“Sew the necks up on one side. Mix flour, fried onions and chicken fat and stuff the necks.”
This is a line from a notebook in which my grandmother wrote out family recipes for me by hand, a few years before she passed. It contains instructions for dishes that sustained my ancestors in Ukrainian and modern-day Belarusian towns and cities for generations.
The notebook has a burgundy velvet cover and a floral embellishment that was glued on by my grandfather. My mother’s parents bought it while browsing a garage sale, one of their hobbies after we arrived in America as refugees fleeing antisemitism and a crumbling Soviet Union. Garage sales gave them an opportunity to practice English with American neighbors and to marvel at the trinkets they’d never seen in the U.S.S.R. or could not afford: a soap sculpture of a lady in a fancy hat for a quarter, a real silver ring for 50 cents (“Can you believe it!?”), a huge painting of a lake for a dollar.
The recipes have taken on a new meaning since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I now keep the notebook near me, rereading the words of my grandmother who was born in Vinnytsia, Ukraine, and lived through Stalin’s Holodomor genocide in the 1930s, followed by the Holocaust.
Sometimes I browse for meal ideas, like her recipe for chopped liver or vareniky (Ukrainian dumplings) or pickled cabbage and cucumbers, a staple of Jewish shtetl life in Eastern Europe. Other times I stare at her teacher’s shorthand, seeking comfort in its neatness, or anxiously search for random things — a Yiddish word, for instance, amid the Russian, or the handwritten table of contents with a squiggly 7 — just to make sure they’re still there.
I keep returning to her recipe for “stuffed chicken necks,” a poor man’s delicacy that often has no neck in it whatsoever. It’s a craft project: Skin the chicken, make a pouch out of the skin, then stuff it with a mixture of fried onions, chicken fat, flour (or farina) and, if you’re lucky, giblets.
“Chicken necks” is a festive and scrappy dish, having sustained Ashkenazi Jewish families for generations, even extolled by Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem in his 1902 short story “Geese.” Nothing, not even the bird’s skin or stomach, should go to waste. “Sew them up,” my grandmother writes. Then boil, slice and serve.
As a child, I remember watching both my grandmothers stitching up the bumpy translucent chicken skin with a needle. The sight turned me off the final product for years, until recently.
The notebook also has modern recipes, from the Soviet era, beset with food shortages. There’s “Mimosa salad,” an appetizer fashioned out of canned fish and boiled egg, masking with its sprightly name the simplicity of the ingredients. And “holiday potato”: Boil a potato in beet water till it’s pink.
This is how you make bread last longer, explains my grandmother: Separate rye and wheat loaves and wipe the breadbox with vinegar and water at least once a week. This is how you remove mold from pickled cucumbers, instructs the matriarch who nourished four generations living in a two-bedroom Soviet apartment.
Some recipes don’t have ingredient quantities. You make do with what you’ve got.
As I leaf through the pages of familiar dishes, I’m flooded with memories: the sizzle of frying onions, the sweet tangy fragrance of borscht on the stovetop and my grandmother’s stories. She often told us about her escape from the advancing German army as a teenager during World War II. Her family grabbed what they could carry and ran to the train station. As the train, packed mostly with women and children, carried them east, it was almost hit during an air raid. A train behind them caught fire. She wanted her kids and grandkids to understand the horror of war, and the importance of gratitude and remembering one’s history.
I check my phone for the latest news out of Ukraine, where the war shows no signs of abating. The stories are eerily identical to those I grew up hearing, except the offensive is now carried out by Russia, and it’s 2022, not 1941.
Back then, my grandmother evacuated, but her ill grandparents could not. They were slaughtered by the Nazis, along with thousands of other Vinnytsia Jews. She carried the invisible scars for the rest of her life. She always stocked up on canned goods. She panicked when I was a few minutes late from playing outside.
If she were still alive, how would I explain Russia’s war? That her birth country is being bombed by the country she stayed in after World War II and where I was born. That our relatives in Ukraine recently fled from Vladimir Putin’s advancing forces. That our relatives in Russia were arrested and jailed for protesting. That history is repeating.
I have no answers. But as I read between the lines of the little recipe book, I see survival tips and immense reserves of strength.
After all, its wisdom has for generations withstood famines and grain theft. Forced assimilation and the gulag. Bloodthirsty dictators with their sights set on empires. I’m furiously powerless to stop this war. But forgetting is not an option. As a small act of resistance, I head to the kitchen, to cook.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Masha Rumer came to the U.S. with her family when she was 13. Her book “Parenting With an Accent: How Immigrants Honor Their Heritage, Navigate Setbacks and Chart New Paths for Their Children” was published in November.©2022 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.