I never met my great-grandmother, Olena. At least, not that I recall. My mother says that she brought me to see her, but I must have been only a few months old, and then a year later Olena slipped on a rubber mat and died of a heart attack. The house where she lived was sold.
We are a family short on artifacts and rich on stories. It’s hard to accumulate anything when fate has consigned you to live in a strip of land that sees one invader after another. In Olena’s life she experienced several revolutions, two wars and two famines. My world was turned upside down simply by traveling in the areas of Ukraine touched by war in 2014, so I can’t imagine what it would have been like to live through the kind of hardship that Olena experienced. According to my mother, Olena coped by writing. Cooking and writing.
Stories about Olena, her books and her food are part of our family lore. Less clear are the details on the more mundane elements of her life–who were her parents and siblings. “Manuscripts don’t burn,” wrote Bulgakov in the Master and Margarita, but records, oh how easily do they burn and vanish. (Years later I would find traces of her family in declassified NKVD archives, mentions of them losing property, of the whole family being blacklisted either for being of the wrong religion or for having one cow too many.) In the few photographs that I have of Olena, I see a short, stocky brunette with a serious look in her eyes. She was my grandfather’s mother, a young woman from a reasonably affluent family who married against her parents wishes. Alexei had nothing much to recommend him apart from his handsome face. Even in the faded sepia photographs I can see the glint in his eyes and the seductive potential of his smile. How could a bookish, sheltered girl resist his advances–or any other women around him?
Olena worked for a guild weaving carpets and making embroideries, which was nationalized as the factory of Clara Zetkin–the lack of connection between a German Marxist and Ukrainian rugs didn’t bother the Communists. We have some of Olena’s creations, including runners decorated with roses and birds, chemises with lacy inserts and embroidered pillow covers. But the most interesting memento is her stack of notebooks.
At first she hand bound the books, using whatever sheets of paper she could find. Later she wrote in school notebooks or empty address books, filling out any available space with angular handwriting. There are cooking notes, beauty recommendations, diet tips–excessive weight appears to be her constant concern–and observations on any topic at all. “Don’t keep your emotions inside, they will corrode you,” she writes. And then adds, “But what if you can’t share them?” Sometimes she goes back and crosses out whole passages, commenting “I was wrong about this.” It’s a conversation with oneself. Sometimes I feel like a voyeur glimpsing such private thoughts.
The recipes are the most fascinating part, especially considering the place and time when Olena wrote them. They are extraordinary in their richness and decadence. The Soviets have much to answer for, not least of all the vulgarization of traditional cuisines in the regions they controlled. Olena’s elegant recipes are a remarkable contrast to the Soviet dining experience–forgotten Ukrainian specialities, multilayered cakes flavored with rose jam, almond biscuits, fresh salads, elaborate roasts and fish soups. For much of my Soviet childhood this was the stuff of fairy tales, completely out of reach during a time when the only food easily available at stores was canned seaweed salad and buckwheat groats. And here my great-grandmother writes about rosewater, saffron and real vanilla beans.
My mother recollects dinners at Olena’s as the height of gourmet delight; even though she cooked with simple ingredients like potatoes, root vegetables or cereals, Olena could add an unexpected touch or experiment with a novel combination. Her potatoes were roasted with wild thyme. Tiny sardines, which most people bought for cats, were stewed with tea leaves and onions until they tasted smoky. She made carrot cakes and zucchini bread before such things became popularized by healthy living advocates. As for the dishes beyond her means, she recorded them. Was she trying to preserve memories of her childhood? Was it her own private rebellion against a life in which she couldn’t share all of her thoughts freely? I will never know. I can only recreate her recipes and imagine that perhaps this was her intention all along. To share. To feed. To be remembered.
P.S. In telling a story my mother described Alexei as the former soldier, but working with my family archive, I see that a former soldier in Nicolas II’s private guard was a different Alexei, my maternal great-grandfather. Olena’s Alexei was also quite a handsome man, and both Alexeis died tragically and at a relatively young age, so the traces of them in our family history are few, nebulous, and sketchy. Our memory tricks us easily.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin