We Are Usually Eating: Exploring the Various Cuisines of My Family: Part II

Jewish and Eastern European babka in the window/Alpha

Food has been an integral part of my family’s and my life, as it is to most people. But through food, I learned another facet of my ancestry. Through taste, I found familiarity and history. In this project, I’ve thought about my identity and heritage, and I would be remiss if I did not consider what an important role different cuisines have played in my life.

But, rather than taking my family or Russian-speaking Jewish friends to all the old eating haunts around Chicago, I decided to take my friends who came from other backgrounds.* With each eatery, I thought about my connection to the cuisine and/or to the place. I ordered and picked out food/experiences that tasted like home to me, and asked my friends to tell me about their experiences. While I asked, I also watched them and tried to imagine what it would be like to experience these places and these foods for the first time.

This is part two of this two-part essay installment. You can view part one here.

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Russian stamp 1029/Dmitry Ivanov

I remember my first Russian Restaurantexperience vividly. First, the decorations. Incredibly over the top, faux-riche, and so many bright colors (notably red) and patterns (notably gold filigree). The air outside the banquet hall smelled like cigarettes, with kids trying to operate and/or break the slot machines in the corner of the hall. Then, inside the banquet hall, a bombardment of aroma, from freshly prepared meats and fish dishes to vodka and cognac being poured. Lots of onion, lots of dill. Glasses clinking endlessly, people laughing and/or shouting, kids running in circles on the dance floor, uncles grooving on the dancefloor. A singer and her band singing contemporary Russian music (and also Philip Kirkorov). I remember eating too much, dancing too much, collapsing on four lined up, coiffed banquet chairs, and falling asleep through the blaring music and voices, until my parents would wake me up to go home somewhere past midnight.

Hot borscht at Red Square Chicago Bath House/Red Square Chicago Bath House

Zhivago in Skokie was another one of the Russian Restaurantsattended by members of the Russian-speaking community of Chicago. Though my family had attended birthday parties and weddings at their sister location, La Mirage, I knew about Zhivago, as many folks in the community do. It was strange for me to come here for a first visit not for a large party of Russian speakers, but for a small, intimate meal with my friend, Dakota.

I tried to make a reservation, as they said that small parties could dine during the weekdays on their website. After they confirmed via Facebook messenger that yes, this would true, and they would accommodate any party size, I asked for a reservation for the two of us, and they proceeded to tell me that they were unable to make reservations for small groups.

Interesting back and forth. So, instead, I took Dakota to Red Square Chicago Bath House in Ukrainian Village, Chicago.

Entrance to Red Square Chicago Bath House/Red Square Chicago Bath House

I grew up with my parents recounting to me the splendors of banyas (Russian bathhouse) in Ukraine and Russia. My dad, in particular, went to university in a small town in Ukraine, where one of the activities he and his friends actively engaged in was going to the banya and jumping into the snow.

Because my dad went to university in a small town, the banya was very common there. In cities, going to the banya was not so common in the late 20th century; it was often reserved for times when the hot water ran out of the common water resource. My mom was taught by her best friend to enjoy the banya and dip into a cold pool in between each trip.

“Typically, people would drink beer and vodka,” my mom told me. “Also, it was more of a men’s thing.”

Though most people could not afford to eat out at many restaurants in Soviet cities, my mom would have probably wanted beer, herbal tea, watermelon, maybe a soup.

Enjoy Your Bath! film screenshot/Eldar Ryazanov and Mosfilm

In the movie С лёгким паром! (Enjoy Your Bath!), which was watched annually on New Year’s Eve in the Soviet Union, the film opens with a group of men who meet at a banya in Moscow to celebrate New Year’s Eve, as they do each year. I remember watching this film several times in my childhood.

I’ve still yet to go to a proper banya, but Red Square does offer many of the things a banya would. I reviewed it in one of my first journalism experiences outside of college, and have been back many times with friends and family alike.

Typical Russian banya/Smarticvs

But this time I attend with not just an eye to banya culture, but with a specific eye to my family and ancestry’s relationship to banyas and eating at a banya.

