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A Taste of Home

A woman selling pirozhki

Pix/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

A woman selling pirozhki from a handcart in the port town of Nakhodka, USSR, 1967

When I was growing up in the late-era USSR, pirozhki were the quintessential comfort food. Descended from statelier, larger pierogi pies, these small buns with savory or sweet filling—sometimes baked, sometimes fried, though, unlike their Polish cousins, never boiled—were cheap, filling, and easy to get from street kiosks and handcarts. In the south of Russia, where I’m from, the weather could be miserable in the non-summer months, and the middle-aged women who operated these carts would wear so many sweaters, vests, and jackets beneath their uniform white smocks that their true shapes were impossible to determine. They called out their wares in shrill voices—“Hot pirozhki! Meat pirozhki! Sweet pirozhki!” (the accent is on the last syllable)—to attract customers, a rather unusual spectacle in our socialist economy that existed to satisfy the demands of five-year plans, not consumer pleasures.

If you did approach, the women flung open the lids of their thermo-boxes and, with a long, two-pronged fork (sometimes improvised with a regular table fork, its middle teeth extracted, duct-taped to a pencil), harpooned two or three bullet-shaped pirozhki at once and wrapped them in a sheet of wax paper. Your kopeks would land clanging into the metal coin box; or if you paid with paper rubles, these they stuffed into one of their aprons’ many pockets. “Hot pirozhki!” they’d resume their incantation as you dawdled by the cart, inhaling the smell of deep-fried dough while your hand holding the pirozhok instantly warmed up. “Who’s up for hot pirozhki? Young man, get yourself a pirozhok!”

The most common type of pirozhki was made with minced liver or ground meat. Sometimes I wondered whether the absence of meat at the grocery stores could be explained by the demands of pirozhki production; perhaps there was a five-year pirozhki plan. My mother disagreed, maintaining that under the guise of meat—whether beef or pork was never specified—all kinds of things were ground into pirozhki. It was safer, she thought, to go for the potato or cabbage ones, the two other staples, or even those with jam (made from equally anonymous fruit). But these did not deliver the same satisfaction: nothing tastes better than fried dough with fried meat. And although food poisoning was not unusual given the standards of our “public nutrition” industry, I never got sick from pirozhki.

Pirozhki fueled my extracurricular activities at the Pioneer Palace, for which my mother signed me up every year in a staunch effort to discover my talents and broaden my educational horizon. To get to the Palace from the school in our town, Krasnodar, I had to take a Number 18 bus, a route served exclusively by Hungarian-manufactured Ikarus buses, whose two yellow articulated cars were joined by a rubber accordion. Making turns, the hind end of the bus swished out in the opposite direction, and if you stood in the middle of the car, always less crowded, you got a bit of an amusement ride.

Number 18 terminated at the Cooperative market, just a couple blocks from the Pioneer Palace. Produce-wise, the Cooperative was no match for the Hay Market, officially known as the Kolkhoz (collective farm) market, where my mother and I went foraging once a month after she got paid for her piano-teaching job at the Institute of Culture, but it bustled with pirozhki activity. There were carts on every corner, and inside, a row of kiosks offered more sophisticated wares, like the belyashi, a round bun with juicy meat filling, or the divinely sweet-smelling ponchiki, the fluffy fried rings of doughnut batter that popped out of a large metal funnel looming in the depths of the kiosk and straight into the fryer. From there, they were fished out with a metal basket, placed on a rack to drain, and sprinkled generously with powdered sugar that left a telltale dusting on your coat long after your mini-feast.  

Nothing, however, compared, to chebureki, the deep-fried, triangular meat parcels with crimped edges. A gift from sunny Georgia, a sister Caucasian republic whose cuisine punctured the blandness of the Soviet diet with its bold sauces and spices, the Cooperative market chebureki, soggy from lying in the thermo-box with hundreds of their cousins, were thinner on the dough and thicker on the meat, which, though still of mysterious origin, came well-seasoned and juicy, so you had to be careful not to spill the greasy, savory drops on your clothes. These Georgian specialties were twice the price of regular meat pirozhki, so I could never afford more than two, and that left me forever pining for a third cheburek. But it was enough to reconcile me to the thrice-weekly trek across town for those hours of piano, solfeggio, and drama long after it became obvious I harbored no particular talent that the Pioneer Palace had use for.

