My Family Recipe

My Mother & I Don’t Talk. But on Thanksgiving, We Make Russian Pie Together.

A family recipe, for when words are not enough.

November 16, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Amanda Widis.

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones.

Celebrating Thanksgiving as Russians in America was interesting: We didn’t quite understand why we were celebrating a holiday founded on the death and relocation of millions of Indigenous Americans. But with great spirit, each year, my immigrant mother made a kapustniy pirog, aka cabbage pie.

Confused with Thanksgiving as a concept, she still demands a gift each year, because [insert heavy Russian accent]: “You thank and you give.” It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve told her that’s not how it works, she firmly believes that every family gathering is worth an exchange of curated goods.

Lost at a table filled with yams covered in marshmallows and a large, dry bird, I always reached for a slice of the pie. Fluffy bread with rich braised cabbage and copious amounts of dill and sunflower oil smell and taste, for me, like comfort.

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“This was really moving Irina. There is nothing so complicated as the relationships within a family. Thank you for sharing. ”
— Annabelle

And yet, the person behind the festive centerpiece didn’t always bring me comfort: My mother and I have a tumultuous relationship.

Irina named me after herself (as one may run out of names on their third child), and duly passed on the hardship of her life onto my own. As a single working mother of three, she had a lot on her plate: A daughter of WWII veterans, she carried decades of generational trauma that led to deteriorating mental health, alcoholism, and multiple divorces. I’ll admit, for instance, that growing up she wasn’t very warm towards my siblings and me.

Anything would set off a rage episode: coming home late from school, a misplaced utensil, the wrong tone. In Russian there’s a saying, “Being hit means they love you” (misinterpreting toxic behaviors as normal), and I followed suit in believing all of it was, in fact, normal. Nevertheless, dinners of cast iron-fried potatoes and beef franks were served. We were still a family, status quo.

Eventually, in my junior year of college, I decided to distance myself from my mother and cut off communication and move out. It was, from my vantage point, the only way to be safe and protect myself. I moved out and have never looked back.

The winds have softened over the years. Only seeing my mother at occasional family gatherings now, my older sibling notified me this year that she would be joining us for Thanksgiving.

I clutched the phone and held my breath.

Arriving at the house, among the screams and joy of my young nieces, my body halted and the world stopped as soon as I saw my mother approaching me for an awkward hug.

“No, I’m not growing out my hair,” I told her. “No, I won’t be dating men anymore. No, I’m not having kids. No, I did not gain weight.”

Arms crossed, gaze to the floor, my mother pursed her lips. To ease the tension, I asked her if she needed help in the kitchen (cooking is the only common language we speak). She sighed heavily, then asked me to start a yeasted dough. (That’s it. Those were the directions.)

Eggs? Milk? How much flour?

I was left to my intuition; she knew I’d seen her make it enough times to remember the feeling of the sticky, pillow-y substance. Thankfully Russian cooking is forgiving. It is not a precise science—there’s a general framework of passed-down knowledge that you can put your own twist on.

I soaked the yeast in warm milk, took a small cup to measure equal parts flour. I enriched the dough with eggs and sunflower oil, fluffy to touch and easy to work with. I kept myself focused, averting mother’s eye.

She gently helped me knead the dough, showing how the wrist moves. “Once it’s risen enough,” she tells me, “it should squeak when we beat it down.”

The kitchen is filled with the warm scent of caramelized onions and braised cabbage. When I look up at her, I see that she's crying. I am holding tears back myself. As much as I've done my part to distance myself and stay strong, I've missed my mother and her holding me after a rough day. We cough it off, straighten our shoulders, and stay on task: the Soviet way.

I hope someday my mother and I can be as forgiving as our culture’s cuisine. Straying is what leads to new discoveries and beloved recipes. In a place we now call home, we can carry on a part of our heritage but evolve to see the world in a new way. Love is malleable—it will rise again once beaten down.

