This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. As with so many other things during the Cold War, even the date on which World War II ended differs depending on which side of the former East/West line you find yourself. In the West we celebrate—modestly, if at all—on May 8. But in Russia and the countries of the Former Soviet Union, May 9, Victory Day, is still a day of festivals, parties and celebration.
For Holocaust survivors from the Former Soviet Union in our area, it is a day of joy and also a day of memories. Many of local survivor Boris Eltsefon’s memories are connected to food.
The food of the FSU consists of a blend of cuisines from all over the empire—Georgian, Moldavian, Polish and traditional Russian, all mixed together. Jewish populations of those countries added their own food traditions to that melting pot.
Mr. Eltsefon has several beautiful cookbooks from the Soviet Union, but, as he described, “We could look at the recipes and the pictures, but didn’t have the food.” The stores rarely carried the right ingredients or enough of them for a particular dish.
Mr. Eltsefon remembers that his grandmother cooked without a recipe, using whatever ingredients she could get, yet that it was always fabulous. “There is philosophy and art in cooking; there is art to nourish the body and creativity for the soul in cooking.”
One of his fondest memories is of homemade gefilte fish. Russia is a land of streams and lakes, and fish is plentiful. Starting with a fresh fish, he described how it was cleaned and then ground with onion, eggs and breadcrumbs. The filets were then boiled in a vegetable stock seasoned with dill and bay leaves. “Very tasty. Very simple, but very tasty.”
There is a particular simplicity in Soviet food. Mr. Eltsefon observes, “Russians don’t understand American sandwiches. You pile everything on the bread. One type of meat is enough. Simple.” Not, he is quick to add, that American food is bad—just different in terms of history and aesthetics.
None of this is to suggest that Russian cuisine lacks variety. “I have eaten every type of meat a man can eat,” he said, “Bear, lamb, veal, fish.” His favorite, however, is Georgian lamb kabobs cooked over an open fire.
But for all his love of Soviet food, Mr. Eltsfhon did have one stipulation: “Wine—only French. Red Bordeaux.”