blackbirdonline journalSpring 2016  Vol. 15 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Oksana’s Kitchen: An Unlikely Friendship across Three Generations,
Two Continents, and One Dinner Table (A Memoir, with Seasoning)

Airports make me hungry; I think the prospect of climbing into a depressurized comet ready to hurtle to 38,000 feet brings on a Last-Supper-style sense of emergency. Usually, I have plenty of time to notice because, while I’m late for everything else, I hate rushing to the airport. I’m there three hours early. Looking around. Studying the restaurant map. Trying to choose between terrible options. Usually, I bring sandwiches from home, an old immigrant habit that a typical airport’s smorgasbord makes hard to discard.

The situation was no different on March 18, 2013, as Oksana Zagriychuk (my grandfather’s home aide) and I whiled away the time before Aeroflot Flight 103 whisked us to Moscow (where we would have to run for the connection to Kiev, then catch a slow train to Oksana’s hometown of Ivano-Frankovsk in western Ukraine). It was my first trip abroad in a while, and I had become so occupied sorting through my collection of voltage adapters that I didn’t have time to make sandwiches. And who has food around if he’s about to leave for three weeks abroad? I don’t like wasting food, so I had spent the preceding days working through what remained in my fridge. My last meal was an unholy combination of grapefruit and Italian sausage, though, like the best meals of its kind, it was also serendipitous. The sausage, roasted in my last beer, was sweet, and the grapefruit, quickly charred in a sauté pan, was tangy: a revelation.

So I was at the airport, I was hungry, I hadn’t made sandwiches. As I was rising to shuffle over to the nearest aeropub, where I would pay extra to procure an indifferently prepared meal from a hostile cashier, it occurred to me that Oksana might have made sandwiches. I asked her if she had. Oksana looked at me like I was an imbecile: had she made sandwiches? She had made six sandwiches. And the only reason she hadn’t made eight sandwiches was because Olya, the home aide (also from western Ukraine) who looks after my grandfather when Oksana is away, had shown up and declared that eight was a ridiculous number of sandwiches to make.

Khochesh’?” Oksana said. Want?

I sat down again.


Oksana Zagriychuk showed up in our lives in 2005. I don’t remember meeting her, and it’s useless to ask my grandfather what she was like because he has an ambivalent relationship with the truth. He prefers flattery. So let’s take his word for it: “What a woman, what a khozyayka.” A khozyayka is a home boss. If a Hollywood showrunner oversees every aspect of a production, a khozyayka runs the show at home.

I remember the first time I tasted her cooking. It was a Ukrainian Jewish dish, that I, a Soviet-born Jew, had never tried, and that Oksana, who is Ukrainian Orthodox, had learned from the elderly Ukrainian Jewish woman she watched on the weekends. (Only in America does an Ashkenazi Jew try an Ashkenazi Jewish dish for the first time at the hands of a Ukrainian Orthodox.) It was perversely simple: bow tie pasta, buckwheat groats, caramelized onions. The onions were creamy and sweet, the buckwheat nutty, the farfalle pillowy where the buckwheat was rough. The threesome caused a satisfaction that could only be described as erotic. Oksana, obsessive about temperature, wouldn’t let me touch the dish unless clouds of steam were storming up from the plate, but when I clandestinely went in for thirds, the dish now cold, inexplicably it was even better. The ingredients had all but melted into each other.

Proustian frissons had nothing to do with it. I can’t dissolve in misty recollections of a grandmother whose wondrous work at the stove I observed from waist level at seven. (My grandmother cooked, I just don’t remember it.) My parents chucked the Russian recipe book as eagerly as they chucked Russia—from the start, our American tables featured pasta, sushi, and chicken rochambeau. My palate had been brought up in Manhattan restaurants. As far as Ukrainian went, the East Village was still home to two midcentury warhorses, Kiev and Odessa, but the less said about them the better. Then there was Veselka, the twenty-four-hour diner with a Ukrainian bent, but, having tasted the real thing, I wasn’t much of a fan.

