My parents left the Soviet Union as Jewish refugees in 1980 the way everybody did then: navsegda, or forever. Not knowing if they could return. Saying farewells to their families and surrendering their passports. Stripped of their belongings and their livelihoods, almost everything they took with them was intangible: memories, recipes.
Forever, however, didn’t last long. By 1989, thanks to Gorbachev and glasnost, wave after wave of new Soviet refugees began arriving — most of them, it seemed, relatives landing straight at our dinner table in Chicago. For an 8-year-old Amerikanka whose first language was Russian, every night back then felt like a pyanka — a raucous party filled with drinking, singing and storytelling. I would listen, wide-eyed, to my family’s tales of Soviet byt, or everyday life: Dedushka (Grandpa) Naum’s friend’s plan to steal a pig from the sausage factory by dressing it up in a trench coat, Tyotya (Aunt) Asya’s creative ways to choke down cow udders (yes, they are technically edible). The crazier the story, the more it spoke to the hardship my relatives had left behind and to the tightly woven bonds of this family — my family — which I had for too long been deprived of.
I was so enamored with these memories, these recipes, that perhaps it was inevitable that one day I would turn them all into Kachka, our restaurant in Portland, Ore. Sharing my family’s history in the Soviet Union through food and adding my own chapter has been my personal form of therapy: a way of connecting with and making sense of where I come from, of finding my place in the world.
It hasn’t been easy. Food from the former Soviet Union has always had a PR problem. Call it a Cold War hangover, but Americans tend to assume it’s all mayonnaise and boiled cabbage, a stereotype that has more to do with geopolitics than with all the insanely delicious things happening in the kitchen. We were on a mission to show the full range of what this food could be; to ultimately get people to add this cuisine to their mental what-do-I-want-to-eat-tonight Rolodex, filed somewhere between pizza and sushi.
From its inception in 2014, Kachka has usually been referred to as a Russian restaurant by the general public, but I’ve always struggled with what “Russian” means when your parents emigrated from present-day Belarus and your family is Jewish. So I’ve always described my restaurant as Soviet, simply because there is no better word to describe what my family left behind, and took with them. For years, I awkwardly accepted the title of “Russian” restaurant as close enough — until Feb. 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine, and it became too close for comfort.
After two years of doing everything we could to pivot our way through the pandemic — personally delivering takeout, selling off our restaurant stockpile of toilet paper/flour/yeast/pandemic-scarcity-of-the-week, learning how to ship with dry ice, turning our parking lot into a dining room, selling Passover/Thanksgiving/Whatever-We-Could-Think-Of meal boxes — just as we should be breathing a sigh of relief, I find myself in a bitterly ironic predicament. When Kachka recently posted on social media about one of our ongoing fundraisers for Ukraine, a commenter added: “Are dead Ukrainian babies on special this week?” Others didn’t bother with comments. They simply canceled their reservations.
I’ve spent the past two years forced to play doctor and public health expert. Today, after years of working to introduce people to the complexities of the region, I am being held accountable for the actions of a government in a country where I have never lived, one at whose hands my own family has suffered.
Many citizens of Russia are against this war and have fled the country or gone to jail in protest. Many more do not support the war but are too afraid to speak out publicly. But many do sincerely support Vladimir Putin’s barbarity against Ukraine, and they should be judged accordingly.
But beyond that — it’s complicated.
Should Russian food be canceled? Should an entire foodway melt back into oblivion in response to the actions of an authoritarian leader? When you’re talking about a country spanning 11 time zones, what would it even mean to derussify a menu? Over the centuries, Russian cuisine has incorporated countless culinary traditions from its neighbors as well as the great courts of Europe — not unlike the United States.
Take golubtsi, my mother’s stuffed cabbage recipe, which brings diners to tears of joy, evoking memories of their own mothers. That’s because every part of the world that grows cabbage has some kind of stuffed roll, right? So maybe we wouldn’t serve it in a tomato sauce, but actually, hmm — that’s Jewish style. Should it remain on the menu? What do we do with steaming bowls of Siberian pelmeni, which will always feel like a warm hug to me — and millions of others from across both Russia and those lands that suffered under its rule? And caviar, farm-raised in California: Does it get the ax because eating caviar with blini feels too much like dining with Putin himself? And what do we do about borshch — the only dish most Americans can summon when asked to identify Russian food? It’s actually Ukrainian in provenance, so technically safe, but do we wipe it away simply because of association? What about ingredients? The largest Russian distributor in Portland mostly employs Ukrainian immigrants. Boycott their wares or support them?
And then there’s vodka. Kachka bottles its own infused vodka right here in Portland, using horseradish from California and Oregon honey. Our marketing team tells us that distributors love the product but hate the optics, so can we please remove the Cyrillic from the label and make it more obvious that it’s made in Oregon?
There are days when I feel immense guilt for celebrating this food — and grief. Grief for the citizens of Ukraine, for the senseless destruction and devastation of this war. Grief for the new Iron Curtain that’s rising: I don’t know when I’ll next be able to visit Belarus and lay flowers at the grave of my grandmother, Babushka Rakhil, whose harrowing escape from a ghetto inspired the name Kachka. I’m beginning to grasp my parents’ reality when they left the Soviet Union: A whole place, an entire culture — my ancestral home — is now cut off from me by borders I can’t cross.
I am wrenched and exhausted by the now-permanent knot in my stomach. I wonder what the path forward should look like. I think of the images from Bucha, and the new generation of refugees streaming toward our shores. I think of my family and all they lost across generations, and of our hope in opening Kachka.
I don’t have answers, but I’m reminded of the connection I felt around the table as a child, the toasts to our new country and how, to this day, the echo of that connection reverberates in the food we cook and the people we invite to our table.