Fake Pies and Pig Thighs
by Rachel Komich
“There were no mashed potatoes,” Matt complains as we sat for dinner the day after Thanksgiving. The table is a mess -- no tablecloth, just four chairs, plastic silverware and paper plates.
“There was rice,” my mom responds. She spoons left over xolodnaya on her plate, the clear fat layer of jelly wobbling around the meat, and as it settles I think about what she explained to Yana’s husband last night during the holiday dinner after he made the adventurous decision to taste the unidentifiable glob on the table that everyone was inexplicably salivating over.
Xolodnaya, which means “cold,” or in this case, “cold dish,” is a Russian specialty whose ingredients include pork legs, meat or fish (my mom always chose fish), onions, carrots, celery, and horseradish. Not only does it take patience to enjoy eating it, it also takes patience to make. The pork legs are used specifically to make a meat jelly, which is made by boiling them for over 5 hours before it even starts to look like broth. Then the broth needs to be strained before it is layered on top of the carrots, fish and whatever other vegetables that may have been added. Then it has to be refrigerated over night so that it becomes firm and jiggle-y like the Jell-O served in kindergarten or in the hospital. Finally, a thick neon layer of red horseradish is spread over the top of the dish.
Now, I’ve never actually tried it, so I really don’t have any right to explain how disgusting it is, but trust me when I say all you need to do is smell it to understand that you definitely won’t like it the first time you try it. Probably not the second time either, if you decide to stick to the process of acclimating your taste buds to a dish remnant of the tough Russian winter without coats or vodka. Just promise that if you do actually try it, never watch it get made. Trust me.
“We used whatever we had. All of it,” my mom explained, mostly to Nate. “Even the... what is it? Marrow? Bone marrow?” Her cheeks were flush and her eyes gleamed as she remembered cooking with her babushka and the fish that her father would bring home and gut in the kitchen sink. I looked at her and saw the irony of us. She is small but not fragile, crossing boarders by herself by the age of twenty, permanently relocating to a country whose language she could hardly speak. She carried all these recipes and all these traditions, and here I am, slowly, unintentionally breaking and unraveling them.
As I watch my mom finish speaking, she leans back and looks over the table, eyes roaming across generations: Emily’s grandparents ignoring each other as they sit side by side, Ilya, my dad, and Matt talking about baseball right next to Yana and Nate whose knees are bouncing vibrating toddlers on their laps. I see my mom watch as Yana absently runs her fingers through Ava’s mess of curls, and notice her lips turn up every time a little voice yells out “Didi!” or “Baba Alla!”
Soon enough, she catches me staring, grins, and cups the swell of my cheek with her palm. Slyly, she steals my fork and scoops a piece of my crumbled pie off my plate. A little drunk, she winks at me, and as she tells everyone at the table to try the pie I made all by myself, I can feel her support. Like a child’s first spelling test pinned to the fridge, she is showing my beginning efforts off. I can tell how proud of me she is, how glad she is that I am finally finding a place for myself in the kitchen, a place that is so sacred to all of us, though most of us hardly recognize it.
My mom has been cooking for most of her life, which is something that I refused to do for most of mine. I was always outside, finding new ways to fall off my bike and rip holes in my jeans, instead of by her side helping her. I didn’t realize that when she asked me to cook with her, or help her in the kitchen, it wasn’t just because she wanted me there. In fact, I probably made it more difficult for her. Instead, she wanted to tell me secrets, to help me navigate. She wanted to teach me how to bake beets first until they’re soft and warm so that peeling them is easier or how paper bags make avocados ripen faster and putting them in the fridge keeps them for longer. She wanted to teach me that the perfect watermelon should sound hollow and that I’ll know a good strawberry by the smell of it. She taught me that size doesn’t matter- the best apples are the small, crisp ones and probably the safest to eat as well.
The longer we spent at that dinner table, the more I really saw us: My mom, my dad, my brother. Emily’s parents. Her older sister and her husband with their two daughters. Emily’s grandparents. I saw us together, gathered for a meal whose dark significance we’ve been taught to ignore, and couldn’t help but acknowledge and be grateful for the circumstances that brought us here. This is us: This is two families traveled over continent and ocean to gather together; two little girls on my lap after dinner, cuddled on the couch; I see these faces as I have a hundred times before, and yet it is always new. I marvel at the fact that my parents and Emily’s parents existed as friends since they were kids, and that now, on an entirely different part of the planet, they have come together and like them, Emily and I have grown up together; an interconnected, irrevocable familial bond. This is thanks in abundance; this is thanks in burnt vegetables and red fish. This is thanks in two broken languages, converged into one.
As Matt gets up and slinks back to his room, I gather the dishes of leftovers that still linger on the table. My mom, like always, has her food half eaten and separated around the plate. My dad has finished whatever he had gotten for himself. We still have plates left over of that xolodnaya because it’s impossible to make only a little bit of it. As I put it back into the fridge, I realize that I have forgotten to be disgusted by it. Maybe it’s because I’m so used to looking at it and smelling it. Maybe it’s because I’ve realized that it’s more than just a lump of fat that get swallowed up by the rest of my family.
|Rachel Komich is an undergrad English major at Ohio University with an extreme attachment to hummus and coffee. But not together. She will be graduating soon and doing other writerly things.|