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By Masha Rumer

Mmm . . . The before photo of pirozhki before we devour the whole plate. Photo credit: Moonsun1981
Mmm . . . The before photo of pirozhki before we devour the whole plate. Photo credit: Moonsun1981

As the year draws to an end, it’s a reminder of the new coping skills just about everyone has acquired because of the pandemic. In the case of immigrants, the shortages also hurled us right back into our childhoods.

Many of us we were raised on stories of famines and wartime starvation, tempered by breadlines and diluted sour cream, particularly in the former Soviet Union, where I’m from. Nothing went to waste: neither old yarn nor chicken skins nor beet greens. We brought this hardiness with us to the US. Ever seen those folks who’d wash plastic bags and hang them out to dry and scour the sidewalks for unwanted furniture? Yeah, that was probably us, the new arrivals.

“Can’t Americans grate their own cheese?” we wondered, gaping at the stocked supermarket shelves. “Why do they eat the veggies in the soup but discard the broth?”

As an adult in the US, you move away from this—sort of. You become a discerning consumer and remember which produce is best to buy organic. Maybe you let a professional color your hair instead of doing it yourself, like most other things you’d been taught to do. You forget about the hand-me-downs and maybe even joke about those memories to feel more assimilable.

That’s why many immigrants couldn’t imagine supply chain breakdown happening here, in the US. And anyway, we’d be ready. Always ready. No hand sanitizer? Use vodka! (It is now a well-known fact that vodka won’t zap coronavirus, though it will take the edge off.) Save old newspapers—who knows when they could come in handy! On social media, I shared the industrious Soviet ways to use canned fish: on a bread slice, in a salad of eggs and boiled vegetables known as “mimosa,” tossed into soup as protein, or mashed with rice and mayonnaise. Voilà! A fellow Russian-speaking expat taught a Zoom lesson on drawing a still life of a toilet paper roll. Was it all just Soviet kitsch or our new reality?

It was the latter, of course. And I heeded the battle call by deploying the food of my ancestors. I found myself stocking up on canned goods like the older generations once did and channeling my anxiety into oversized portions of homemade farmer’s cheese and soups fixed with whatever was on hand. I started buying buckwheat and millet, staples of a Russian childhood diet, having never cared for them until now (they’re actually super filling, versatile, and easy to store). As long as there were time and ingredients or substitutes available, my oven eked out challahs and round loaves and hand pies, pirozhki, based on an old family recipe. After some experimenting, I recreated a sourdough rye so tart and springy, it was like an emotional reunion with an old friend. There were enough baked goods to feed my family and to share with relatives, neighbors, and sometimes, strangers. 

Everyone has suffered losses in these past two years, often shrouded in isolation and shame. And yet we have also tapped into our survival skills and latent strengths. These are the things that will keep propping us up, long after the world begins to repair itself.


About the Author

Masha Rumer is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington PostQuartz, the Moscow TimesParents.comSFWeeklyVolume 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. An immigrant from the former Soviet Union, she now lives with her family in California, where she is navigating the nuances of multicultural and interfaith parenting. She is the author of Parenting with an Accent: How Immigrants Honor Their Heritage, Navigate Setbacks, and Chart New Paths for Their Children. You can find her online at masharumer.com and on Twitter @MashaDC.