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Making Stuffed Cabbage During Times of War

Mar 7, 2022


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I am making golubtsy. The recipe calls for making a mixture of meat, grated carrots, eggs, marinara sauce, and rice, rolling them up into individually-wrapped, boiled cabbage leaves, and then cooking these rolls in a dutch oven for an hour and a half.  Even under normal circumstances, this would be an exercise in masochism. And these are not normal circumstances. 

It is Thursday—a week since Ukraine was invaded. Neither I nor any of my other Russian friends thought it would actually happen. We all figured Putin was using the threat of invasion as a bargaining tool in negotiations with NATO; we all laughed at the prospect of him actually going in, let alone to Kiev. We were all wrong, and we’re still trying to figure out why this is all happening. 

The idea that it’s because he’s “obsessed” with Ukraine and wants to “re-establish” the Soviet Union still seems ludicrous to me. I was in Transnistria, a breakaway republic of Moldova, a few years ago. They were all dying to be part of Russia again, because their lives were better under the rule of a more powerful state. Putin, apparently, had no interest. So, why? 

The night before, a friend of mine tried to convince me that the Russian troops were there because the Ukrainians had spent the last few decades developing some Godzilla-like creature at the Chernobyl site, and it would be all be over in a few days, once ‘ole Bessie was on Russian soil. It used to be the case that conspiracy theorists sounded completely insane and you could shrug off their theories with a polite smile and nod, but now, who knows? Anything seems possible. It’s very clear there’s so much we don’t know, so much happening behind closed doors. 

The cabbage has been boiled, so the leaves have softened. Using tongs, I carefully pull apart the leaves, placing them on a platter to cool. The larger leaves are meant to turn a dull green while the smaller ones should be yellowish when done. 

I am using a recipe by Natasha Kravchuk, who runs the blog Natasha’s Kitchen. She came to the US from Ukraine at the age of 4, just as I came to the US from Russia at the age of 5. I’m making this partially as a silent display of solidarity, although I’m struck by the fact that she describes it as both “Russian and Ukrainian food,” because, well, it is. 

A cursory Google search leads me to believe that this dish came to Russia in the early 18th century from France, where they used pigeon as the meat. Hence the name. “Golub” means pigeon in Russian and in Ukrainian it’s “goluba.” In Russian it’s called golubtsy, whereas in Ukrainian it’s pronounced holubtsy, but it’s the same dish and it’s a staple at any Ukrainian or Russian restaurant. 

Usually, I would post my cooking process and the product to Instagram stories, but today I’m not so sure. Calling it a Ukrainian dish might offend some Russians. Calling it a Russian one might offend some Ukrainians. Saying it’s a Russia/Ukrainian dish seems rife with political innuendo. Who knew that making stuffed cabbage rolls could ever get so complicated. 

I can’t help but think about the fact that, up until the Crimean crisis in 2014, I had never met a Ukrainian that identified strongly as Ukrainian. You’d tell someone you were Russian and they’d enthusiastically say, “No way, me too!” And when you asked where they were from, they’d say, “Odessa” or somesuch. As someone who identifies very strongly as both Russian and American, I would never begrudge anyone the right to whatever national identity they choose. Still, I can’t help but feel slightly whimsical for slightly simpler times. 

The news is playing in the background, the same footage of people huddled in metro stations and crying in front of bombed buildings. I feel bad for them, of course, because I know what it’s like to feel helpless and afraid for your life. I’m particularly moved by images that I see on Facebook of people trying to flee with their pets—a shirtless man cradling a puppy as he runs with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, another man stepping over rope while gingerly balancing a cat crate and a tank of fish. I would never, ever, go anywhere without my dog. 

The rice is ready, so it’s time to make the mixture, combined with ground beef and turkey, four grated/sauteed carrots, one cup of marinara, and a dash of salt. 

I think about what’s going on in Russia. The sanctions have hit them very hard. The ruble has fallen to a historic low, and airspace bans have left them virtually trapped. People are trying to flee while they still can amid rumors that the borders might be closed and Putin might impose martial law. You’re allegedly no longer allowed to call people in Ukraine, although I don’t know how that applies to Zoom. And a new law states that voicing support for Ukraine, in any way, even just on social media, can be punished by up to 15 years in prison. 

I spoke to one of my cousins the other day, and she said, “Every night, I go to bed, thinking, ‘Maybe tomorrow will be better,’ and, every day, I think, ‘No, today is even worse.’” I contemplate the fact that, as a Russian-American journalist, I can no longer write anything nuanced about the subject without simultaneously drawing the ire of Twitter and placing myself at risk when I next visit Russia. This thought process does not lend itself well to steady carrot-grating. 

I plow on nonetheless, combining the mixture and then taking two tablespoons each and rolling them up into the cabbage leaves like little burritos. I place them into the dutch oven, where they look like aborted fetuses. I make the sauce with the remaining grated carrots, a tablespoon of Ms. Dash, a tablespoon of sour cream, and a cup of marinara. I pour the sauce to fully cover the rolls, then stick them into the actual oven to cook. 

Now I’ve got an hour and a half to think, which is never a good thing. I wonder if I’m going to have to deal with Russophobia again, the way I did in 2014. Already, a restaurant in Washington DC has been vandalized, and a friend recently sent me a photo of a local pub in Ireland with neon lights that say, “Don’t Be Russian.” Half of the tweets and posts I see are egging on the Ukrainians to “beat” Russian troops, as if this were a video game. These are real people and real life. 

I feel incredibly sorry for all of the Ukrainians losing their homes, but I can’t help but wonder whether or not the Russian troops even want to be there. Ukraine and Russia are, both historically and culturally, linked. This isn’t some far-off war in some distant country, where you can pretend someone is the enemy because their skin color is a little darker than yours. Most Russians have friends or relatives in Ukraine. None of the ones I know understand why any of this is happening, and they’re certainly not happy about it. Everyone is scared shitless. 

God, that Godzilla theory is starting to sound pretty good. 

The golubtsy are done. I lovingly ladle them onto a plate, then smother them in sour cream and marinara sauce. There may be war but, at least, for now, there’s food. 


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