Friday, January 13, 2012

A Book Review and Some Down Home Russian Cooking with Anna: Heart of a Peasant, by Carol Marie Davis

As proud as I get when my children do something wonderful , I am as enwreathed in smiles when my creative mom finishes a project. Mom's latest endeavor (and second published book!) is the fictionalized biography of her maternal grandmother, Anna Anisovich Olchick, born in the small village of Pristupovschina, Byelorussa in 1886. Anna emigrated to the United States in 1914, after being banished from her family's home in the wake of a horrible accident, and her courage in leaving all that she knew and loved for an uncertain future in a new land is chronicled lovingly in this book. (Anna Heart of a Peasant, by Carol Marie Davis, Sarasota, FL: Peppertree Press, 2011, 108 pages, $12.95).

I grew up hearing stories about my great-grandmother Anna (usually called Anita), from her daughter, my grandmother Sophia, and though I'm sure she told me things that were nice about her well-loved mother, I see to have imprinted on the harsh side of Anita. Grandma told me about how her mother used to punish her by making her kneel for hours on dried corn kernels (how medieval!) and how she used to take care of the ever-burgeoning kitten population around the house by drowning the poor babies in a bucket of water in the backyard. Then there was the embarrassment of having a mother who didn't speak English, who would traipse to the butcher store with my teenaged grandmother in tow, making her speak directly to the butcher and order the weirdest things, like pig's tails and ears. She always seemed like a strange and mean ancestor.

However, Anna had endured quite a bit of tragedy, and other stories of her zest for life unfold in the pages of this biography, so carefully researched by my mom over the course of several years. Mom unearthed fragments about Anna's life in Byelorussia, her long voyage to America, life with her husband and children in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, and her talent for gardening, home remedies and cooking. I've filled in many more details about my great-grandmother and after reading my mom's book, I've come to love her, corn kernels and feline atrocities aside.

One thing that has made me feel closer to Anna is her love of gardening and cooking. She always had turnips, grapes, herbs, carrots and garlic in her garden and was adept at preserving the harvest by drying, canning, salting or fermenting them into sauerkraut or homemade wine. I love that my mom included eight of Anna's recipes (updated with measurements and enlivened with some delightful illustrations) at the end of the book, so that readers can try out some traditional Russian peasant fare.

Some blogger friends of mine are going to join me in reviewing Anna: Heart of a Peasant and we are all planning to try out some of Anna's or other Russian recipes. Look for reviews of this book by Deb of Kahakai Kitchen, Heather of Girlichef, Claudia of Honey from Rock, Alicia from Foodycat and Simona of Briciole in the coming weeks, which I will roundup back here at The Crispy Cook next month.

I made up a big pot of Cabbage Soup the other day based on Anna's recipe. I tweaked it a bit to include what I had in the pantry, so this is an adaptation of this hearty vegetarian soup. My comments are in the parentheses).

Anna's Cabbage Soup

2-3 pounds of cabbage sliced into ½-inch strips (about 1 med head)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 tablespoons minced garlic
1 cup of chopped carrots (only had 1 large carrot)
1 large onion, chopped

1 28-ounce can pureed tomatoes
1 small can of tomato paste
½ cup of brown sugar (left it out)
¼ cup of lemon juice (left it out)
1 bay leaf
pinch of black pepper
 (I added 1 tsp. dill seeds)

Heat oil and sauté garlic in a large soup pot over medium fire until garlic is soft, about 2 minutes. Add onion and sauté until soft as well. Add 3 cups of water, carrots, tomatoes, tomato paste, brown sugar, bay leaf and simmer for 10 minutes until carrots are tender, about 10 minutes. Take out the bay leaf and discard.

Mash the above mixture in a bowl until it is a coarsely blended. Return the sauce mixture to the pot, add lemon juice, cabbage strips, and 3 cups of water. Simmer until cabbage is cooked about 2 hours. (I like my cabbage crunchier, so I only cooked it for 45 minutes) Add more water to desired consistency. Add pepper (and dill seeds) and serve with a topping of sour cream. (And some brown bread!)

Makes 8-10 hearty servings. 

If I have piqued your interest in this wonderful book, you can borrow a copy from your local library or buy a copy on Amazon or from my mother directly if you would like a signed copy (I'll send you the details if you leave a comment below). It truly is a wonderfully written account of an interesting life and one which I am very grateful has been elaborated for others to learn from and enjoy.

Thanks Mom, from the bottom of my own peasant heart.


Alicia Foodycat said...

I still don't believe that the woman in the cover photo is your mother! Great to get the insight from your memory of the family stories (poor kittens).

Eliotseats said...

You should be proud! What a great achievement for your mom. I hope you share some more recipes with us and I will look for reviews and recipes from for Deb, Claudia, Heather, et al. (It is funny what perceptions we have of our ancestors.)

Simona Carini said...

I made that soup for dinner and I loved it! I think that telling the story of her life is a great way of honoring Anna. She went through a lot. I guess I should keep other thoughts for my upcoming post, shouldn't I? I love the photo with the Russian dolls.

Claudia said...

I liked that you added another side of the portrait, we are all a mixture of traits and it makes her even more believable, especially considering what she went through. I'm enjoying my reading of your mom's book.

Deb in Hawaii said...

I love that a few of us took our inspiration from the cabbage soup with different variations. ;-) So great that you have this book for your family. Thanks for letting me be a part of reviewing it--your mom is very talented. Hope you get a chance to check out my review post.