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Traditional Ukrainian cuisine goes beyond the iconic recipes, it also includes history, knowing your roots, unique traditions of hospitality and a sense national identity. Together with Olena Braichenko, a researcher of food history the invited audience has travelled back in time to the Ukrainian kitchens in the US in the mid 20th century in order to find out what was on the menu and how the Ukrainian community overseas has re-invented the US culinary tradition. The lecture was organised in the framework of the Sweet Home Project supported by їzhakultura and America House Kyiv. The project aimed to analyse the links between national identity and food traditions in the context of evolving Ukrainian cuisine in the US.


When Ukrainians set out to start a new life in the US they took their culinary traditions with them. They entered a new country and new life with familiar food recipes, cooking methods and their own traditions of hospitality and table manners. But in the US they were met with different food traditions and customs. This made them eager to learn. Olena Braichenko has studied what traditions the Ukrainian community has adopted and what customs were absolutely vital to shaping their national identity. 

Our Life magazine has opened up a window on Ukrainian kitchens in the US. The magazine was established by the Ukrainian National Women's League of America in 1944, until it finally closed down in 2018. For the Ukrainian community overseas the magazine became a forum for discussing pressing problems and issues. The magazine’s cooking section was kept alive almost throughout the whole of magazine’s existence, the journalists used it to share recipes, practical advice on adjusting the Ukrainian cooking traditions to the American way of life, grocery shopping tips and the new cooking methods. For the Ukrainian women it was much more than a cookery class on interesting and exciting recipes. Cooking traditions have become one of the ethnic markers which helped the outsiders identify and recognise Ukrainian culture. Here is a story of how a single magazine section reflected the development of home cooking traditions inside the Ukrainian households: from preserving Ukrainian food culture to following the local food fashions. 

The magazine collected old-time recipes as part of its comprehensive policy to revive Ukrainian traditions. These practical efforts helped keep the recipes alive. “Our favourite dishes like borshch, holubtsy, varenyky, and pies have grown in popularity and are renowned for their delicious taste,” – wrote one of the magazine readers. It becomes evident that the Ukrainian immigrant community has identified with some iconic recipes. However, not all of the traditional ingredients were available in the US.  For example, the Ukrainian homemakers had to go to some length to get beetroot, which is widely available back in the homeland and used as an ingredient in Ukrainian borshch and to make salad, or sweet curd cheese filling for varenyky. 

However, the new way of life overseas was different and the food traditions had to change. For example, in the 1960s Ukrainians follow the US fast food craze, as canned food becomes widely available. The Ukrainian homemakers discover ketchup and frozen dough and these two products are widely used in Ukrainian kitchens. Canned soup and other similar products grow in popularity. 

At the same time the Ukrainian homemakers tried to keep to their ethnic traditions. To support these efforts Our Life magazine launches a competition on the best family recipe brought from the homeland. The magazine’s cooking section publishes recipes for traditional Ukrainian dishes to welcome Christmas and Easter. In the Ukrainian community the festive menu has never changed for generations. Ukrainians celebrated Christmas with rolled pastry, kutia, uzvar, borshch, holubtsy, jellied fish, honey cake, and poppy seed cake. Easter was celebrated with wheat paskas and cheese paskas, crackers, patties with various fillings, smoked meat and roast, kovbasa and -- of course, krashanky, single coloured boiled eggs. Curiously, but Ukrainians from the big cities were willing to travel for miles in order to find the right type of curd cheese to make cheese paskas.

However, some US festive traditions become popular with Ukrainians, as they start to celebrate Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, and Graduation Day. To celebrate these occasions, Ukrainians use old-fashioned recipes and their modern adaptations. For Mother’s Day the magazine advised to make chilled soup with kvas, a sourish beverage, devilled eggs, roast beef with spring potatoes, fresh cucumber salad followed by a walnut cake with red wine dressing. The Graduation Day menu included chilled raspberry soup, roast chicken – again, with a helping of spring potatoes and green salad followed by coffee cake which was a very popular recipe at the time. For Thanksgiving the family was served traditional American roast turkey with mashed potatoes, roast purple cabbage and onion. Ukrainians also cooked traditional American pie to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Family picnics and cookouts – widely popular in the US became part of life of the Ukrainian Americans.

The Ukrainian community also adopted the American traditions of hospitality and table décor. But Ukrainians usually adjusted these traditions before adopting them. For example, Ukrainians switched to using traditional American table runners to decorate the table, but continued to use table decoration with folk motifs and embroidery. 

Ukrainian cuisine extends far beyond the reaches of our country. It includes signature recipes, cooking methods, and customs which have travelled with Ukrainians overseas, where these traditions continued to thrive and develop. We believe that, there are several factors which helped Ukrainian cuisine became popular in the US. First of all, because the Ukrainian community has managed to preserve its national food traditions. Secondly, Ukrainians were eager to learn the new way of life, local cooking traditions, and test new products. And finally, due to comprehensive efforts to promote signature Ukrainian recipes. The Ukrainian community popularised its cuisine not only through specialised print publications but also organised food fairs and table top sales, the Ukrainian immigrant community supported Ukrainian cafes and restaurants which specialised in Ukrainian cooking.   



Photos: їzhakultura, America House



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