The holiday season is just about over. I’ve ingested my weight in cookies and confections, yet when someone urges another delicacy upon me, it’s impossible to say no. It’s cultural habit to urge calories upon friends and family in December, and indulging in culinary decadence has reminded me of another time and place in my life when eating too much was more or less an expectation, one I had to help my American students understand, too. We were together in Russia, ten years ago…
I told them to just say “No.”
Politely, but “No.”
It didn’t do any good.
Their Russian mothers continued to heap food upon my students’ plates and ask again and again, “Wouldn’t you like more?”
“Aren’t you hungry?”
“Don’t you want something to eat?”
“Kushai! Kushai!” they implored. In English, “Eat! Eat!”
In preparing my American students for their three-week stay in Russian homes, I had explained that the Russian mothers would associate food with well-being and the serving of it with hospitality—indeed, their own mothers had done the same when the Russian teenagers had visited us in Indiana. Still, saying “No” and stonewalling the urgent pleas of the Russian mothers was easier to imagine than do. My students struggled, and so did I, with hospitality that seemed to have no end.
In Russian homes, mothers serve the food at the table—even ladling it onto the fathers’ plates. We couldn’t help ourselves to small portions and thus strategically leave room for more. In fact, the mothers more often than not served the Americans giant portions to begin with and gave their own children the smaller portion sizes that are the rule in Russia. Perhaps they had heard that Americans’ plates are generally heaped, but probably not. The over-sized helpings were more an expression of generosity than cultural accommodation.
We tried saying “No, thank you” in Russian: Nyet, spasebo. That didn’t work. We tried “I’m full.” Ya sita. It produced the opposite effect:
“Wouldn’t you like some more meat?”
We learned Russian slang for “I’m full.” Ya ne slon. “I’m not an elephant.” That didn’t work either.
In fact, mealtime became a kind of battle of wills. The mothers, worrying and kind, urged more and more food upon the students, tempting them with packaged wafer cakes, elegant confections from the city bakery, peach juice and pineapple juice, and the incredibly smooth chocolate that is so hard to resist. The students begged, pleaded, shook their heads, held their stomachs in mock pain, and tried every Russian phrase they knew to say, politely, “Enough.”
It was the same for me, and I got nowhere, too. The teachers told me that the mothers were concerned. The kids weren’t eating. It wasn’t that they didn’t eat specific foods. No, the meat and potatoes were familiar and the desserts were delicious. The Russian “salads”—mixes of diced vegetables, fruits, nuts, meats or seafoods, all held together with mayonnaise—were tasty. The trouble, the mothers said, was that the students weren’t eating enough.
I used such moments as opportunities to instruct my own hosts in American eating habits. “We usually mean it when we say no,” I explained. “The kids will eat when they’re hungry. Don’t worry about them. Don’t worry about me.”
But they all did continue to worry. It became a kind of a joke, eventually, although sometimes it produced irritation. I began to dread meals. My waistline was thickening and I was usually still full from the previous repast—and yet, out of politeness I couldn’t completely resist, and out of gluttony I couldn’t pass up the desserts at all.
“Irina,” I said to my good friend, the teacher I stayed with the first time I brought a group of students to Russia, “you’ve been to my home in America. You know I don’t eat such big dinners. I don’t usually eat seconds.”
“In fact,” I said, “How did you get enough to eat at my house? I didn’t keep asking you if you wanted more.”
“I knew you’d ask only once,” she said knowingly. “I knew to take seconds the first time they were offered.”
I just shook my head.
Two summers later, Irina, her daughter Anna, and her daughter’s friend, Olga, met me at “Lavitsa,” a restaurant that specializes in the delicate pastel cakes and mouth-watering chocolate tortes created at the city bakery. Displayed in splendor in a glass case at the entrance, the cakes tantalize customers who enter intending just a cup of tea. I’d “saved up” for this occasion and was in a dither choosing.
“I remember you like the one called cappuccino,” Irina said.
“Yes, that’s right, I do. Let’s order that. And how about Anna and Olga?”
“Oh, nothing for us,” they replied.
I arched an eyebrow. Skinny teenage girls. They should eat something, I thought.
When the waitress brought our cakes with the requisite teaspoons for eating dessert, my slice was as big as the Ritz. By comparison, Irina’s was small. And Anna and Olga had nothing.
I took the situation in hand.
Dve lozhki, I said to the waitress. She brought me two more spoons. I gave them to Anna and Olga and pushed my plate in their direction.
“No, no,” they said in chorus. “No, thank you.”
And then I heard myself say it.
My tone was urgent.
I jiggled the plate again and nudged it another inch across the table. “Kushai! Kushai!” I repeated.
Irina looked at me and shook her head. I had become a Russian mother.