It’s an interesting juxtaposition, being fully of one culture while, simultaneously, fully of another. I am thoroughly Russian on both sides of my family, who traveled from St. Petersberg to escape communism, all over the globe, and up through Mexico to Los Angeles, where I was born. I have no accent but a very immediate connection. My American classmates perceived me as one of them, and how I longed to be. But I knew I was different. My name was different. I went to a different type of church. I even ate differently— and boy, was that evident on “international food day” when everyone clamored for Tony’s pasta or Sarah’s hamburgers, but no one would touch my golupsie (which is basically stuffed cabbage), and as it is with most formative-years memories, this memory still makes me tear up. They didn’t like my food, therefore they didn’t like me, not to mention all the times they spitefully called me “commie.” And that hurt.
So, okay, fine, I didn’t fit in with the Americans. But the Russians were safe, right? Again, how I longed for that to be true. I was too American for my fellow comrades. I didn’t go to their school. I had friends outside the perfect Russian bubble they created. I also knew that I wasn’t going to get married at 18 and start pumping out children nine months later, the way Fenya or Sasha did. So, again, I looked like them, but didn’t feel accepted by them, not to mention all the times they spitefully called me “ne nash,” which translates to “not ours.”
The most joyous of occasions took place at church, always anchored by food. Oh. The. Food. The quantity of it. The quality of it. The craftsmanship. But you couldn’t eat the food when it was served. You had to earn it by staring at it on the Last Supper-style table, salivating while sitting through an eternity of prayer and worship songs, all in Russian. And when finally permitted you to eat, you had to be careful, rationing the early courses so as not to get full before it really got good. After the chai (hot tea) and vegetables came borscht (beet soup) and masa (meat) and endless amounts of fresh baked bread, warming you up and preparing you for the holy grail of our cuisine. Because it didn’t matter how much you had already eaten—you had to make room for the lapsha.
My mother was champion of the lapsha, our Russian noodle soup. She sat at the head table, being an elder (don’t let her hear me say that!) and an important member of our congregation, thus my connection for more lapsha. Sure, there were large quantities of ordinary lapsha, and yes, that beats any other meal I’ve had to date. But the celebratory lapsha was posnee¸ or what was commonly called milk lapsha. The egg noodles were handmade by church members only for special gatherings and served in tiny bowls. Our loshki (large wooden spoons) would provide only a few hearty bites before it was gone. And that is not enough for someone who'd been waiting all day, enduring hundreds of sermons and songs to get to this point. But my mama provided.
I would sneak away to the head table and ask her for a bowl. She had one ready for me and always seemed so happy to hand it over. I’d march triumphantly back to my place with the other kids, and if I felt extra bold, I might go back to my mom again and ask for another bowl. She seemed to have an endless supply for me, served with a smile.
I think about those times, and my heart feels as full as my stomach must have been. There was so much love in those bowls. As an adult, I realize that she didn’t have some sort of lapsha cistern available to her. She must have been saving her own bowl, knowing I’d want it, and giving it to me gladly. She might even have asked other women if they’d hand over a bowl of lapsha in case her youngest daughter requested it. This seemingly minor gesture provided a much larger, lasting impact in my life.
There weren’t many points growing up (even now) that my mother and I saw eye-to-eye. This can be a difficult circumstance for a girl in her vulnerable developmental years, especially one connected to, but rejected by, two different cultures. But it didn’t matter if I was too Russian for the Americans, or too American for the Russians. And it doesn’t matter if my mom and I still argue more than I care to admit. What matters is the love I felt then, a sacrificial type of love, and it is that love I must pass on to my own children, even if it is my only bowl of lapsha.
Dunya Ahrns is a realtor with Coldwell Banker Town and Country in Southern California and blogs at dunyaahrns.wordpress.com.
Church Milk Lapsha
(Russians cook for crowds. If you're not feeding 100 people, you'll have to get out your calculator.)
3 gal. milk
1 qt. half & half
2 to 3 lb. butter
12 to 15 sugar cubes
salt to taste
1 large chashka (an approximately 3-qt. stainless steel bowl) of lapsha noodles (to be found with your nearest Russian friend, or basically egg noodles), plus optional 3 handfuls
In a large double boiler with lid, pour in milk, half & half, butter (adjust the amount to the richness you desire), salt, and sugar cubes.
Raise heat to high but not boiling.
Add 1 full chashka of lapsha noodles, and stir occasionally—if too thin, then add the additional noodles.
(Milk lapsha is thick and not soupy.)
Simmer for about 1 hour, until noodles are distributed evenly (not all floating on top) and soup is thickened.
Turn off heat and let sit until ready to serve.