The Story

Cooking with Two Russians

A day of authenticity, gross assumption and great soup.

By Lindsay Sterling

Yulia Converse welcomed me into her kitchen in Maine to learn from her mother, Alla Zagoruyko, how to make authentic Russian borsht. As you may remember I learned a version of borsht without beets from another Russian a couple months ago. That authentic borsht could have no beets had really thrown me. Turns out, it threw Yulia and her mother as well. Alla simmered beets in her broth, and added sauted shredded beets at the end. The difference just goes to show that the very idea of a food and of a people becomes skewed when it lands in a different country.

My idea of a Russian before hanging out with one was a weathered country person turning back from a field of snow into a hovel for another shot of vodka. What’s worse, I don’t even know what movie that’s from. Yulia and Alla helped conjure a more accurate picture. The two of them were city people from Tver, between Moscow and St. Petersburg. They had lived in apartment buildings like most other Russians in cities. Yulia was an interior designer. Her mother, Alla, had not been a housewife. (I’d assumed unwittingly that Russian women of her generation were less liberated in the workplace than American women. What did I know?) Alla had been an engineer, specializing in creating accurate estimates for general contractors. She remembered coming home from work and cooking a big pot of borsht among other things long after the kids fell asleep, for her family to have on hand the rest of the week.

Even Yulia’s husband, an American who’d been living with Yulia in Russia for over a decade and was a translator, made a little misjudgment about what being a Russian designer meant. Yulia corrected, “Russian designers don’t really do ‘Russian design.’” Her style was international, metropolitan, modern. In her own kitchen-living-dining area, the stunning table and chairs, all painted bright red with gold and black flowers, were from India. A cutting board was decorated with a Russian folk pattern. I assumed the apron Alla was wearing, red-and-white-checkered fabric with white embroidery on the front, was from Russia, too, but it was handmade by a Cherokee woman, Yulia’s mother-in-law, as a gift on Alla’s first visit to the United States. The bowls the soup was served in were Chinese.

So, if my impression of Russians had been so skewed, what might Russians think of Americans? “Before Perestroika,” Yulia explained, “we lived in our own juice. It was hard to find international books, clothes, music. After Perestroika, we ate Snickers bars.” Lest any Russians out there think I'm a Snickers bar eater, actually, the only candy I really eat is dark chocolate. This phenomenon of a singular thing misrepresenting the whole is slightly annoying, so if I may, after seeing to two authentic ways to make Russian borsht, I’d like to revise its definition in the American mind. From now on folks, borsht isn’t beet soup; it’s meat soup with winter vegetables in broth. The cooks of the beet and beet-less versions both said the best borsht was “soo titch ney ya,” or, as its written on fine menus there, sytochnye: best the next day. Turns out if you’re a pot of borsht, living in your own juice for a while is a good thing.