Among its many ironies, Soviet Russia produced great cooks. A lack of options begets creativity, and many babushkas worked wonders with concoctions of smoked herring, or transformed government meat into homey memories. I’m not sure Baba Lilya necessarily enjoyed the cooking; it was feeding people that she loved.
I used to think that my grandmother’s fixation stemmed from early hunger. At seventeen, she survived the German bombing of Smolensk, her hometown near the Belarusian border. She then lived on soldiers’ scraps during the trans-Siberian evacuation to Kazakhstan; she would tell me stories about how skinny, how tiny she was back then.
Or maybe she saw food as her job, the way we all had roles to play. By the time I was born, Baba Lilya was a retired widow with a full-time responsibility of feeding us, a family of five. She lived with us and immigrated to the US when we did. For as long as she was physically able, only she would cook. She took on that task, so my mother and father could work, and my sister and I could be children.
Baba Lilya was also my closest friend when I was a young teenager in the suburbs of Boston. Outside of the kitchen we talked for hours: about art, music, great books, her life during the war. We watched Mexican telenovelas. We had a lot in common. But we could never discuss our dinnertime standoffs.
It happened every mealtime, the way our usual conversations began: a family discussion on geopolitics.
“… the Reagan administration had nothing to do with the collapse of the USSR,” my father would declare, fork raised. He’d always lived with Baba and her cooking, and couldn’t imagine it any other way. “The USSR collapsed because of internal weakness.”
“…She’s not eating,” Baba would say.
“I’m done,” I’d say. Baba’s food was tasty, well seasoned. But there was just so much of it! She’d keep adding to the plate, no matter how full I felt, until she could approve that I’d eaten enough; in the kitchen she was in charge.
I wanted to focus on serious things the way adults did at lunch, prioritize the conversation the way they did, their wine glasses clinking after a good debate, the food being less important than what they had to say. At first I’d ignore her, participate in the debate, and let the extra cutlets get cold. “Why then is it taught in schools as an American victory?” I’d ask my father.
“Why isn’t she eating?” Baba would interrupt, this time bolder, directing my parents. “Do you understand the child is not eating?”
I’d feel the blood rush to my face. Why was every bite in my mouth monitored, the way a baby’s might be? Why couldn’t I serve myself, the way every other kid in America had the freedom to do? Was I going to be forty years old, being fed like this?
“Stop it,” I’d scream, maybe slam my glass down for added drama. “I’m not a child!”
My mother would tell me to be quiet then, to control myself, but it’d be too late. My grandmother would huff, leave the table, close the door to her room and stop speaking to me for the afternoon. I’d run upstairs mid-meal, angry, hungry and feeling like the child I wasn’t, tears streaming down my face. My parents would finish the meal silently.
At other times I took to the stove at odd hours, so that no one would see me. Sixteen-year-old girls were baking cupcakes to bring to school, yet I didn’t even know how to turn on a stove. I figured I should learn, but didn’t want to argue with Baba about the proper way of doing things; so I’d take the beef cutlets from the fridge, and I’d try to heat them up myself.
Yet Baba would appear in the kitchen at the first clank of a skillet. “Ah-ha!” she’d say, “So you are hungry,” as though she’d caught me stealing. “Here, here, let me do it. Your fire is on too high. You’re doing it wrong. You’ll just burn yourself.”