A little background about the banya: According to Master Russia, a typical Russian banya has a wooden room with wide, wooden benches along the walls, where a large amount of hot steam is created with water and hot air and heated with firewood (modern versions might use electric heat). The higher up a person goes on the benches, the hotter the air is. Once someone warms up as much as they’d like in the parnaya (the steam room), they leave and either dip into a cold water pool, or pour cold water on themselves, or, if you’re in Siberia, jump into the snow.

Red Square Chicago Bath House common space banya resting area/Brenda C.

In the banya, there is a special ‘treatment’ people do to each other, or with the help of a professional banschik. Bundles of birch and/or oak tree twigs and leafy branches are strapped together; this is called a venik. They are then dipped into water, to soften the branches and leaves, and then are smacked briskly over and used to push hot air towards a person’s body. Groups of friends typically go together and are able to smack each other with venikki. This is said to help improve circulation within the body.

At Red Square, they have one parnaya for the women’s dressing room (called the Turkish bath) and another parnaya in the shared space for everyone (called the Russian bath) in the lower level of the establishment.

On the second floor, they have their restaurant and bar, as well as various spa services they provide (massage, manicures, pedicures, body treatments, etc.).

Red Square Chicago Bath House front dining area/Red Square Chicago Bath House

As I waited for Dakota, I spoke with the receptionist on duty, first in English, then in Russian. She had moved to Chicago only two years before and we talked about the transition of moving, of living in this new country, and of having a community to be a part of. Dakota arrived and we chatted a little longer all together (in English). Dakota and I got basic entry into Red Square, and I also picked us up a venik. She had never been to any sauna or bathhouse with 180+°F saunas, so transitioning between the Turkish bath and the cold pool was frequent. We also took turns with the venik. After a 1.5 hours in the bathhouse, we headed up to the restaurant on the second floor.

Russian herring dish at Red Square Chicago Bath House/Red Square Chicago Bath House

We decided to split a few items off the menu: hot borscht, caviar blini (thin, crepe-like pancake filled with caviar and served with boiled egg, green onion, and sour cream), mushroom julienne (a Russian dish with French influence; thinly sliced mushrooms and shallots sauteed and then baked cream sauce and cheese, then served with sour cream and mozzarella cheese), and Russian herring (served with onion, black olives, and lemon).

Vodka flight at Russian herring dish at Red Square Chicago Bath House/Danielle Levsky

We also split a flight of vodka, ranging from low quality to high. I ordered half of our food in English and then switched to Russian when I was explaining the order of how we wanted the food brought out.

Innermost dining hall of Red Square Chicago Bath House/Photo: Shauna “ChaCha” D.

We sat in the inner dining hall, which was modeled after a train car. As we waited for our food to arrive, we sipped on vodka and stared out the “window:” a looped video of a train car journey through Russia (I’m unsure of how long the video actually runs). It was soothing to watch, and played with moments of silence and eating in a very natural way.

Dakota’s favorite was the caviar blini. I was partial to that dish as well, especially when paired with the vodka flights.

Caviar blini at Red Square Chicago Bath House/Red Square Chicago Bath House

We talked about traveling, about balancing personal interests with parenthood, about relationships (both of the platonic and romantic variety). Perhaps it was the heat or the vodka, but I felt more confident than I typically do offering my perspective and ideas on the changing nature of relationships, of family. We talked about motherhood, of how I am at once excited for and fearful of it, of how much she loves her daughter and how their relationship evolves constantly.

We finished off our dining experience with some Korean face masks I brought along with me in the lounge area of the women’s quarters. Feeling relaxed, warm, and full of mostly seafood, we headed out into the cold Chicago winter.

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Exterior of Chicago Diplomat Cafe/TripAdvisor

I took my friend Ellis to Chicago Diplomat Cafe in Lincoln Park, Chicago. My partner, Daniel**, also decided to come along.

Georgian food has had an interesting imprint on my life. For one, I think most Post-Soviet immigrants and their kin can agree that Georgians make the best cuisine of the Eastern bloc. The spices, the ingredients, and the recipes (both carnivorous and vegetarian) involved in each Georgian dish give it a flavor I haven’t experienced quite anywhere else.

Chebureki and sour cherry kompot at Chicago Diplomat Cafe/Danielle Levsky

According to Diplomat Cafe, the cuisine of the country is unique but carries influences from European and Middle Eastern culinary traditions. Each province of Georgia has its own distinct culinary tradition, with variations such as Megrelian, Kakhetian, and Imeretian cuisines.