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It wasn’t until after the fall of the USSR that I tasted the cheburek as originally envisioned by the Georgians: a heavy pocket with bubbles in the dough—crispy on the outside, tender and saucy inside—stuffed to the brim with minced lamb, fresh cilantro, and Georgian spices. Sold in a privately owned roadside kiosk of a Black Sea resort town, where, in my university summers, I worked as a pioneer camp counselor, those post-Soviet chebureki were enormous: you could barely eat two, let alone a third. They were unbelievably delicious when washed down with a tumbler of young Rkatsiteli wine sold from a barrel on wheels nearby.

On our days off from the camp, my college mate and I feasted this way during our long walks along the resort’s crescent-shaped beach, empty save for the pioneer camp kids performing their regimented bathing rituals, and gullible girls in bikinis instructed by the local hack photographers to “hold the sun” in their cupped palms. Sometimes we’d fill a couple of extra jars with wine (the chebureki we never bought “for later,” because they had to be eaten hot) and these clinked inside my friend’s blue backpack as we walked barefoot on the warm sand, the water lapping around our ankles and the taste of the chebureki lingering in our mouths.

Back in Soviet Krasnodar, on those sad days when the chebureki cart was nowhere to be seen, I’d venture into the Kulinariya, a type of state store that sold prepared foods. There, next to the trays of pale raw kotlety, or meat patties, and stuffed blini pockets, one could pick up some sloikas (literally “layers,” but, in effect, pirozhki made with puff pastry). According to my mother, these were poor relatives of the sloikas she’d get at the Café Sever in Leningrad, to which she travelled regularly for her distance-learning PhD studies; there they were served piping hot with a cup of strong broth.

Our provincial sloikas, which had very few of the layers implied by their name, merely provided sustenance rather than sensory pleasure. They came unheated and unseasoned, an incarnation of blandness in tune with our existential condition.

But they were cheap. With my leftover change, I could go to the food stand beneath an alabaster Lenin in the Palace’s lobby and get a sochnik: a short-crust pastry with sweet cheese filling. Golden because of the yolk glaze, the sochnik’s oyster-shaped shell was crumbly and soft, but the filling was dense and the contrast gratifying. I liked sochniki better than their rich dough cousins, the round vatrushki, whose sweet cheese middles were often supplemented with vanilla and raisins. My school canteen served those every other day, along with a sour cream beverage (crudely pasteurized and thus quite revolting) or a potato starch–based fruit drink I didn’t much like either, called kisel.

The “public nutrition” establishments were not the only place where you’d find pirozhki. Most families kept their own recipes, usually under the matriarchal custodianship of a grandmother. But not everyone lived in multigenerational households. In our case, it was just Mother and me, and she resorted to pirozhki only when she couldn’t get anything else for dinner. She rarely bothered to make the dough herself because of all the uncertainty around whether it would rise or not. Instead, she bought the sour-smelling dough at the Kulinariya and improvised her own fillings: potato and fried onions; chopped boiled eggs with scallions; plum or blackcurrant jam from the preserves we’d made over the summer.

While I helped her roll the ever-shrinking floured dough on the kitchen table, she’d always tell the same story: how, when they used to make pirozhki in her university dorm, they’d throw in one filled with salt and pepper and another that had a ten-kopeck coin. “Guess who always got the salt and pepper,” she’d say, in the same half-joking, half-resigned way in which she’d watch the storm clouds gathering right after she hung our laundry, a well-known omen in southern Russia for women unlucky in love.

As she kneaded, I would cut the dough into circles with a glass, put a spoonful of filling in the middle, and pinch the edges, all the while suffering how her best days seemed behind her; occasionally, my mother’s past admirers would show up, with a bouquet and adoring eyes, but nothing ever came of it. Sometimes the pirozhki in her story would be replaced by pelmeni (boiled meat dumplings) or varenniki (cheese or potato dumplings), but the punchline was always the same: my luckless mother always got the salt-and-pepper one. Just once, she’d sometimes add, nobody got the kopeck—only when they were rinsing the pot did they notice the coin stuck to the bottom.

