Russian immigrants to the U.S. find ways to put their own stamp on this most traditional of festivals.Source: Alami/Legion Media
Walking down Brighton Beach Avenue on a Sunday afternoon in early November, the view can be quite dazzling at times.
The shiny wrappers of Russian candy, neatly displayed on the high shelves of the local stores, reflect the gold, orange and burgundy of the harvest-themed decorations. A sign on the front of Russian restaurant National invites passersby to make a reservation for Thanksgiving. In New York, the Russian-speaking world has fully embraced the ultimate American holiday.
These days it’s hard to find a Russian in New York who does not celebrate Thanksgiving. In particular, immigrants who arrived in the United States at the time of the Soviet Union have had some time to adjust to the holiday, gradually making it their own through a unique blend of Russian and American elements.
“I don’t know what the American way is like,” said Karina, 25, who moved to the United States from St. Petersburg with her family at 2. “Yes, we eat turkey, but we eat Russian salad with our turkey.”
To understand the “Russian way” to Thanksgiving, one has to look at the details. The food is, of course, central. Classic Russian staples, such as salads, herring and beets, usually are incorporated to enhance the traditionally turkey-centric menu.
Naturally, vodka is part of the picture and so it’s the custom of making toasts throughout the dinner. “Toasts are so important to Russian dinners because they are an opportunity to proclaim something and celebrate something,” Karina said. “Of course Thanksgiving is the perfect opportunity to raise the glass.”
At her family’s Thanksgiving gatherings there is always a toast to the country they live in. “Every Thanksgiving is an opportunity for my family to mention how grateful they are to be in America,” Karina said.
For Russians, Moldovans, Ukrainians and many others, the holiday is an opportunity to reflect on their journey from the Soviet Union. Yana Breban, 44, is the co-owner of Skovorodka, a Russian restaurant in Brighton Beach that was started by her parents, Boris and Julia. She was born in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, and came to New York when she was 8.
Her first experience with Thanksgiving was a meal organized by her school, “I was very surprised because I had never seen a turkey in its entirety before and I didn’t know what sweet potatoes were. They were foods that were new to me,” she said. “It was very eye-opening and different.”
Thanksgiving is much more of an American experience to the newest Russian-speaking New Yorkers — especially those with no ties to the Soviet-era immigrant community.
Hanna Fedziayeva, 30, moved to New York from Belarus 10 years ago, and currently works as a manager at the New York branch of Russian restaurant chain Mari Vanna. She has been hosting Thanksgiving dinners at her place for the past few years. Last year 27 people showed up. “Nothing on our table is Russian at Thanksgiving,” she says. However, she and her friends indulge in some Russianness when it comes to their celebratory style. “Russians definitely party more,” she said. “We need to sing and dance — this is the Russian way.”
Throughout the years, the tradition of Russian-American Thanksgiving has also grown into a business opportunity. This year Skovorodka plans to serve turkey with two types of stuffing and cranberry sauce, as well as pickled vegetables and fried potatoes with mushrooms.
Tatiana, another Brighton Beach–based establishment, will treat its guests to flavors belonging both to the American and Russian tradition. The menu includes beef tongue, mushroom, fish dishes and pickles.
In Manhattan, Mari Vanna will be serving Thanksgiving specials inspired by autumnal flavors, including a pumpkin-based triptych of latkes, soup and crème brûlée and a turkey.
At Russian Tea Room, Israeli executive chef of Russian descent Marc Taxiera proposes a menu that promises “something for everyone,” from pelmeni [Russian dumplings] soup and chicken Kiev to turkey and stuffing. “We have been doing Thanksgiving since we opened,” Taxiera said, “and it has been growing in popularity every year.”
During the holiday, customers are primarily Russian speakers, even though the occasional tourist or New Yorker might brave the unknown for a Russian Thanksgiving. But what makes Russians speakers in New York so keen on adding the holiday to their calendar? The key seems to be the opportunity to spend time with the people they love. “Family is big for us, and holidays are big for us,”said Alyona Levin, management administrator at Tatiana.
Originally from Ukraine, she has been in the United States since 2001. Levin spent her first Thanksgiving with some friends. “The house was full of people — not just family, close friends,” she remembered. “Everybody got together to thank each other for being in each other’s lives.”
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