During the Georgian feast supra, a huge assortment of dishes are prepared and always accompanied by large amounts of Georgian wine. At these and other feasts, the role of the tamada (toastmaster) is a revered position.

Until I was 10 years old, my family and I celebrated every one of our feasts — birthdays, anniversaries, celebrations of all kinds — at a Georgian restaurant in Rogers Park. The owners of the restaurant knew us well, and by the time I was nine years old, I saw them as an extension of my family. I remember the dark walls of the restaurant well, decorated with Georgian folk art, and with beautiful string music constantly playing every night we spent there. We always came hungry, anticipating the amount and deliciousness of the dishes that awaited us.

Unfortunately, like many other Russian-speaking businesses in Rogers Park, this restaurant closed due to lack of demand. Looking back, we were often the only ones in the restaurant when we were there. It was such a shame.

Fortunately, there are more Georgian and Central Asian eateries popping up over the Chicagoland area. I visited the Diplomat Cafe once before, with a Russian-speaking Jewish friend of mine, and we sampled a few of the vegetarian dishes. Now, with Ellis and Daniel, we were going to feast on more dishes they had to offer.

Megruli khachapuri at Chicago Diplomat Cafe/Danielle Levsky

I knew we had to get khachapuri, a Georgian-style puff pie stuffed with Georgian cheese. To decide on which one we should get, we conferred with our server. We decided on ordering megruli khachapuri (From the Samegrelo region, a double-layered khachapuri stuffed with fresh cheese and topped off with smoked sulguni, a brined Georgian cheese), ojakhuri (a popular Georgian family meal, made with pork kabob pieces, potatoes, onions and herbs, served in a clay pan), and chebureki (deep-fried turnovers with ground meat filling).

I also ordered a sour cherry kompot for the table to try; I was craving it. Ellis asked what kompot was. Kompot is different than compote; kompot is not a thick or jam-like treat, no, it is a non-alcoholic sweet beverage of Slavic origin, that may be served hot or cold, depending on tradition and season. To make it, you cook fruit, such as strawberries, apricots, peaches, apples, rhubarb, gooseberries, or sour cherries, in a large volume of water, often together with sugar or raisins as additional sweeteners. I prefer kompot hot, but even enjoyed cold it is very refreshing and delicious.

Growing up, my family and I would go sour cherry picking in Michigan. We would eat a good amount of the sour cherries we picked fresh, but then froze a large portion of them and used the remaining fresh ones to make kompot, cakes, and pies. The time between summer and fall was always my favorite, because I knew that soon our house would be filled with sour cherries.

Ojakhuri and sour cherry kompot at Chicago Diplomat Cafe/Danielle Levsky

After tasting several of the dishes, Ellis declared that the food was a lot better than what he expected. He had tried Russian and other Eastern European foods before, and found that the spices and compositions of the dishes were entirely different than the dishes we were eating. He noticed a significant amount of garlic within the food, which to him isn’t always a good thing but in this case, worked really well (specifically in the ojakhuri). Daniel is quite the picky eater, but he enjoyed two of the three dishes. He compared the ojakhuri to many of the Cuban dishes he grew up, specifically with the way the pork was spiced.

Ellis asked what would be considered a delicacy for my family. I immediately went with caviar but added that specific kinds of caviar are more valuable than others. My family typically buys the cheaper varieties of the roe of whitefish, trout, North Atlantic salmon, and sturgeon hybrids; Beluga, Sterlet, Kaluga hybrid, American osetra, Ossetra, Siberian sturgeon, and Sevruga are the more expensive and rare types of caviar that we rarely (if never) have in the house. For many New Years celebrations, we’ve had a small container of black caviar (sturgeon) to share amongst the family as a treat.

Interior of Chicago Diplomat Cafe/Nini K.

I also mentioned salo as being a delicacy. Daniel and I recounted a story of how I brought salo to his family’s home during the holidays. One of the Cuban dishes they enjoy is chicharron, fried pork rinds, so I figured that cured slabs of fatback, with or without skin, would be enjoyable as well. It didn’t turn out to be their thing.

