On Cabbage Soup and Bun-fights

Here’s a piece of advice for you:

When your parents travel 4,000 miles to visit you in a foreign city and are on their way to meet your host parents please, for the love of God, do not lose them.

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It may be tempting to watch them teeter through the crowds of slick metrosexual men and fur-clad, stiletto-sporting gazelles but I’m telling you it’s no good. If and when you accidentally get on different busses in downtown St. Petersburg you will go through a set of emotions something like this: scared, amused, annoyed, confused, amused, scared, bored, nervous, hungry, scared and then you’ll realize you’re never going to see your parents again. Soon enough a random woman named Olga will be calling you to tell you she found some people who claim to know you and you will reconsider your belief in God. More likely than not you’ll hear your mom shrieking in the background “ISABELLE! HER NAME IS ISABELLE!”

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Like I said, that’s no good. As you’ve guessed by now said situation happened to me last week when my parents came to St. Petersburg. We eventually made it to my apartment where my babushka had cleaned everything until it freakin’ sparkled. Russian women do not kid around about impressing guests. We walked in and despite the fact that I come into our three room apartment every day I was struck by how much everything looked like heaven. My babushka had bullied me into cleaning my room for weeks and I gotta say it paid off. We shall ignore the pile of gum, dirty bras, grammar assignments and chia seeds occupying my floor at the current moment.

The royal We plus my mom, dad, babushka and dedushka [grandpa] had what is called a чаепитие “chaepitie,” which I would translate as a tea party but Google Translate prefers “bun-fight.” Alright then.

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This meeting was one of those things that I knew before during and after I would want to remember forever. Like, if you knew this cast of characters you’d understand that it was 100% guaranteed ridiculousness. I served as the translator and knowingly chuckled to myself the entire time while all parties smiled shifty grins and laughed uneasily at each other. Highlights: Igor Konstantinovich offering my dad vodka shots with a flick of the throat—universal Russian sign for let’s get drunk, babushka repeatedly telling my parents to eat more, my parents looking terrified, my babushka saying that she thinks of me as a granddaughter, my mom getting very emotional about it all, my mom crying, me telling my babushka “my mom’s very emotional,” my mom telling me “tell her I’m emotional!,” a huge plate of VEGAN BLINI, and, most importantly, so many people I love in one tiny, food-filled Russian kitchen. When I came to Russia I was nervous about a lot of things but finding a new family was definitely at the top of the list. Living with the Bab and the Ded has given me a new sense of family (a traditional, bossy, Soviet-style family, but family nonetheless) which I would not trade for any other family in any other city in any other part of the world.

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Witnessing the fear on my parents’ faces when posed with the challenging of eating their weight in blini brought joy to my heart. The fact that my Russian grandparents were able to meet two of the people I love and admire most in the world was very special. As I like to say, this is a vegan blog so I’ll keep it from getting super cheesy but this is definitely going in my lifetime experience hall of fame along with that time I had a “Soviet Bloc out with your Cock Out” party and served only vodka and no chasers. I’ll tell you about it later.

Anyway, there’s nothing like family on family on family to make you feel loved. Speaking of love, my dad is newly in love with shchi, Russia’s second favorite soup after borscht. By coincidence my Bab made it this week so here is a recipe for y’all:

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My Babushka’s Cabbage Soup (Shchi)

Don’t skimp on good quality vegetables. They’re worth it.

  • 1 onion, minced
  • 2-3 Tablespoons oil (sunflower or olive)
  • 1/2 large head fresh cabbage, chopped
  • 1 carrot, shredded
  • 5-6 cups water or vegetable stock
  • 2-3 small potatoes, boiled, peeled, sliced
  • 2-3 Tablespoons chopped parsley
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2-3 teaspoons salt, or to taste
  • sugar to taste (Russian trick)
  • black pepper to taste

1. Heat a frying pan and add 2 Tbs oil, onion, cabbage, and carrot. Sauté “to preparedness” (Russians love this phrase) over a medium flame, ~7-10 minutes. Add salt to taste.

2. Transfer the sautéed vegetables to a pot. Fill halfway with water/veg stock and bring to a boil. Add chopped parsley and bay leaves. Bring to a boil then remove the foam on top and reduce flame to minimum.

3. Add the chopped potatoes and garlic. Add salt and sugar to taste. (While sugar may seem strange in a savory dish it actually makes the flavors pop and even a teaspoon or two can work well). Cover and simmer on a low flame 10-15 minutes. 5 minutes before it’s ready add black pepper to taste.

Serve hot with some good black bread. Make it for your family, whoever that may be.

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