My Family Recipe

Brighton Beach Sells This Salad by the Pound, but Mom Still Makes It From Scratch

In this week's My Family Recipe, one writer reflects on the post-Soviet immigrant experience and the loss of traditional home cooking.

February 15, 2020
Photo by ROCKY LUTEN. FOOD STYLIST: SAMANTHA SENEVIRATNE. PROP STYLIST: BROOKE DEONARINE.

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, writers share the stories of dishes that are meaningful to them and their loved ones.


We’d gotten off the plane at JFK just a few hours prior. After a short drive in my uncle’s Honda Civic, we arrived in South Brooklyn. The street was lined with brown-brick buildings, and my aunt pointed up at one of them.

"Welcome home!"

The uniform seven-story structure seemed clean but lived-in, with a mirrored lobby featuring a beige leather sofa (that I later came to learn no one ever sat on). Quite snazzy, really. A stark contrast to the dilapidated Khrushchev-era homes back in Ukraine.

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“My hosts were a Cajun man and a Russian woman, who invited me to share a huge amount of champagne and crawfish dip with them on Christmas Eve. Throughout the evening, the woman was cutting up potatoes and carrots into tiny bits to make this delicious salad. My son was working in a Chinese restaurant in New Orleans, so I had Christmas dinner at the bar. It was a memorable Christmas! ”
— abbyarnold
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I was 9 years old. My mom, dad, sister, and I were at the tail end of our two-day immigration journey. My dad’s brother, who had crossed the Atlantic a decade earlier, was generous enough to rent us an apartment ahead of our arrival.

We all crowded inside. It smelled of fresh paint, and a gold light beamed through the windows. It was a standard-issue South Brooklyn one bedroom—but by the looks on my parents’ faces, it was as if we had won the lottery.

I headed for the kitchen first, while my parents and sister explored the two other rooms. It was narrow, with a sink and counter on one side, fridge and stove on the other, and brand-new cabinets above. Again, a stark contrast to our Odessa kitchen, which was also the foyer, and also the shower.

The fridge was mostly empty, except for one shelf with a grouping of items I could tell were intended to make us feel at home. A bag marked “Russian Bread,” a plastic bag with sliced kalbasa peeking out the sides of wax paper, and a quart container with a barcode sticker, which appeared to be filled with ... is that Salat Oliviye?

I’d seen nice kitchens in American movies, at least. But store-bought Oliviye?

Salat Oliviye, the famed Russian potato salad, was reportedly invented by a highbrow Belgian chef in Moscow named Olivier, using luxurious ingredients like caviar and veal tongue. As the recipe trickled down to home cooks in the 1900s, the ingredient list became considerably more accessible: potatoes, carrots, canned peas, and pickles. With each passing decade, families have adapted the formula to fit their own tastes, and the salad has been established as a celebratory staple ever since.

It's appeared on every festive table I’ve ever experienced—every birthday, every New Year’s Eve, every Easter. Although the ingredients were easily accessible, Oliviye was reserved for special occasions, its appearance symbolizing good times ahead. By no means is it meant to be the most delicious thing ever, but the tedious peeling and fine-dicing of each vegetable, hard-boiled egg, and pickle must contribute somehow to its exemplary taste—and certainly the satisfaction the cook has while eating it.

As a child looking at this alien tub of Oliviye, I struggled to understand why anyone would choose to buy this, fully knowing that the native supermarkets were lined with Pringles, Snickers, and Pepsi. Turned out, Russian food in plastic containers was our new normal.

We soon learned South Brooklyn was teeming with Russian markets, all trading in the same greatest hits of Soviet cuisine. Breaded cutlets, chicken Kiev, kebabs, stuffed cabbage, blintzes, aspics, black and red caviar, a rainbow of pickled vegetables, and countless iterations of mayo-dressed salatiki (little salads)—with Oliviye leading the pack. It also became obvious that this was how most Russian-Americans subsisted themselves.

One of the biggest tragedies of the post-Soviet immigrant experience is the loss of our traditional home cooking. A loss for the eaters, anyway. For the cooks, quite the opposite. The idea of “prepared foods,” let alone delivery, did not exist in the old country: If you wanted to eat, you had to cook.

These stores liberated people from their stoves. All the flavors of home were right there on Brighton Beach, conveniently sold by the pound. And the way people shop on Brighton week after week, you’d think they were preparing for an apocalypse. Visions of empty store shelves and bread lines are hard to forget—it’s as if they’re making up for hungrier times.

Sure, many Russian immigrants still cook, but not these special celebration foods like Oliviye. Why go through the trouble if we can buy it ready-made? This is America.

One of the biggest tragedies of the post-Soviet immigrant experience is the loss of our traditional home cooking.

On Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay, you’re never further than a few blocks from any Soviet delicacy your heart may desire. Yet somehow, it’s never quite right. Sitting in those buffet trays, all those salads and blitzes and cutlets start to smell and taste like the same thing. They fill you up, but don’t satisfy.

For most of the 20 years I’ve lived in New York, I’ve avoided Brighton like the plague. The truth is, it makes me deeply sad. And it’s not the sub-par Oliviye that does me in.

