This week in Chef Chat, we take a bit of a detour to explore the culinary and cultural traditions of Volga Germans with Rebecca Nab Young, the Phoenix-based author of a new cookbook, There is Always Room for One More: Volga German Stories and Recipes.
The Volga Germans were German settlers who were invited to live and farm in the Volga River Valley in central Russia in the eighteenth century by Catherine the Great. For two hundred years their community grew and developed to 160 villages and 1.5 million people. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Volga Germans fled, immigrating largely to North and South America.
When they arrived to the New World, they were unlike any other immigrant group. The Volga Germans looked like Russians but spoke an archaic German dialect that had not change for centuries. Eventually they settled largely along the Platte River in the Great Plains as this region resembled the Russian steppe very much. Rebecca Nab Young grew up in a tiny Volga German town in Torrington, Wyoming and decided to write a book about her people's culinary traditions.
Read our interview after the jump.
What made you decide to write a cookbook?
My daughter kept bugging me and bugging me about my mother getting quite old and she has no cookbooks, it's all in her head. This is a very familiar story, I hear it all the time. Well fortunately for me my mother had to have surgery and I had to go take care of her and I was with her for two weeks. We're sitting in the living room every afternoon with her knee up and iced and I said, "Mother, I have this notebook and we're going to write down these recipes."
Was she excited about the endeavor?
She was kind of reluctant..."It's a pinch of this and a handful of that." So I would actually make her take a handful of flower and I measured it and everything, and I got all her recipes out of her. And once she got started she thought it was very exciting and very fun.
Was it your intention to publish a book for people to get to know your heritage better?
The whole idea was: I was going to make her a Christmas present and I was going to type up all these little recipe and go to Kinko's and ask them to put it together for me. Then my daughter said "Oh, you should put a little story with each one, make it interesting for grandma and then she could remember how these recipes came about."
Far from done
I wrote this little dedication, I sent the dedication to my daughter over the Internet....She read it and unbeknownst to me she emailed it to her husband who works for McGraw-Hill, the big publishing company, and he read it and he got excited about it and he was like "This is great, this would be a great book!"
An editor, independent publisher, and two years later the book was finally finished and available to order online. Copies have gone out to all the friends relatives, they must be pretty happy...
My oldest brother, he's ten years older than me, is crazy for the book. He liked it so much, and the stories, and a lot of the stories are about him because he was a pretty interesting character and Mother never though that he was going to get grown up because he was such a wild child....He was funny and got in a lot of trouble.
It's all about the story
It was all about the recipes when I started, and all about the food, and I'd be out walking the dog every morning and thinking about what story I could put with this recipe, and things just kept coming to my mind and I'd come back and get on the computer and write the story. And pretty soon it just kept bringing up more and more memories or my childhood and how good it really was even though we were so terribly poor, and so the stories became more important than the food.
I just felt like I wanted to tell [the Volga German] story too, because I find them a fascinating people because when they got here and we were being born and growing up they wouldn't talk about Russia and they wouldn't talk about their life there. And first off it had become so horrible, they didn't want to speak about it. But also, they were so homesick, they were so homesick they would be sick to their heart. They called it heimweh, hey were so sick they couldn't even talk about it for missing Russia and missing their way of life and missing their family that was left behind. So I didn't know anything really until around 1993 when Communism fell in Russia and you could start talking to Russian people and you could start traveling there again.
Do you want to travel back to Russia?
I do! If my Grandmother Nab could have gone back, she would have gone back in a minute and stayed. I think my older brother and I both want to go back, we know the names of the villages and we know where they came from....Nobody else seems to be very interested in it. I don't understand why, to me it's the most fascinating story.
Are all of these recipes just from your family?
I had a rule of thumb, I had to have used the recipe, they had to be in my everyday life to go in the book. And so most of these recipes are thirty years old or older.
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[In our community] they had Ladies' Circles, my mother belonged to the Ladies' Circle at her church and one of their fundraisers was, they'd put all of their recipes together and send it back to some place in Nebraska, Lincoln or Omaha, and have it put together, and they would sell them.
Did any of the recipes from these books make it into yours?
Oh yes, because I grew up with these recipes and some of them are so terribly familiar.
Check back tomorrow for more of our chat with Rebecca Nab Young about the food and lifestyle of the Volga German community.