We talked about the foods we grew up with, caught up on our jobs, and discussed the decor of the restaurant. Between the white tablecloths and chairs, the art on the walls, and the rightmost brick wall, there was a bit of variety in the restaurant that reminded me of the Russian Restaurant™ and my old Georgian restaurant combined. It was comforting to know that so many of these locations came full circle in decorative elements.

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Jewish delis! Do they combine and distill Jewish cuisine from a global perspective? What do they borrow from in cuisine and culture? Why are they so delightful and heartwarming? What does it mean to have a Jewish deli that is not Kosher or Kosher style in the US, where Jewish ethnic/cultural background and Jewish religion is so often linked and not talked about separately?

JB’s Deli interior/Danielle Levsky

I took my friend Skylar to JB’s Deli in Andersonville, Chicago to investigate. One of the things I wanted to pinpoint is if Jewish delis initially looked like what Russian-Jewish delis look like to me now, and where the traditional Jewish deli menu items originated from.

The word delicatessen originated in Germany during the 18th century and spread to the United States in the mid-19th century. Comes from German-Jewish population that immigrated to NYC in mid-to-late 1800s. Kosher delicatessens began to open in 1889, and by the late 20th century, supermarkets, local economy stores, and fast food outlets began using the concept and changing the word to “deli.”

In the mid-19th century, Eastern European Jews started immigrating in larger groups to the United States, and brought their recipes to the deli: brisket, kneidlach, gefilte fish, and schnitzel.

Cliff Dwellers (1913) is an oil on canvas painting by George Bellows that depicts New York City’s Lower East Side, on what appears to be a hot summer day. Between 1870 and 1915, the city’s population grew from 1.5 million to 5 million, due to the arrival of Italian, Jewish, Irish, and Chines immigrants crowded into tenement houses. Among the immigrants were thousands of Eastern European Jews, who found temporary or permanent shelter along streets such as East Broadway, the setting for Cliff Dwellers.

The deli became a celebrated gathering place in Jewish and American life in the 1920s, according to Ted Merwin in “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli.” For secular Jews, who still experienced Antisemitism, spent Sunday nights in the Jewish deli; for many, the experience became akin to Shabbat night in the synagogue.

According to Saveur, pastrami used to be the high-priced delicacy of Eastern European Jewish life in New York City. Later, delis became popular with celebrities on and off Broadway, and pastrami became more commonplace as famous artists with disposable incomes were able to order it. Antisemitism shifted into Broadway popularity and into the enduring appeal of Jewish cultural life in New York City.

Hannah Birenz wrote this musing quite beautifully on the Jewish deli in her piece on Serious Eats:

“Despite its name, the Jewish delicatessen is for everyone. If anything, an overstuffed sandwich of pastrami, or corned beef, or brisket is what helped Jews assimilate into the United States after the great migrations of the 1800s and 1900s. The delicatessen is where the children of immigrants became Americans, where the recipes of a global diaspora, inspired by necessity and tradition, came together to form a paradoxical spread of hedonistic abundance: foot-high piles of meat, basins of pickles, heaping scoops of chopped chicken liver, and loaves upon puffy loaves of rye.”

Nowadays, Jewish delis featured food like brisket, corned beef, pastrami, beef tongue, chopped liver, Roast beef, Russian dressing, Half Sour versus Full Sour Pickle, and rye bread. JB’s Deli has all these dishes, and then some.

JB’s Deli interior/Danielle Levsky

Walking into JB’s Deli I felt like I was transported to somewhere in New York City, 30 years ago. The man behind the counter, Fred, was hilarious and kind. Two other women were working, cleaning up the pharmacy in the back. Fred and I chatted about Jewish delis in Chicago closing, about how hard it is to find a good bagel in this city, and how nothing beats a Polar Vortex like a matzoh ball soup.

I bought some bagels as I waited for my friend Skylar to arrive; I can confirm that they were divine, improved with the homemade cream cheese I also bought from JB’s. I noticed that between the deli and the pharmacy, they sold tums right in front of the cash register. Fitting and funny.

Skylar arrived and we were both excited about the prospect of eating at this deli. He also remarked that JB’s was very much executed in the style of a no-frills, traditional deli. We put our order in: matza ball soup to share, two Dr. Brown’s cream sodas, corned beef sandwich, pastrami sandwich, a potato knish.