Oksana started looking after my grandfather shortly after my grandmother passed away. It was our first American death, and my grandmother really was the best of us: a Holocaust survivor who never complained, even as she spent the last six years of her life withering from cirrhosis of the liver gifted to her by Soviet medicine—a bad blood transfusion after a car accident. My grandmother loved with a ferocity bordering on brutality. She did not tolerate falseness or betrayal. Unlike Grandfather, her relationship with the truth was highly enthusiastic, and she shared it with you quite a few times a day.

They were married for fifty-five years; my grandfather survived her loss only because of Oksana. She was preceded, when Grandmother was alive, by at least a dozen home aides, and if you added up what they gave (and they were all decent people doing a job) you would have about a pinky’s worth on Oksana. I have never heard her complain, even though coming to America meant leaving behind a home, a husband, two children, and everything that she knew. Even when I’ve wanted her to otkrovennichat’ with me—to unburden herself, to gossip a little—she has always avoided it. Her feeling, both heroically and self-denyingly, is: it’ll be better tomorrow. I don’t know how happy she is, but she’s an insoluble part of our family. She bustles around my grandfather as if around a child, which he is increasingly coming to resemble. As it happens, these are the qualities that made my grandmother who she was, too, though I try not to think of it too pointedly, for it brings on a loneliness of my own.

In March 2012, Oksana’s mother unexpectedly passed away. Anna Petrovna Zagriychuk was seventy-seven, the same age as my grandmother when she died. The first anniversary of a death is a ritualized event for the Ukrainian Orthodox—there’s a church service, and an extra place is set at the dinner table, a slice of black bread covering a thimble of vodka for the deceased—and Oksana would return home to mark it. What if I went with her? For years, I had been talking unseriously with Oksana about opening up a café to showcase her cooking. But this would mean taking her away from my grandfather, and she didn’t have much appetite for entrepreneurial ventures. So I had started thinking about a cookbook instead, and CEC ArtsLink, an arts organization that sends artists from America to Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and vice versa, had just given me a grant to get started. I had hoped to accompany Oksana home during the summer, when Ukraine, the Soviet Union’s breadbasket, blooms with watermelons, sunflowers, sugar beets, hops—the proverb is, “plant a stick in Ukrainian soil and by tomorrow you’ll have ten sticks”—but then the one-year anniversary of Anna Petrovna was upon us in March. So March it would be. Oksana had appeared in our lives shortly after the passing of our matriarch; now I would be accompanying her home to commemorate the passing of hers.


Which brings us to the airport. In the seven years I had spent eating Oksana’s cooking (my grandfather’s log of Visits by Grandson registered a dramatic uptick in 2005), I had managed to introduce her to some commonplaces of the modern, health-conscious American table: fewer carbs, less oil, smaller portions. By March 2013, the living-room table where dinner awaited my arrival in southern Brooklyn typically held nothing more than a salad (defiantly, Oksana added a dash of white sugar to the dressing; she had intended to be secret, but her cooking had trained my palate to notice it all the same, and we respected each other by acknowledging neither), a roast chicken, and fruit for dessert, though I had zero success in reforming her discernment regarding ingredients. She had come from a country where a schoolteacher earns ninety dollars a month, though groceries cost only half as much as in the U.S., and she looked after a man whose residence in America had made no inroads to his immigrant frugality. They bought the least expensive cuts of meat, the whitest flour, and milk made from chalk.

There were no greens or vegetables in the sandwiches Oksana handed me at JFK, in a reassuringly substantive bundle wrapped in a flimsy, plastic, pink grocery bag. And if I had to put down a dollar, I would say that wasn’t multigrain bread. It wasn’t even toasted. Then I bit into one of the sandwiches. It had four ingredients: ham, cheese, butter, and more butter. I stopped midbite, though not because of the health-guilt flooding me. Rather because, despite its utter simplicity, the sandwich was so good I needed a moment. I looked up at Oksana. She was looking at me—had been waiting for me to take the first bite. And her eyes said: “You’re mine now, Michael Pollan.”

