Russian emigre seniors share stories, recipes in new memoir

In "Memories From a Russian Kitchen," Alex Krasner, a Jewish emigre from St. Petersburg, writes of the hardships of World War II, when he savored a piece of dry glue "as if it was some kind of candy" and had hallucinations about a table piled high with bread.

Malvina Alexandravskaya, another contributor, writes about the murder of her family members during the Russian Revolution and how her grandfather held onto his Jewish faith.

Gisya Shvarts tells the story of her aunt's wedding day, when a gang of bullies pulled the cloth from the table, destroying the beautifully prepared feast.

"Memories From a Russian Kitchen" began as a cookbook. It became a history. Along with some 150 recipes from the former Soviet Union, the 100 or so emigres who contributed to this book share tales of pogroms, poverty, shortages, anti-Semitism and attempts to preserve family against all odds.

Produced by Rosalie Sogolow of Saratoga and mostly elderly emigre students in her English as a Second Language classes at Jewish Family and Children's Services of Santa Clara County, the book provides powerful first-person histories about the near-destruction of Russian Jewish culture in the former Soviet Union.

While there are recipes for borscht, cholent and cherry meringue pie, along with anecdotes and family photos, this is not a slick Jewish cookbook along the lines of Joan Nathan's "Jewish Cooking in America." "Memories From a Russian Kitchen," by contrast, is often raw. And therein lies its strength.

Here is an excerpt from Raisa Volkhover's contribution:

"When the Revolution came, the Revolutionaries imprisoned and shot all the young officers and policemen. We couldn't go out into the streets because the shooting went on all day long. It was so terrible! When the Soviet authority was established, a shortage of food began. We had nothing to eat. My father drove to the country to buy potatoes. From the peel of the potatoes, my mother made pancakes. The starvation lasted a very long time."

The book began as an English project in Sogolow's classes at JFCS, where she has served as a volunteer teacher for nine years. Using her students' memories as a tool to help improve their language skills, Sogolow asked them to share their family recipes.

What she got was far more than she had bargained for. The book is a rich recollection of Russian Jewish culture, spilling out the stories of a century, from life under the czar to the horrors of Stalinism to the difficulties of life as Communism was collapsing.

"We started out to collect the recipes but then I got the idea that we should know something about the people whose recipes we were using," Sogolow said. "It just grew from there because these are predominantly elderly people in their 70s and 80s and they had witnessed so much, so the stories that were emerging became more important than the food."

The book is both a collection of recipes and a collection of anecdotes that are not necessarily related to food; sometimes the marriage defies logic. It is organized by food categories — from zakooski (appetizers) to sladkiye blyuda (desserts), but anecdotes, not always by the recipe contributors, are popped into various sections in a seemingly random fashion.

Sogolow says the book, designed "in cookbook form to make it user-friendly," evolved from its original plan. "If I had thought about it from the beginning, I wouldn't have combined stories of this nature with recipes, but it evolved. I didn't want to discard any of it. The stories that were emerging were something I wanted to capture. They're presented in a smorgasbord fashion without rhyme or reason because they're snapshots of life."

The recipes, which took two years to compile, were painstakingly adapted from metric measurements and then tested by members of Brandeis University's national women's committee. Most reflect the cooking styles of our ancestors and are more interesting for their historical than for their culinary value. Nonetheless, this book, illustrated by Bonnie Stone, is a treat.