I’ve had a type of innate luck — I was raised in a home where my parents, heavily anchored in their heritage and religion, brought me up to eat — and to eat well.
My family, a combination of Ukrainian and Hungarian backgrounds, are firm believers in the power of food and the style of embedding it into our everyday lives. Whether that be religious holidays, family reunions or a weekend meal, food is and will always be the seal of my family.
Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas Eve consisted of my bug-eyed sister and me anxiously waiting. We waited for the Ukrainian Santa (yes, he was different from the one who lives in the North Pole), to come to our house and for our ancestors to return from the heavens and eat our Kutia. We put the Kutia, a sweet rice dish made with berries, poppy seeds and honey, out on the dining room table along with pictures of my deceased grandparents. My family would have a moment of silence and then head off to bed.
Christmas morning, the Kutia would be gone, and the spoons would lie in the bowls after being used. Six-year-old me was more than spooked out — I was infatuated.
“Mommy, Baba and Dede came last night!” I exclaimed to my mother, excited that the grandparents I never got to meet returned to the dining room that previous night. As I matured, I unfortunately found out that my parents ate the Kutia after my sister and I went to sleep.
Nonetheless, as a memorable and holy ritual, I still try to think that Baba and Dede and the rest of my ancestors eat our tasty Kutia and are with us on Christmas holidays.
The long hours standing in a foreign church are tedious, but when the congregation and Father Frank move outside to the front yard, I know it is time to bless the Easter basket (and church was finally over).
Unique in everyone’s basket are always assortments of kobasa (Ukrainian pork sausage), paska (a sweet bread), cheese blintzes, butter, cream cheese, red horse radish, mustard and pysankas (Ukrainian decorated Easter eggs). Father Frank walks around, throws holy water onto each basket and blesses them.
“Christos Voz Crest! He has risen,” I say to my aunt as I nibble at the kobasa on the Easter Sunday morning. She slices her famous and delectable paska; she replies to me, “Voistynu Voskres” or “He has risen indeed.”
We set the dining room table for our annual Orthodox brunch — a space sprinkled with vibrant colors and dishes. Bagels, lox, cream cheese, the condiments from the Easter basket and orange juice decorate the Ukrainian tablecloth. My sister, mom, dad and aunt all gather around the table, and we each grab a “Uki egg” and peel away.
My cousins and I sit around the fire pit on a beating-hot August Saturday. Sweating, we catch up on school, jobs and significant others, the typical thing to do at a family reunion. The uncles play horseshoes and smoke cigars while the aunts finish up the chicken goulash, stuffed cabbage and nokedli (a type of mini Hungarian noodle dumpling).
It seems odd that a group of 50 or so Hungarians would make a huge fire on an 80-degree day, but that is how we “sutni szalona,” or “roast the bacon fat.”
With rye bread in one hand and a metal spear stabbed into a slab of bacon fat in the other, I prepare myself for the Hungarian-style food dish we unconditionally love.
When the bacon fat begins to turn a dark brown, we slap it onto our rye bread –– pressing the fat until it is fully covered in grease and looks dirty (hence, we call it “dirty bread”). We add some roasted onions and peppers on top (or other veggies if preferred), and we eat in silence for the next few minutes as our taste buds become supremely satisfied.
Later, I grab some csoroge, a deep-fried cookie with powdered sugar, before my cousins tell me to get my butt to the front yard for a family volleyball game.
My dad, his sister and I sat at our favorite sushi place in my hometown. My dad popped some takoyaki in his mouth, and I watched him chew the fried octopus ball.
“C’mon, just try one E,” he said trying to convince me. But the now-vegetarian me looked at my father blankly and continued to eat my edamame.
In that moment, I truly reflected on what it means to be a vegetarian and how it is a privilege. I thought of how my entire life I was brought up to eat meat, both Ukrainian and Hungarian, and how I never second-guessed it.
We discussed the concept of modern-day diet choices –– how once there was a time where one did not have the freedom to restrict or expand his or her diet. My aunt looked at me, with a twist of history and sadness in her eyes.
She explained to me truthfully about what life was like coming to America with her parents. Coming over from Ukraine at the age of 4, my aunt was launched into the rough area of Frankford, Philidelphia, as a poor immigrant.
“Vegetables and potatoes were all we could afford, so we ate a lot of stew,” she continued. It all began to click when I realized why my Dad’s stews are always so hearty and delicious. “If there was meat on the table, you were considered really lucky.”
Feeling guilty, I listened earnestly as I pushed around my veggie sushi on my plate. Vegetables were not a choice for a diet, but for survival; meat was not frowned upon, but was seen as a true luxury.
My aunt, remembering the hardships of being an immigrant, and I, knowing that I have the ability to pick and choose what I eat, sat in the same booth. We ate in the same booth, but we came from completely different places, had severely different childhoods and had an entirely different view on food itself.
I thanked them for everything they did, for everything Baba and Dede did; I thanked them for giving me the opportunity to even sit in a Japanese restaurant and be a vegetarian.