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When you look around at the culinary landscape of the United States, there’s an indisputable fact: While immigrant women may have jumped into our melting pot, they held their own spoons. As immigrant Tina Yao said so eloquently, “People refer to the USA as a melting pot, but I’m not so sure. Instead, I think America is more of a stained-glass window. We come here, live, but we still remain who we are.” We do all come together, assimilate, and fit in to make the overall culture work and blend. However, each one of us also chose to maintain our pane of glass, which remains intact and shines bright among all the others.
Immigrant women are a special group. The strength they showed at a young age, packing a bag, waving goodbye to their parents, and heading to a new and strange country was an epic feat. Their gumption and courage were boundless, and that fire still burns within them. Today, women from all over the world still see America as a place where life can be better, with more opportunities for themselves and their children.
Upon arrival, they often embrace the American way of life. They raise sons and daughters; many attend university, juggle work, learn English, and become citizens. But through it all, they maintain another critical practice: They hold fast to their native cultures. While encouraging their children to excel in school, they also make sure their mother tongues are spoken at home. Many become adventurous in the kitchen by learning how to roast a turkey for an American Thanksgiving, but they also incorporate the foods of their homeland into the holiday smorgasbord, as well as into the day-to-day meals of their families.
Maintaining the culture of their origin countries isn’t necessarily a statement; it simply creates the comfort of home in a new place. Each day, heading out, speaking with an accent, and navigating this new world all becomes a little less overwhelming when the knowledge of a warm bowl of their own mother’s food is waiting in the safe haven of their home. In their American kitchen, the swirling aromas of their country’s ingredients and spice blends can be created within minutes of stepping through the door. That’s the magic of food — it transports.
Immigration wasn’t new to Marina Varshisky when she came to the United States as a young wife and mother. Picking up and moving to a better place had been a critical piece of her family’s history for many generations. She recounted how her father, as a young boy, immigrated to Siberia after narrowly escaping the German invasion of Kazakhstan. That fateful day changed the course of their lives and their future.
Although Kazakhstani by heritage, Marina grew up in Siberia with her parents and a grandmother who always taught her to be confident. If someone attempted to shame her for her gender or religion, at her grandmother’s instruction, she'd always assert how proud she was of who she was. She remembers how those who taunted her quickly stopped bothering her once they knew she wouldn't tolerate being bullied.
She focused on her studies, and was accepted into medical school in Moscow, where she met her husband, Michael. They married and had two daughters, Asya and Anna. Then, at 29 years old, the opportunity to come to the United States presented itself, and they decided to leave Russia behind for a brighter future for themselves and their children. They moved, had another child, Samuel, and later reunited with her parents, Garry and Galina, who immigrated a few years after. They all still live close to each other today.
While cooking Marina’s delicious, traditional food and speaking with her about her family, it’s quite evident that the confidence she learned as a young girl has served her well. She came to the United States, built a beautiful life with her husband, and raised three successful children. Now she gets to dote on her two grandchildren as well. Love for family, love for her heritage, and the quest for a better life are simply part of who she is, and with that comes all the pride and confidence one could hope for.
Anna Francese Gass is a graduate of The French Culinary Institute in New York, a regular contributing editor and recipe tester for Food52, and a contributing writer for MSN. She’s assisted on numerous successful cookbooks as a recipe tester. This is excerpted from her book Heirloom Kitchen: Heritage Recipes and Family Stories from the Tables of Immigrant Women (Harper Design).