As we build layers of the pie, my mother’s eyes shine and beam with pride: “This will be the best pirog yet.”

A new foundation is put down for discovery, and the pie of our past will now feed our future again. We can seal the pirog with the top layer of dough and send it off into the oven, finally.

Sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner this year, I recognize that my mother and I are giving it a new meaning, celebrating our hardship instead of drowning it in a swamp of old memories. We still have our differences, sure. But unity is a complex and ever evolving organism that needs attention and commitment.

We break the pie with relief. It is as airy, moist, and savory as it’s ever been. I smile at my mother as she feeds my baby nieces small bites of our table’s centerpiece. I thank and I give, and I take a warm new memory with me back to Brooklyn.

It may not heal all wounds, but I look forward to baking the pie again with my mother next year.

Got a family recipe you'd like to share? Email [email protected] for a chance to be featured.
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Food & Culture Writer, Recipe Developer


Jeanie B. November 28, 2019
This is a great story; thanks for sharing! I think many of us can relate to the tumultuous relationship between mother and daughter. I had the exact same kind of mother (Strong, cold, always critical) but mine was Japanese. She is now 85 and with each passing year I have learned to be more tolerant (although she still tests me) and she has learned not to be as critical. We both love cooking and baking and it has given us a common bond in which to connect and communicate. This year for Xmas I bought a blank recipe book for my daughter and am writing down all the old and new favorite dishes to share with her and perhaps give us another connection as she is introduced into the love of cooking.
M November 25, 2019
Great piece and important reminder that food isn't always a signifier of some idyllic bond, but can be a fleeting, yet important, moment of bonding in an otherwise troublesome storm.
Irina G. November 25, 2019
Coming together to a table is sometimes harder than people expect!
Kata November 20, 2019
I too had a tough relationship with my mother. I could never write about it because the pain is still too much but I so appreciate reading your story. Thank you for sharing it.
Irina G. November 25, 2019
Many tears were shed while writing this. I still choke. I feel for you, and happy we can connect over hardship.
mary B. November 18, 2019
Irina, I used to make a version of this pie for the parish meal when I attended Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco during the last half of the '80s. That aroma will be with me into eternity! As for mom, I hear you. My mother and I had a similar relationship, but she had the disability of being bipolar, which I did not fully understand at the time.
Irina G. November 25, 2019
Mary, thank you for sharing that with us.
MarieGlobetrotter November 17, 2019
This is both sad and heartwarming. Food has the power to bring people together, from family members to communities. Thank you for sharing.
Irina G. November 25, 2019
I agree, it is bittersweet.
Lynda M. November 17, 2019
I'm glad you and your mom found a way back to each other. Mine discarded me, last year, right before Thanksgiving. My sister throws dinner at her home and sadly, me and my son are not invited to appease my mother.
My first thought was, you have fabulous siblings.
Oliver November 17, 2019
Lynda, l'm sorry for your loss. I get it, our youngest chose her partners over her family & our hearts are broken. It feels like she joined a cult. We pray one day our daughter will come back to us. Stay strong, happy holidays.
Irina G. November 17, 2019
Lynda, I’m sorry about your situation. There’s a lot of sacrifices and compromises met among the family to have these dinners. I hope you find peace and love soon, perhaps with chosen family instead.
Tess November 16, 2019
Your story touched my heart and I ached for you. I was reading my own history! My mother passed away over 15 years ago along with her many delicious Chinese dishes. Sadly, she never taught me how to cook. However, she forced me to watch her gut a fresh fish. Your mom gave you that beautiful cabbage pie to bake for your family and friends. That is a special memory of her. I wish you all the best!
Irina G. November 16, 2019
Thank you, Tess. I feel for you.
Annabelle November 16, 2019
This was really moving Irina. There is nothing so complicated as the relationships within a family. Thank you for sharing.
Irina G. November 16, 2019
Thank you, Annabelle!