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A Tale of Borscht and Love

Borscht ArtBy Maria Danilova

On Friday nights, after our daughter has fallen asleep and before we indulge in our guilty pleasure of the week, the latest episode of “The Good Wife,” we begin a familiar ritual.  My husband shreds cabbage, chops carrots and slices onions. I peel potatoes and grate red beets. Standing side by side in the kitchen in our sweatpants, tired and sleepy, we make borscht.

Where we come from, Russia and Ukraine, borscht, a steaming hot soup made of red beets topped with a generous serving of sour cream, is as central to our cuisine as it is to life. Borscht is what a wife serves her husband after a long day’s work. Borscht is what a mother, any self-respecting mother, feeds her child for lunch. Where we come from, borscht is love.

In the bedroom, our daughter is asleep in her toddler bed, her blond hair strewn over her pillow, one hand hugging Mr. Pants, a stuffed brown bear clad in a green corduroy jumpsuit, who, as we later found out, in America goes by the name of Corduroy.

It was a wild idea to leave her toys and our life behind, in Kiev, and invest all of our savings to come to New York to become students, again, when other, more seasoned parents, are already putting money in their children’s college funds.

Behind, we left a devoted nanny, whose biggest flaw was that she loved children too much, my husband’s parents who were always happy to spend time with Katya, a pediatrician who would make house calls whenever she had a fever and a kindergarten where Katya sang Ukrainian songs. And of course, there was my in-laws’ country house in a small village outside of Kiev, where Katya picked strawberries from the garden bed, spent summers splashing in the local pond and drank the milk of the neighbors’ Maya the goat and Visilka the cow.

But last summer, we took one final dip in the pond, boarded a plane and twelve hours later found ourselves in New York, the center of everything, the capital of the world. This time, it was just us.

For the first several days, the only furniture in our New York apartment was two inflatable beds and a red carpet, given to us by family friends, so we ate our first meal – borscht – from soup plates on top of a large carton box fashioned into a table. Everything in our lives was changing, but borscht was still there.

We were ready and eager for the challenging academic life at Columbia University, but the biggest challenge turned out to be our lack of time, since with no help available we have to structure our studies around Katya. So our life is a series of sprints from the lecture hall, to the library, to her school, to the playground. We overlap for a peck on the cheek, one of us hands Katya’s small warm hand to the other and sprints off to the library.

That is why, on Friday nights we make borscht. With no time to cook between classes, we make one giant pot of soup that lasts until the following weekend. During the long week of lectures and homework assignments, I would worry about cracking strategy cases and deciphering financial statements, but my heart would be at ease about one thing – that my child is properly fed.

I remember a profound conversation about love I had, as it happens, with a complete stranger. Years ago, I was taking an overnight train from Kiev to Moscow, after visiting the boy who would later become my husband and Katya’s father I shared the train compartment with a middle-aged woman who had spent the weekend with her daughter and granddaughter in Kiev and was returning home to her husband in Moscow. She seemed like the kind of woman I wanted to be when I reach her age – attractive, fit, full of energy and content with her life. As we drank tea from thick glass tumblers sunk in metallic glass holders, an eternal tradition on Russian sleeper trains, I asked her whether she was still in love with her husband after so many years together. She looked at me like I was five years old and knew nothing about life. “Honey,” she told me in a school teacher’s tone. “Our love boat crashed in the shallow waters of everyday life. That’s just what happens.”

Ten years later, my husband and I were standing at the kitchen counter, slicing vegetables on a Friday night, dressed in baggy sweatpants.

“Cabbage,” I would tell him and kiss him on the shoulder. “Coming up,” he would reply.

This must be the very definition of the shallow waters of everyday life, I thought to myself, making beet soup while my more glamorous classmates were posting photos of their adventures in New York night clubs. Yet, our boat was sailing. We were standing side by side, making borscht for our child, half mine, half his, ours. This is love.

We were both raised in conservative Soviet families, where men would usually wander into the kitchen either by accident or to inquire when dinner will be served. The one exception my father made was preparing French toast on the weekends, while my father-in-law would usually be seen in the kitchen on International Women’s Day, a quintessential Soviet holiday celebrating alleged women’s equality on the 8th of March, that is, once a year. So our making of borscht together is a cultural revolution of sorts. What would my late grandmother say if she knew, I wondered. But for me, it is not about feminism or gender roles, it’s about love. All the more so because despite my devotion to the traditions of my family, the borscht recipe is my husband’s mother’s, not mine.

Growing up, I always wondered, as most girls do, what is love. How does it manifest itself? How do you know that it’s there? Is it your first date? Your wedding? The birth of your child?

I think I figured it out on a recent Friday night, cooking borscht in a big red pot, one of the first things I bought in New York. This is love.

In this borscht that we made together are all our joys and problems, big and small – the first English phrase Katya learned in the U.S. (ice-cream truck), a babysitter who announced on her first day that she was leaving us, the exams we dreaded, but did well on, Katya’s tooth that is hanging by a thread, while the Tooth Fairy hasn’t bought a present yet. And, of course, New York.

As the year was drawing to a close, in this constant maze of studies and sprints between the playground and the library, we still managed to go on a date. When Katya was in school and neither of us had lectures, we met at the library to sit in silence next to each other for an hour. He built algorithms; I struggled with assets and liabilities. We shared a salmon sandwich on rye bread, drank lukewarm coffee and exchanged whispers.

Soon, he blew me a kiss and took off – it was his turn to pick up Katya from school that day. It was sad to end our date so soon, but as I pored over income statements for my accounting class, I smiled. It was Friday. In the evening we will put Katya to bed and, after she falls asleep, we will watch “The Good Wife.” But before that, we will make borscht.

Author’s Note: It has been a year since we came to New York. Since then, my husband and I have both graduated from Columbia University and relocated to Washington, DC to start new jobs and resume our adult, non-student lives. Katya has come to love American food, such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and French fries, and getting her to eat borscht now requires effort on our part. But my husband and I still try to find time to cook Russian and Ukrainian dishes for her, including, of course, borscht. 

Maria Danilova recently completed the Knight-Bagehot fellowhip in economics and business journalism at Columbia University in New York. Before the program, she covered Russia and Ukraine for the Associated Press for 11 years. Her work has also been published by Tablet magazine, Columbia Journalism Review, GQ and other outlets.

 Illustration: © Nataliya Arzamasova | Dreamstime.com

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