When Stalin collectivized Russian peasant agriculture, goods disappeared from the stores. The rationing system devised for bread and other items lead to the infamous bread lines of the Soviet bloc. By 1980, three percent of the USSR’s farmland provided over a quarter of the Republic’s agricultural output. The long lines for “deficit commodities” meant being in the right place at the right time was crucial when a shipment came in. Basic foodstuffs were rarely obtained in satisfactory amounts; bread was filling and became a staple of the Soviet diet.
-Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation
The bread lines of the USSR are the stuff of legend. You didn’t ask what was being sold at the counter, you just got on line and hoped it would be enough to sustain your family through the month. Wars were waged over the spot in the line, bribes offered. Supplies would inevitably run out, and the proud victors of the bread line front would return home with sardines or bread or staraya kolbasa, old salami, while the unlucky ones would skulk away angrily, just a few more victims of the incredible food shortage that both plagued and eventually brought down the Soviet Union.
I moved to the U.S. in the fall of 1993, so bread lines and shortages exist in my memory only as stories recited excitedly by my mother at breakfast tables and on subway trains. Like the one about my great-grandfather Gershon, sent to pick up bread for the family—one loaf to feed four for a month—and how he, out of hunger, mindlessly, consumed the entire supply. He had meant to take only a nibble, but before he knew it, he was facing a horrified wife and four hungry children.
But the bread of MY childhood is the one I lust for still—HLEB. It was almost a religious experience in my house, no meal complete without sliced dark loaves—chernui hleb—beside bowls of thick pea soup or for spreading baklazhanaya ikra, eggplant caviar, over, freshly made by my grandmother, babushka Masha, over our half-functioning American stove. Even now, whenever my mother watches Russian cable and they show a scene featuring a table laden with kolbaska or ogurchiki, salami or pickles, my mother makes a beeline for the fridge, pulling out hunks of black hleb, sliced cheese her chaser of choice, cursing the producers for her late-night hunger.
“Vse vremya zhrat hochetsa,” she’ll mutter between mouthfuls. Always wanna eat.
Hleb, life-giver, diet-breaker!
My greatest love was the crusts of these black Russian breads. Every week, Babushka and I would get dressed and take our blue metal shopping cart to the Russian stores on Ditmas Avenue. Just a few blocks off the F train, the world would suddenly be limitless in its gastronomic and cultural bounty. Fruit stores from which my grandmother would periodically pilfer some oranges punctuated the streets by the library from which I was only allowed to take four books at a time, else our tiny Borough Park apartment would be overrun by literature. Of course, the grande damme was the infamous hlebnui magazin, the bread store.
The name of our main bread store escapes me now, fifteen or so odd years later, but at the time, all the bread stores were somewhat the same. The distinctive smell of yeast and canned sardines, the red and white label of canned meat, tushonka to mix into your makaron, the Polish Delicje cookies with chocolate and shortbread sandwiching a fruit gelatin on low metal shelves; a glass-faced freezer featured pelmeni, sosiski, i sardelki, get as many as you want, those dumplings, sausages and wieners, boil them until their ripe skins split, plunge a fork into the plump flesh, and swear off being a vegetarian forever. And, of course, hleb.
Hleb to slide under your fat sardelka, to mop up the sour cream after you demolished the last of your meat-filled pelmeni. Hleb on the wire racks behind the irate cashier, sometimes the mother of one of the kids I played with at the park, other times not, but always with too much eye makeup and a patterned apron; hleb to be put through the slicer and slipped into a thin plastic bag, sealed by a sticky blue or red twist that I’d undo with great care to be able to re-close the bag perfectly so as not to spoil the freshness of the hleb.
Then, as far as I was concerned, Babushka could shoplift all the oranges she wanted in our blue metal cart; nothing took away the joy of hleb.
My grandmother doesn’t buy the hleb anymore, and I haven’t seen it or her in many months, but her home attendant does. And always, the order remains the same, so clear in my mother’s voice I could recite it in my sleep:
“Dve bulki bez drozhevovo, pozhalusta. Narezaniy.” Two loaves of the yeastless one, please. Sliced.
