Celebrating Thanksgiving as Russians in America was interesting: We didn’t quite understand why we were celebrating a holiday founded on the death and relocation of millions of Indigenous Americans. But with great spirit, each year, my immigrant mother made a kapustniy pirog, aka cabbage pie.
Confused with Thanksgiving as a concept, she still demands a gift each year, because [insert heavy Russian accent]: “You thank and you give.” It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve told her that’s not how it works, she firmly believes that every family gathering is worth an exchange of curated goods.
Lost at a table filled with yams covered in marshmallows and a large, dry bird, I always reached for a slice of the pie. Fluffy bread with rich braised cabbage and copious amounts of dill and sunflower oil smell and taste, for me, like comfort.
And yet, the person behind the festive centerpiece didn’t always bring me comfort: My mother and I have a tumultuous relationship.
Irina named me after herself (as one may run out of names on their third child), and duly passed on the hardship of her life onto my own. As a single working mother of three, she had a lot on her plate: A daughter of WWII veterans, she carried decades of generational trauma that led to deteriorating mental health, alcoholism, and multiple divorces. I’ll admit, for instance, that growing up she wasn’t very warm towards my siblings and me.
Anything would set off a rage episode: coming home late from school, a misplaced utensil, the wrong tone. In Russian there’s a saying, “Being hit means they love you” (misinterpreting toxic behaviors as normal), and I followed suit in believing all of it was, in fact, normal. Nevertheless, dinners of cast iron-fried potatoes and beef franks were served. We were still a family, status quo.
Eventually, in my junior year of college, I decided to distance myself from my mother and cut off communication and move out. It was, from my vantage point, the only way to be safe and protect myself. I moved out and have never looked back.
The winds have softened over the years. Only seeing my mother at occasional family gatherings now, my older sibling notified me this year that she would be joining us for Thanksgiving.
I clutched the phone and held my breath.
* * *
Arriving at the house, among the screams and joy of my young nieces, my body halted and the world stopped as soon as I saw my mother approaching me for an awkward hug.
“No, I’m not growing out my hair,” I told her. “No, I won’t be dating men anymore. No, I’m not having kids. No, I did not gain weight.”
Arms crossed, gaze to the floor, my mother pursed her lips. To ease the tension, I asked her if she needed help in the kitchen (cooking is the only common language we speak). She sighed heavily, then asked me to start a yeasted dough. (That’s it. Those were the directions.)
Eggs? Milk? How much flour?
I was left to my intuition; she knew I’d seen her make it enough times to remember the feeling of the sticky, pillow-y substance. Thankfully Russian cooking is forgiving. It is not a precise science—there’s a general framework of passed-down knowledge that you can put your own twist on.
I soaked the yeast in warm milk, took a small cup to measure equal parts flour. I enriched the dough with eggs and sunflower oil, fluffy to touch and easy to work with. I kept myself focused, averting mother’s eye.
She gently helped me knead the dough, showing how the wrist moves. “Once it’s risen enough,” she tells me, “it should squeak when we beat it down.”
* * *
The kitchen is filled with the warm scent of caramelized onions and braised cabbage. When I look up at her, I see that she's crying. I am holding tears back myself. As much as I've done my part to distance myself and stay strong, I've missed my mother and her holding me after a rough day. We cough it off, straighten our shoulders, and stay on task: the Soviet way.
I hope someday my mother and I can be as forgiving as our culture’s cuisine. Straying is what leads to new discoveries and beloved recipes. In a place we now call home, we can carry on a part of our heritage but evolve to see the world in a new way. Love is malleable—it will rise again once beaten down.
As we build layers of the pie, my mother’s eyes shine and beam with pride: “This will be the best pirog yet.”
A new foundation is put down for discovery, and the pie of our past will now feed our future again. We can seal the pirog with the top layer of dough and send it off into the oven, finally.
Sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner this year, I recognize that my mother and I are giving it a new meaning, celebrating our hardship instead of drowning it in a swamp of old memories. We still have our differences, sure. But unity is a complex and ever evolving organism that needs attention and commitment.
We break the pie with relief. It is as airy, moist, and savory as it’s ever been. I smile at my mother as she feeds my baby nieces small bites of our table’s centerpiece. I thank and I give, and I take a warm new memory with me back to Brooklyn.
It may not heal all wounds, but I look forward to baking the pie again with my mother next year.
Prep time: 3 hours 30 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour 10 minutes
Serves: 6 to 8
300 milliliters whole milk
1 tablespoon honey
8 grams yeast
400 grams all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
3 tablespoons unrefined sunflower oil, divided
2 large eggs, divided (one for dough, one for egg wash)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Filling & assembly
Unrefined sunflower oil
3 yellow onions, thinly sliced
2 large carrots, grated
2 to 3 pounds medium-sized cabbage, julienned
1 bunch fresh dill, chopped
1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Warm the milk and use half (150 ml) to dissolve honey and yeast in a bowl, cover and leave for 15 minutes until strong foam cap appears.
2. Sift the flour into a large bowl and make a well. Add 2 tablespoons of the sunflower oil, 1 beaten egg, the honey-yeast mixture, and the rest of the milk into the well and stir together into a dough—it should be soft and sticky; only add more flour if the consistency is soupy.
3. Knead dough or use standing mixer with dough hook for 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer into a bowl lightly greased with the remaining tablespoon of sunflower oil, cover, and let proof in a warm place for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
4. Beat down dough and proof again for another hour.
Filling & assembly
1. Make the filling: In a large pan, sauté the onions in some sunflower oil, about 20 minutes, or until caramelized.
2. Meanwhile, in a separate pan, cook down cabbage and carrots until soft, 20 to 30 minutes, then add salt, pepper, and herbs. Combine with onions.
3. Assemble the pie: Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a large, round, deep-dish baking pan with sunflower oil (springform is great for this).
4. Divide dough into a 1/3 piece and a larger 2/3 piece. Take the larger piece of dough and roll it out to fit the form of the dish on the bottom and sides. Add filling. Roll out the smaller piece and lay it on top, cutting off excess dough and reserving to decorate the top with designs ~~~ such as leaves and such. Crimp the edges to seal the two pieces of dough together.
5. Brush top with egg wash (the remaining egg, beaten) and bake for 30 to 40 mins until golden-brown.