Recipes steeped in memories
Rebecca Nab Young
The Scottsdale, Ariz., resident, who oversees food and beverage service for a five-diamond resort in her hometown, ‘‘accidentally’’ wrote a cookbook of traditional Volga German food while compiling recipes for a Christmas present for her mother. ‘‘It’s a common story where the grandmother’s getting older and she has all these recipes in her head that none of us have written down,’’ Young says. So, while her mother was briefly hospitalized, Young began collecting the family recipes and memories — bringing in flour and precisely measuring what her mother considered a ‘‘handful’’ for accuracy’s sake. A family member in the publishing industry took interest in her project and the result is the book, ‘‘There Is Always Room For One More: Volga German Stories and Recipes.’
Q. The book is part memoir, part cookbook. Many recipes have specific recollections and stories attached to them. Why did you make it so personal?
A. [After I finished collecting the recipes], I told my daughter that I had the recipes now and she was like, “Oh, wouldn’t it be interesting if you would put a little paragraph and tell something interesting from your childhood about each recipe?’’ So I walk the dog each morning and as I was walking I’d try to think of some story that might go with cabbage buns or grebbles. And then the stories became so important to me - they almost became more important than the recipes. And some are just a paragraph, but some went on for pages.
Q. The Volga German community, which is made up of Russian immigrants of German descent, is fairly small in the United States. What will readers from outside that community connect with in this book?
A. [People who have read the book] don’t talk about the recipes. They start talking about the stories. They say, “You know, it made me start thinking about my childhood and all the things I went through and grew up with.’’ I think people connect my stories with their own childhood. It’s making people think about things they haven’t thought of in decades. I had a Jamaican man at work come to me the other day and say, “You know, in Jamaica, family is everything and you just made me want to call my mother.’’ And I just feel so privileged that it’s making people want to connect again with their families.
Q. How would you describe Volga German food?
A. It’s German food and it’s heavy. It fills you up and it’s lots of calories, so you can’t be eating it all the time. But if you’re working on the farm you needed food like this. But I had this Russian girl interview me a while back and she said, “You don’t know how much of a Russian influence you have in your cooking.’’ And I really hadn’t. She told me that the cabbage buns we make all the time, which is like this self-contained, sealed sandwich of cabbage and hamburger in a sweet dough, she said, “That’s so much like pierogi in Russia.’’ So it’s German food with a Russian influence, and I had no idea that this was so until she told me. There’s a lot of cabbage and there’s a lot of desserts.
Q. What dessert would you recommend from the book?
A. It’s called Holiday Cake, but it’s really a spice cake. My mother called it fruit cake but I knew that that would never go over with anybody, so I renamed it. It’s really simple. The interesting thing about it is it has no eggs. It’s applesauce and shortening, and then you add flour and sugar. But it has allspice and cloves and cinnamon and nuts and raisins and dates. It’s more of just a real spice cake with a cinnamon overtone. Any first timer can make it. For years and years, I would never give that recipe to anybody because I used it for Christmas presents. But when the book came along, my daughter said, “You have to put that in the book because it’s so good.’’
Q. You never considered yourself a writer before this project. Has this experience encouraged you to keep writing?
A. Yes, I’m researching what the Volga Germans are noted for here in America and asking, have they made their mark? And the answer is yes. When they came from Russia, they brought with them a little hard, red winter wheat. That’s why the plains of North Dakota and South Dakota and Colorado are dry land wheat farms and they have this wheat that can survive the harsh winter. And [the Volga Germans] are the ones who brought it to America and gave us all this wonderful farmland, prairie land, and broke it open, just like they did in Russia. It’s kind of the same story. They went to Russia and tamed the steppes and made it the bread basket of Russia for 200 years. And when they couldn’t live there, they came to America and did the very same thing in the Dakotas. So I’m thinking that that will be my next book and it will delve more into our story and not just our food.
Interview was condensed and edited. Glenn Yoder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.