Never Throw Your Food Away

(by Vica Miller)

Two cities define me: St. Petersburg (Russia) and New York. I was born and came of age in the former, when it was called Leningrad—the third-generation native of the Northern Capital of Russia. My father, Sergei, was born there, as was my grandmother, Eugenia. Both lived through the Siege of Leningrad during World War II, as the Russians resisted Nazi troops for almost 900 horrific days. Eugenia was a professor of medicine, in charge of public health in a city district; Sergei was a toddler. Over a million people perished from cold and hunger, but the city never surrendered to the Nazi blockade. The brave citizens of Leningrad resisted and broke through. My folks lived.


My daughters were born and raised on the Upper West Side of New York City. We speak three languages (Russian, English, Spanish), have traveled to over 50 countries, and consider ourselves global citizens. That means we have deep respect for people of all cultures, languages, ethnicities, sexualities, and traditions, because we’ve lived with many of them, from Japan to Dominican Republic, from Estonia to Brazil, from Italy to Venezuela, from Spain to Morocco, from Cuba to Switzerland.


We eat. We savor. Tostones, masitas, patatas bravas, ceviche, ramen, dumplings, goulash, buckwheat, plov, onegiri, mofongo, paella, msemen, sushi, arroz con habichuelas. But our favorite food is pelmeni. Ah, pelmeni. It’s the Russian/Ukrainian version of the Chinese dumpling or the Italian ravioli. We all grew up on them, my grandparents, my parents, my sister and I, my daughters. We usually buy them freshly made and frozen, or we make them.


It’s a tradition. It’s a process. It’s a meditation. We used to do it with my maternal grandmother, Maria, and my aunt, Lusya, when they’d come to our apartment in Leningrad. They’re long since gone, as is my mother, Svetlana. My daughters and I are the only carriers of our maternal line. Now we invite close friends to our Catskills house to make pelmeni. Once a year, at the end of January—to honor the lifting of the Siege of Leningrad, on January 27, 1945—we gather at the table, a total of eight—four of us, four of them—and start working on the magic.


The sense of togetherness is key. The metaphor of creating something out of nothing is paramount. We put water in the flour, twisting the mix around a finger so that it becomes a unified mass, then kneading it until it turns into a sphere. So much is hidden in this first intermediate result: the round dough, like the famous kolobok from the Russian fairytale, who was tasteless and plain, yet street-smart, but somewhat vain. and ended being eaten by a fox. We will turn it into many small shells, shaped like hearts, to hold the savory filling: ground meat, onions, salt, and black pepper.

(with my sister, mother, and grandmother)


I see my grandma, Maria, short and stout, as she throws back her head laughing, her one golden tooth glistening, as her quick hands twist the dough. I see my mom, Svetlana, joining in, shaking her head and putting away a few loose strands of her black hair from her brown eyes (how am I blond with blue eyes?). I see my dad, Sergei, trying to give directions, and my aunt, Lusya, dismissing him with a wave of her perfectly manicured hand. I miss them all so much. Dad is in St. Petersburg. Others are in heaven.


We take the dough and put it in the fridge—it needs to be hard before we can cut it into pieces and shape it. Waiting. In Russia they say, “You need to wait for three years for a promised good thing to come.” It’s like pregnancy, like the anticipation of magic that has to simmer and be still, without one’s greedy want interrupting the process. It’s about patience.


We grind the meat, and put spices in it, and the filling is ready—the easiest part. Then the real fun starts. Part of the group takes glasses and makes round cutouts from the dough. The other group fills them with a bit of ground meat, and twists the ends so that the shells close. Everything gets arranged on several huge trays. It’s teamwork. We make several hundred pelmeni. What we don’t eat now will be frozen and will last through the winter, through evenings of tiredness, through nights of loneliness, through days of celebrations. But first—let’s wait again. The pelmeni need to be frozen before boiling or frying.


The drinking and the conversation continue. The kids sit at the same table with the adults—they earned their spots; they worked hard. My sister and I were such kids once. My daughters are in that place now. They listen to grown-up conversations, chime in at times, grow up in the process. They learn about life’s hardships and joys, about aspirations and failures, friendships and betrayals, crazy nights and happy days. About love. The feeling of oneness is all encompassing.


The water is boiled, the pelmeni go in, and the fiesta ensues: Add sour cream (and soy sauce), a bit of parsley or dill. Seconds allowed, thirds and fourths. You need to feel stuffed, unable to move. Because you’re eating for all those who have perished during the three years of hunger and desolation, of cold and desperation in Leningrad, the city that survived the Siege and came out triumphant, that birthed the Seventh Heroic Symphony by Shostakovich and the poems by Anna Akhmatova. We eat to celebrate life, to remember, to never take more than we need, to honor our loved ones. We tell stories and we laugh; then we cry, then we sing.


Every time I host dinners, I know that my mom, aunt and grandmothers are present. Their spirits are watching over us, rejoicing and celebrating. That they survived: the war and the deaths of many loved ones. That we survived: the immigration, the panic of not knowing what the next day would bring, the desolation, the condescending looks due to our accents. But we survive. Because they did. And then our kids get accepted into best private New York City schools and become top students, and we become self-made millionaires, and keep eating our favorite foods. We remain humble and grateful. Because we know how hard and beautiful life is. And nothing is given for free, and nothing is taken for granted.

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Vica Miller is the author of Inga's Zigzags; the founder of Vica Miller Literary Salons; and an M.A. candidate in the Psychology of Creativity at Harvard Extension School.

Pelmeni


2 c. flour, plus additional for rolling dough

1 egg yolk

8 oz. water

1 T. vegetable oil

1 onion

1/2 lb. lamb

1/2 lb. beef

salt and black pepper, to taste

sour cream

soy sauce


Pour flour directly on the table or into a deep plate.

Add egg yolk, water, and vegetable oil.

Knead for least 20 minutes, until the dough is elastic and does not stick to your hands.

Form dough into a ball, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 20 minutes

Peel and cut the onion.

Chop lamb and beef into chunks and add to chopped onion.

Put mixture through a meat grinder.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

Cut dough into several pieces.

Sprinkle table with flour, and roll section of dough out very thinly.

Use a 2 1/2 - 3 in. cutter or water glass to make circles.

For each dumpling, use 1 t. filling, then fold in half and pinch the two ends together into a heart-shaped shell, as tightly as possible.

Place dumplings on a floured tray and freeze for 20 minutes.

Cook dumplings in boiling water for 10 minutes; they need to float up and boil for five more minutes after.

Serve with sour cream and soy sauce.

Makes about 100 pelmeni.