We remarked that the staff was so warm, hearty, sarcastic, and familial. Skylar talked about his Vietnamese upbringing and said he preferred these kinds of deli environments to the over-modernized kind. He said he noticed how more and more Southeast Asian eateries were modernizing their spaces and menus to be contemporary, American-style environments, when really, the food they serve is street food, meant to be served in a setting very much like a deli.

Dr. Brown’s cream soda, potato knish, and matza ball soup at JB’s Deli/Danielle Levsky

I wholeheartedly agreed. We both really enjoyed the soup, and even got a second helping from Fred, free of charge. The knish reminded me of some of the Georgian food I had been eating earlier that week. It definitely satisfied my initial hunger but left me wanting for the more complex flavors of the corned beef and pastrami.

They each arrived in trays, served atop rye bread and with a half sour pickle. The sandwiches were split into two, so Skylar and I took a half of each to test them out. I was partial to the pastrami myself.

Digging into the roots of my two favorite plates of Jewish deli culinaria was fascinating.

According to Serious Eats, the process of pickling came about through salt and vinegar brines, used as a form of produce preservation by cultures worldwide. In China, however, they had developed lacto-fermentation, a preservation method only involving salt and heat. Turkish nomadic people of Mongolia adopted this technique and eventually, it reached further west in Europe, where the Jews quickly adopted it.

Corned beef came from the medieval English term for tough, dry, chewy meat and first appeared in print in 1621. The “corn” came from the coarse grain of salt used to dry-salt beef to help it keep over several months, which was a common method of preservation throughout history. This technique was carried over by European Jews to New York City during the late 1800s, but thanks to refrigeration, Jewish deli owners and chefs switched to pickling, which gave way to the softer and succulent cured beef we know today.

Pastrami and corned beef sandwiches, with macaroni salad and half-sour dill pickles on the side at JB’s Deli/Danielle Levsky

Pastrami came from another jerky, from the Turkish basturma. In the 14th century, the Ottoman Empire devised a method of pressing their slices of fish and meat to extract any moisture, rubbing them with a fenugreek-heavy mixture of spices, and leaving them to air-dry. When this method reached the Balkans, Romanian Jews caught wind of it and developed the preservation method one step further by adding their own spices. This became referred to as pastrama (and also pastirma and pastroma).

And rye bread, the nourishment of my family and people, was originally considered the root of a pesky weed that grew everywhere. It was mostly northern Europeans and Russians who considered it a good plant, for it grew even in their cold climates. Farmers would harvest and mill wheat and rye plants together to make multi-grain flour. For Jews, in particular, wheat flour was expensive and was saved for special occasions to make a 100% wheat challah. For non-holidays, they consumed rye bread. What we eat in the United States as rye bread now is considered to be a Polish rye, which is lighter in color.

Skylar and I were both so delighted with our sandwiches. The richness and warmth of the meat and the salty, sour bite of the pickles made such a perfect match. We talked about food as a source of family and warmth, then bid a kind goodbye to the staff at JB’s. Fred made sure we were getting home warm and safe as the temperatures dropped lower the night before the Polar Vortex.

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The best breakfast at my parents’ home/Danielle Levsky

I was recalling the culinary experiences I had over breakfast with my parents. I’m not sure if my mother knew I was wrapping up this essay, but she had bought two different varieties of caviar from Daniel’s. Chatting over breakfast, we sampled the caviar and salmon by making butterbrot (open-facing sandwiches) with white bread and Lithuanian rye bread (respectively), and soft-boiled eggs.

I was never the type to have been embarrassed by the food my family ate. I had the privilege and honor of growing up in a community that embraced cuisine of different ethnic origins. But I rarely was able to share the full sensory experiences of the cuisine of my upbringing with my friends.

It was a delight to share with them my stories, the flavors I had grown to love so much, and to see all these little worlds with a fresh perspective in their eyes.

* All names of friends have been replaced with pseudonyms in the interest of protecting identity.

** The only non-pseudonym in this piece.

Danielle Levsky’s “Identity Diaspora”

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With my family, community and my own rich experiences in mind, I’ll be focusing on creating a collection of essays over the next year.