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One night, when the table was half-covered with our pirozhki, I slipped out of the kitchen and rummaged through the old Cadbury’s tin my mother used as a button box. Painted with well-dressed ladies and gentlemen in tall hats, the tin had once contained chocolates—one of the treasures that my grandfather, who had been a local Party official, had brought from abroad in happier times. Nowadays, my mother—always struggling to make ends meet—took in extra work as a seamstress. From the button tin, I picked out a beautiful cherry-red metal bead with a golden hoop. Smuggling it back into the kitchen, I stuffed the button into a potato pirozhok and pinched it with extra care.

My mother fried up the whole batch unsuspectingly, dishing out the pirozhok with the bead on a platter with the rest. Soon I lost sight of it, but I waited and watched. Halfway through our dinner, I heard a crunch. My mother stopped chewing and put her tea glass down.

“I think I broke a tooth,” she said, pulling the cherry bead out of her mouth. “What on earth…?”

“See,” I said, my heart racing. “You are lucky.”

The bead clinked into the platter, and I could see my mother’s tongue moving probingly against her cheek. “Not broken,” she finally announced. Then she smiled and patted me on the head. “Next time, use a kopeck, will you?”

As I grew older, we made pirozhki less frequently. They were time-consuming—and times were changing. New snacks were appearing on the counters of the Cooperative market kiosks: the chips, crackers, and cheese puffs imported from the no-longer-hostile West. Even in the café of the university where I went to study, pirozhki gave way to another Georgian delicacy, khachapuri, a pie like a baby calzone filled with buttery, salty cheese.

On winter break in Moscow between my sophomore and junior year, I tried my first Big Mac. To get my hands on one—so much more enticing, this American version of our humble pirozhok, in the big, colorful window displays—my friend and I stood in line for three hours in the blistering cold at the country’s first McDonald’s, in Pushkin Square. Even the smiles of the neatly dressed staff, trained in the American way, came as a shocking rebuke to the surliness of the servers we were accustomed to. The price tag was equally shocking. With my Lenin academic stipend rapidly eroding thanks to rampant inflation, the Big Mac swallowed up about a quarter of my grant. But it tasted so different, so tantalizingly foreign. Who would’ve thought you could have a pickle in your pirozhok?

Soon after that I left the country, and pirozhki became a thing of distant memory. Not until years later, in San Francisco, did I again encounter its sort, when I stumbled on a Georgian bakery on Geary Street, near the golden-domed Russian cathedral: not pirozhki but their Georgina cousins, my old favorites, chebureki.

These Geary chebureki looked so promising, with their prime American beef, perfect dough bubbles, and preparation by true Caucasian-born cooks, yet they failed to deliver the satisfaction of my first post-socialist “cheburs,” forever melded in my mind with those languorous beach walks, the “sun-in-your-palms” poses for the camera, and the unabashed hopefulness of those years. But when I brought them home for my American-born daughters, unencumbered by such sentimental associations, they devoured them as soon as they landed on the kitchen table.

My pirozhki fast continued for the longest time. Way beyond the Big Mac, America seemed the land of food opportunity: there were so many things to try, all ready-made, “just heat and serve,” just “set it and forget it.” But then my mother, who’d moved to the United States just after my citizenship came through, discovered that the Geary Russian stores sold, in square packets, frozen phyllo dough. The puffy sloikas that she made—pastries filled with mushroom, chicken, cherry, eggs, and scallions—thrilled her grandchildren and, to a lesser extent, my Russian émigré husband, who’d been spoiled himself by the grandmothers and aunts who raised him. But they left me cold.

Then, one weekend this fall, just before our elder daughter left for college, my mother showed up in her ancient white Volvo—with a platter of fried pirozhki. Each slightly bigger than my palm, they looked exactly like the ones she and I had made all those years ago. They smelled of sunflower oil and fried onions and were still warm. As the soft dough melted in my mouth, the dread of parting from my firstborn amid the unabating pandemic relented a little. “Everything will be all right,” my mother said, while I looked out of the kitchen window at the late-blooming roses in our backyard. “Just eat the pirozhki.”

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