I was born in the USSR, and the next year it collapsed (hopefully it was not my fault). My green birth certificate has the symbol of the Soviet hammer and sickle. I had the greatest childhood ever, but I’m not sure that my mother, or anybody else, would agree with me. I don’t know how we survived, how she made us survive, and made it fun.
My mom was a mechanical engineer for a huge automobile factory. She made 75 grivnas a month, which was about $35 or $40 at the time. You can imagine that food for our family was a critical thing, although I was too young to understand. My mother was, and is, extremely smart (sometimes it is scary and even annoying), a busy professional, mother of three (I’m the youngest), stringent and incredibly fun at the same time. I was introduced to the circle of life in nature that was a great lesson.
My dialogue with my mom, 1995 (I’m six years old):
Me: “Mama, I don’t understand something. I know nothing disappears from the planet, so if it’s there, then there should be a way to get it back. For example, if milk got sour, can’t it be turned back to fresh milk?”
Mama (washing dishes): “Ninochka, when you ate borscht and then went to the restroom, could you turn it into borscht again?”
We had two plots of land in the country where we grew serious amounts of vegetables. There were metal booths on each plot where we kept inventory and slept. It was our version of a dacha, or country house, and it was sort of my summer holiday. Although I didn’t appreciate them then, I have never had better tomatoes in my life—pink tomatoes the size of my head, with a special pulp and juice. We would eat them with sugar for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—we called it “tomato meat.” Leftovers would be turned into mors (a sort of vegetable drink based on fermenting), and we’d get through the winters with tomatoes that we pickled all different ways and sold. To grow those tomatoes, we had to sneak to the closest cow farm, find a drunken guard, and trade a big carriage full of manure for a bottle of cheap vodka.
We also worked on the fields of beets and carrots and got paid with them, tons of them. My mom was planning to sell them, but she was never much of a businesswoman, so most of it rotted, and the rest we ate all year long as carrot and beet cakes. They were good, really good, at least the first five or six of them. But to this day, I can’t stand carrot cake.
My mom had a strong, almost maniacal determination to protect the health of her children. We would drive in our little Soviet Union car to a field on the side of the road, get out and walk for hours to collect wild herbs, berries, apricots, and pears. Oh my god, you should smell real wild thyme from the field, which we dried to make tea, the only tea we ever drank. Every morning of my childhood, there were shots of fresh juice waiting for me: beet, carrot, parsley, and a big spoonful of ground eggshell mixed with a bit of water.
When I was four, my sister left us. She was 16, wanted something else, and simply escaped. I can’t judge her. So the family was my mother, my brother, and me. For the New Year, my mom would let us have one big spoon of pure mayonnaise. I would have traded all the candies in the world for that spoonful. Mostly we used lard. It was real, rich, organic, melting-in-the-mouth lard, but I can’t stand it. It reminds me of the year when the three of us were sleeping in the car for two weeks straight in November. We were working on the beet field, and it was pretty far from our home, so we couldn't just drive there and back everyday (that would take too much time and gas). So we stayed in the middle of the field until the job was done. It was probably ten degrees, with no heat. But in the trunk we had a big bucket of lard that we’d spread on bread. One thing I know: Lard is a good heater.
Then my brother left, and my mother lost her job, and sold our flat, and we moved to the village to become farmers or something like that. But we lost almost everything and were kind of starving. We would wake up at 4 a.m. and take a little wheelbarrow out to hunt for abandoned fields with potatoes. We’d bring them home, cut off the rotting parts, and have a pan of tasty fried potatoes with onions. When we ate those potatoes, I never felt that we were desperate. We laughed a lot and had a good time, sometimes not so good, but I never felt poor or deprived of something, I was just glad that we had what we had. It was warm and delicious, my mom was there, and I knew we would find more food tomorrow.
I have enough food now and my mama too. I know where food comes from, what it takes to grow and kill an animal so your family could eat. I’m very picky and I never waste food, but I love to have a good meal. My background taught me to love life and enjoy nature and little moments, like stopping your car in the middle of nowhere just to breathe. And I know for sure that we eat to live, not the other way around.
Nina Tretiakova, originally from Ukraine, now lives in the country of Georgia. She is a writer of fiction, history, and poetry, and one of the founders of Batumi Paradise, a business investment and development company. She can be found at https://ninatretiakova.com/ and @nina_tretiakova_stihi.
Kvas (Russian Non-alcoholic Drink)
2 1/2 gal. water
2 1/4 lb. sugar
1 t. raw yeast
1 t. citric acid
Bring water and sugar to boil in a large pot.
Cool for about 15 minutes and stir in yeast.
Let cool to room temperature and dissolve citric acid.
Leave overnight, and strain through cheesecloth into bottles.
(Flavorings such as fresh mint may be added.)