Those crusts! My child-self and I can still taste them. The bread, unrightfully called black, was a mid gray-brown with golden aerated holes punctuating a smooth yeasty medium. The edges sliced off the ends were always the crispest, the tiny slices too small to be used for anything, and it was these I discovered that I loved the best. They were sweet and crunchy, pushing sharply against the corners of my mouth as I jammed them in.
Directly underneath in the loaf were the halflings, slices teetering on the brink of being both crusts and bread. The outer border was always firm, almost right down to the center, but the heart of the slice was soft enough to curl your tongue around. The slice beneath, now that was pure hleb, and I’d eat these only if I was in a particular mood. I would push out all the softness inside the crust and roll it, piece by piece, into little pellets between my fingers until only the frame of the bread was left, the hard outer edge I could fool myself into believing was just the crusts again.
In this way, sometimes half the loaf would disappear on the way home. The process was applied from both ends of the loaf, a game I played with myself every time I left the hlebnui magazin, and often before. As soon as my babushka would hand over the money for the loaves, I’d tear the bags from her hands. I would tie the bag back every time I consumed a slice, until finally, there’d be nothing left but the pieces with more softness than hard edges in the middle, and those, I’d leave for my family. My main interest was in the prized crusts.
My mother, astounded at first that her progeny took such a visceral interest in so humble a food staple, eventually forbade me my game of chicken with the bread, though never without notes of amusement in her voice. In the land of plenty, her daughter wanted—
We are back in Gomel, Belarus, for the third time. The USSR has fallen. I am nine, and we are v univermage, the giant superstore that is finally stocked with goods. Nichego ne v defitsite, nothing is in deficit. Everything has been standardized. There is a selection of stockings, of children’s suits with corresponding cartoon characters, and shoes, saddle and sandal, perhaps a sneaker here and there. There is a selection of cheeses and kielbasas and fish on the first floor, and brightly wrapped candies sold by weight. But I follow my nose to the counter that counts most and drag my mom in front of the lady in the red head scarf and white apron. Behind her, rows and rows of bread on wooden shelves tower over me, and I salivate, trying to deduce which one of them is responsible for that mouth-watering aroma. We settle on a gray brick that doesn’t necessarily hit the spot, but is delicious anyway. As I tear into it ravenously with my young wolf-teeth, the startled univermag worker blurts out:
“Otkuda takaya golodnaya devochka?” Where, indeed, is such a hungry girl from?
My mother takes in my voracious bread-hunger and replies, “Iz Ameriki,” and that is that. I am from America. Illusions of the Western world shot down in one fell blow.
In America, we too, are hungry for hleb.
It is third grade, my class’s multicultural share day, and I am near tears. All around me, parents are busy serving Mexican enchiladas, Bengali luchis, and that Egyptian honey cake that looks like straw and makes me salivate. But my humble contribution to this collective feast lays untouched between two layers of plastic bags at the serving table.
Instructed by ash-blond Ms. Fiore—who loved Ricky Martin before he was out—to bring in a food that represented my culture, I am excited. Who, I wondered, is going to step up to the plate and answer all my questions about what our culture was and what foods went with it?
In my house, we bought food from Russian delis. My mother didn’t cook. “Russkiy magazin,” the Russian deli store, was my mother’s catch-all phrase for any place that featured a long slope-topped refrigerator with salat Oliviye, congealing beneath it and plastic cubbies of chocolate Strela in multicolored neon foil wrappers above it. I loved babushkinu baklazhanuyu ikru, my grandmother’s eggplant caviar, but only fresh; I wasn’t allowed to eat anything cold, so microwaved steaming hleb i baklazhani it would be, never the same the day after it was made. Often, my only options were what was brought home from those delis.
My class’s share day is fast approaching, but nobody steps up to the stove. Still, I believe. I nag my mother sparingly, believing she will swoop in and save the day with some previously unknown cooking talent of hers for a special dish.