The postscript to this story is that you should always make eight sandwiches. A de-icing delay at JFK caused us to miss our connection from Moscow to Kiev, though government-subsidized Aeroflot was so flush that they not only fed us repeatedly during the flight (a tuna salad tangy with relish) but also left us with generous food vouchers for the ten hours until our connection (a crepe pie layered with lox, farmer cheese, and caramelized mushrooms). This wait, in turn, caused us to miss the last decent train from Kiev to Ivano-Frankovsk, Oksana’s hometown, leaving us to wander the abandoned halls of the Kiev train terminal. The three of us—back in Moscow, we had acquired a fellow Ukraine-bound shipwreck, a Connecticut woman named Galina whose American years had persuaded her to become a Baptist and turn to balloon sculptures—whiled away the time in a pizzeria. And even though we didn’t catch the train terminal at its finest hour, at 2:00 a.m. we were served a Greek salad with feta so creamy it would flatter the cases at Murray’s, all while a Depeche Mode remix album played on the speakers, in that ersatz style in which Europeans specialize. The pizza bianca, made to order out of a giant vat of dough supervised by a grandmother in a bandanna, wasn’t far behind. Maybe we were just hungry. Nothing makes you hungry like travel.

At 3:30 a.m., we climbed the back of the next centipede—it would go west to Lviv, near the Polish border, before circling back to Oksana’s hometown. I slept for nine of the fifteen hours the train took to reach Ivano-Frankovsk. When I was awake, the conductor attacked with tea, coffee—served in those silver glass holders—and a shy peasant charm. When Oksana pressed forty hryvnia (five dollars) on him, he smiled shyly into his mustache and refused more than twenty. I ate the last of Oksana’s sandwiches somewhere in western Ukraine, and rolled into the city where she had lived most of her life famished. But that is the start of another story.


Oksana’s Cabbage Vareniki (Dumplings) in Wild-Mushroom Gravy (V)
“May this dish release all our sins, so we can enter the new year clean.”

If you want to see Ukrainians in August, skip the cities—everyone’s in the countryside picking mushrooms. “Quiet hunting,” they call it—a national pastime. The prize is the humbly named “white mushroom,” but don’t mistake it for the mild, buttonlike mainstay of American supermarkets. The Ukrainian white mushroom is what the French call cèpes, and the Italians porcini: nutty, creamy grandees whose sight and aroma stir something Proustian in every European. “White mushrooms are special,” Oksana says. “They’re a delicacy where we live. Clean and wormless. Not every day are you going to find white mushrooms.” In the States, they’re more commonly available in dried form (an ounce of dried mushroom is four ounces fresh); soak in hot water for twenty minutes before using. (Dried porcini are so pungent that you may wish to save the water to use as stock in another recipe. The fresh version is actually milder.)

During the forty-day pre-Nativity fast, Ukrainians become, essentially, vegans: no meat or dairy, and no fish, wine, or oil, either, except on certain permitted days. Preserve the spirit of the ritual—an exercise in humility and restraint—without worrying about the letter via this staple of the family pre-Christmas table. It’s so good, it’s her son Misha’s year-round favorite.

For another wild-mushroom recipe—and to find out how to dry fresh porcini at home—see Polenta w/Sheep’s-Milk Feta & Wild Mushrooms.

Mushroom gravy
4 ounces fresh or 1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms, chopped finely
4 cups water
2 bay leaves
1 medium carrot, sliced into disks
10 whole peppercorns
1 medium onion, diced
vegetable oil
2 to 3 tablespoons flour
1 to 2 garlic cloves, pressed
dill or parsley, frozen
salt to taste

1. In a pot, cover the mushrooms with the 4 cups of water. Add the bay leaves, the carrot, and the peppercorns. Bring to a boil. You can add a little salt right away and continue to taste throughout, but it will have more of an impact closer to the end of cooking. Turn down to a simmer and cook for about 40 minutes, or until the mix has just a little liquid left.

2. Meanwhile, in a medium-sized pan, sauté the diced onion on medium-high heat until golden. In the abstinent spirit of the Nativity fast, Oksana—no foreigner to the richer cooking oils in a housemaker’s larder—uses vegetable oil rather than corn. (That’s what passes for abstinence in a Ukrainian kitchen.) “Besides,” she adds, “the mushrooms want lightness. They don’t want that heavy butter or cream.” If only every day were Christmas.

3. Mix the flour (add a third tablespoon if you want a thicker gravy) into the caramelized onions in the sauté pan, and continue cooking until the flour has disappeared and the mixture is golden-brown again. Add half a cup of warm water and mix vigorously in order to beat out any lumps.

