and out of the dark pits of hunger rose the heroic potato. Still, there were only so many dishes we could make out of potatoes. Nowadays, we’re faced with the opposite; it’s hard to imagine running out of options in our kitchens, or even our dining halls. Today, we’re blessed with variety. Walk through the dining hall: Steam emanates from the sizzling wok, juice leaks from a tender cut of beef and countertops entice you with heaps of vegetables, selections of soups and mountains of desserts. It’s remarkable that what we are accustomed to was impossible in my ancestors’ home merely 20 years ago. Appreciating the opportunities my palette has, I like to think my parents’ quest to America was not only a journey from oppression to freedom, but also an evolution from potatoes to the whole garden.
The food I eat daily is the product of Cornell Dining, and I have the opportunity to eat it because of my parents’ sacrifices. Now, the next time you munch on potatoes, or even potato chips, remember that the Beatles said it best in their song “Back in the U.S.S.R.” — “you don’t know how lucky you are.”