I see the elderly immigrants, those who left everything behind in favor of starting over decades ago, going from Russian store to Russian store, straight clearing those shelves and hot buffets. What I see is an older generation trying to recapture a piece of their past lives through overconsumption of these now-abundant foods.

Every now and then my mom still makes her Oliviye. Except now she does it almost ironically, making sure to announce it with a little smirk, “I made Oliviye." Knowing very well she can buy it at the store down the block, choosing to make it from scratch makes it that much more special.

What store-bought dish does your family still love to make from scratch? Let us know in the comments.

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23 Comments

Olga O. February 26, 2020
I still make it for every NYE, and whenever I go to Seattle to visit my family, my mom makes a big batch of Oliviye (my dad makes borsch). It's so good for breakfast as leftovers!!
 
Elle C. February 26, 2020
I must be getting maudlin in my old age.. Have been on a bit of a kick for the Soviet-style comfort food--made fried potatoes (жаренная картошка) the way my mom used to make it literally for the first time since moving to the West. You know the kind--soft and somewhat greasy with a little bit of garlic, although my westernized palate did stop me from drowning the whole thing in sunflower oil, which would have been a more authentic approach.
 
Author Comment
Alexandra S. February 26, 2020
Oh, gosh, yes. We haven't made those potatoes in years! I think it's more the westernized fear of cholesterol that stops my mom from making these now ;) But that sunflower oil... the best.
 
abbyarnold February 21, 2020
A few years ago I spent Christmas in an Airbnb in New Orleans. My hosts were a Cajun man and a Russian woman, who invited me to share a huge amount of champagne and crawfish dip with them on Christmas Eve. Throughout the evening, the woman was cutting up potatoes and carrots into tiny bits to make this delicious salad. My son was working in a Chinese restaurant in New Orleans, so I had Christmas dinner at the bar. It was a memorable Christmas!
 
Author Comment
Alexandra S. February 22, 2020
Sounds like a great way to spend the holidays!
 
Dean M. February 21, 2020
No, Katrin, not frozen peas. Canned peas, as the recipe clearly states. A Russian Rotary exchange student who stayed with us for a year made oliviye as a special treat. She was furious when I bought her frozen peas. She wouldn’t fix it until I came back with the real thing—canned peas with that characteristic tinny tang.
 
Author Comment
Alexandra S. February 22, 2020
Exactly! :)
 
Olga O. February 26, 2020
I've been using defrosted peas for 17 years and love the color and texture. I also add Granny Smith apples to mine.
 
Katrin P. February 20, 2020
The point of the story is about feeding the soul hungry for the Russian version of Heimat, which no amount of ethnic foods in plastic tubs will ever fill. That kind of hunger is better satisfied with the company of like-experienced people with whom one can reminisce. And then the homemade salad is the „cherry on top.“ Well done!
 
Johanna A. February 19, 2020
Sweet peas, in UK is a flower from the Lathyrus. Do you mean what we call Garden peas or process peas?
 
Katrin P. February 20, 2020
The peas she is describing are tiny frozen peas that come in a bag in the US. So, not the bigger, mealier ones in a can. Hope that helps.
 
Elle C. February 21, 2020
I live in the UK and am familiar with the local assortment. What you want is canned garden peas. Canned petit pois will also work taste-wise but are less authentic as they are quite a bit smaller than what we used in the old country.
 
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Alexandra S. February 22, 2020
Canned "petit pois" is exactly what I'm referring to here. Not the frozen kind!
 
Rene A. February 18, 2020
In Argentina it's appropriately called Ensalada Rusa...
 
Nephilim February 18, 2020
What a well-told recollection. I really enjoyed reading the contrast between the old and new that you captured. Indeed, nothing compares to a homemade dish.
 
Author Comment
Alexandra S. February 22, 2020
Thank you for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed the story, Nephilim!
 
Maria D. February 17, 2020
The moment i saw the pic, i thought of the portuguese "russian salad". I am from Portugal and this is usually served with fried cod or as a picnic meal with a can of tuna, it never even crossed my mind that this wasn`t portuguese, even though it is called russian :)
 
BellaRasa February 17, 2020
Just like the Lithuanian salad my mom made, except she used sour cream instead of the mayonnaise.
 
Elle C. February 17, 2020
I left the old country half a lifetime ago and now happily cook Greek, Korean, Italian, Mexican, French and American dishes for myself and my non-old country-born kids. But Olivier, and pelmeni and potato dumplings and stuffed grape leaves and the potato herring salad and the soups of my childhood featuring chicken feet still evoke happiness and the specialness of any occasion. If I have Olivier for my last meal, I'll be happy.
 
Cookie M. February 18, 2020
Same here - I happily make Olivier, borscht and pelmeni for my (American-born) husband. Vinegret is a particular favorite, we always try to stock up on pickled cabbage for it when we hit up a Russian food store, which isn't all that often these days...
 
Author Comment
Alexandra S. February 22, 2020
Varenyky are my absolute fave!
 
Author Comment
Alexandra S. February 22, 2020
My mom is a big fan of vinegret as well :)
 
Aimee M. February 16, 2020
The peace to your heart is to share meals with friends and family! I remember my MaMas and Papas meals.