4. Now add the mixture from the sauté pan to the mushrooms in the pot. The result should be semi-liquid—“thicker than a soup, thinner than a stew.” Add the pressed garlic and set aside while you work on the vareniki. When serving, garnish with dill or parsley.

Cabbage vareniki
Ah, vareniki (vah-REH-nee-kee). How many dishes have monuments in three countries on two continents? There are at least three in Ukraine itself. (Think a giant upturned fork with an expertly pleated, concrete varenik wedged onto it.) You can’t open a nineteenth-century Russian novel without stumbling onto the dish; in Nikolai Gogol’s story “Christmas Eve” (1832), some extremely goal-oriented vareniki fly out of their bowl, lather themselves in sour cream, and head directly for the waiting mouth of the village magician. (One of the monuments depicts this scene.) Try it at home with the kids—acting out scenes from literature is a noble Russian tradition. Whatever you do, though, don’t count the vareniki as you make them—folklore says the dough will split when they hit boiling water.

3 pounds pickled cabbage
1 medium-sized onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, pressed
salt and pepper to taste

2 pounds flour
1 egg
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups warm water

12 cups water
1 teaspoon vegetable oil

1 medium onion, diced
2 garlic cloves

1. Place the pickled cabbage (including the liquid) in a pot, cover, and bring to a boil without adding salt. (Pickled cabbage is well salted.) Lower to medium heat and keep boiling for about 30 minutes, or until soft. Drain the liquid from the pot and then press the remaining liquid out of the cabbage using your hands, balling it. Remove and chop finely on a cutting board, or pass through a meat grinder.

2. In a medium-sized pan, sauté one of the onions until golden-brown. Add the chopped cabbage, salt and pepper to taste (the salt in the cabbage has boiled out). Add the pressed garlic and continue to sauté at low-medium heat for about 20 minutes to get rid of any remaining moisture. Unlike the mushrooms, which want lightness, the boiled cabbage “wants fat, so you want to give it the onions.” So much for abstinence.

3. While the onion and cabbage are getting to know each other, mix the flour, egg, salt, and warm water to create a soft dough. Roll it out with a rolling pin. There are two ways to carve out the individual dumpling pockets you’ll need. Oksana uses her hands to roll the dough into one very long tube, then cuts it into two-inch chunks, each of which she rolls flat into a small coaster-sized pocket-to-be, though this is her method only because “that’s the way my mother did it, and the way my grandmother did it.” You can also roll the dough flat into a giant pancake and carve pockets by pressing the rim of an upside-down glass into the dough.

4. Drop 1 teaspoon of the cabbage-and-onion mixture into each dough pocket and flatten it with the back of the teaspoon. Close the varenik by pinching the edges. Naturally, Oksana can pinch a hundred vareniki (though we’re not counting, of course) closed in her sleep, but I certainly junked some dough the first time we made this dish together, as Oksana made valiant attempts to restrain herself from taking the whole mess out of my hands and doing it right already. You should end up with about 50 to 60 vareniki.

How to pinch closed a dumpling: Cradle the dough coaster, with the dollop of cabbage and onion in its middle, from underneath with the thumb, index, and middle fingers of each hand. Bring the two sides closed with the thumbs and index fingers, holding the varenik steady from underneath using the middle fingers. Fold in the side closest to you using your thumbs and then fold the farther rim over it using the index fingers. Pinch closed for dear life. You may wish to first practice this motion without the dumpling—or sic the entire job on your kids, or laugh at me because the above was very obvious to you.

5. In the same pan used to sauté the first onion and the cabbage, sauté the second diced onion until caramelized. Add in the two pressed cloves of garlic reserved for the garnish.

6. Fill a medium-to-large pot with 3 liters (12 cups) of water and a teaspoon of vegetable oil, and bring to a boil. When boiling, drop in about 20 vareniki. When they rise to the surface—it should take no more than a few minutes—scoop them out with a slotted spoon, toss with another teaspoon of vegetable oil to prevent clumping, and cover generously with the newly sautéed caramelized-onion-and-pressed-garlic.

7. Repeat for the remaining vareniki. Serve with the mushroom gravy, garnished with dill or parsley, “but not a lot because it’s not the season for greens, so it isn’t right.”  

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