The day before I am due to present said special dish to my class, she sends my father out for two more bulki chernogo hleba, two more loaves than my family ordinarily consumes. I cannot not believe it. She won’t. My mother will absolutely not send me to multicultural share day with the same humble bread we eat with every meal.
She can, she will, and she does. And even though the way my mother has chosen to represent our culture seems to me paltry and meager, I cannot understand why nobody is serving my хлеб. I go around the long table of offerings from many lands, silently wishing one of the bustling parents would peel back the layers of plastic and serve my contribution to the feast. I sit down at my desk, face hot with misery, ready to drop through the ground. Then, I hear it.
“What did you bring?” asks Larry Pisarevich. He is my blue-eyed, long-haired crush all the way from second grade and on. Some kids say his long hair makes him look like a girl, but I like the way he shakes it out on his shoulders in defiance of what they say. Larry doesn’t curse around me the way the other boys do, bleeping out the bad words like we are on the Maury show. My parents watch the Maury show almost religiously, believing that is how black people behave.
“Russian bread,” I say quietly, tears building up in my throat. Everyone else’s dishes are out, but mine isn’t being served. Even worse, the shameful secret of my mother not cooking is about to be discovered by Larry, and in a sea of parents who made it to share day.
“You brought hleb?” Larry’s whole face lights up, voice rich with excitement, straight aquiline nose almost twitching. “Where is it?”
“They didn’t take it out.” My voice is a dry whisper.
In a move that forever seals him as my knight in shining polyester pants, Larry disappears. Five minutes later, he is standing before me with a huge pile of my bread on his plate, grinning ear to ear as he tears off pieces of it with his teeth in a show of savagery.
“But you ate already!” I protest, amazed.
“There’s always room for hleb,” smiles Larry, and every piece he consumes is a balm to my battered soul. Humble hleb is never the same again.
I am twenty-five and I have stopped eating bread. Years of following my parent’s example of eating luscious bread with every meal—carb while you carb!—is what has caused the multi-pound weight gain on my previously slender hips. Of this I am convinced, and so, for the next year, bread is banned from my diet.
Hleb is now the enemy.
This is a challenge. What else do you put under cream cheese in the morning? How else do you feel full after salmon with a side of veggies? I am plagued in the night by the story of my great-uncle ded Misha, who, upon seeing the splendors of a local Chinese buffet at a family gathering, quietly grumbled:
“A gde hleb?” Where is the bread?
Seriously, where is the bread? Months of omelets without hleb, lettuce wraps, and chocolate chip oat muffins. I am the Queen of Health, and my parents admire my self-restraint from behind their slices of hleb with butter and caviar.
“Ti uverna, An?” my mother asks me periodically—you sure? She lushly slathers cherry jam on her hleb. “Vozmi kusochek, chut-chut ved mozhno.” Take a slice, surely you can have a little.
“Nelzya,” I reply firmly. I cannot and won’t.
I am a predator, constantly on the hunt for substitutes. Crispy crackers, doughy cakes. I even try baking a sweet potato bread, only to toss it in the trash after the first sampling. I have created a shortage for myself, and I am praying it works.
At twenty six, I have moved to Brighton to start an independent path, my life now colored by the orange-slice mosaic in my new living room and the procession of ants in my tiny kitchen. I am alone, and nobody visits me. I have banned my parents from my apartment, fearing they can somehow take it away from me, make my independence not real. I tell myself I am prepared for this. I am the breadless girl, strong and healthy. The pounds will melt away, and only muscle will remain.
Two blocks away on Brighton Beach Avenue, the big Gourmanoff market, a food mecca built into the old Millennium Theater, is an elevated version of the Russian stores of my childhood. Behind the booth selling tickets for visiting Russian artists—Anzhelika Varum’s bedroom eyes, the comedic stylings of Galkin, the famous dog theater of Popovich—Gourmanoff’s produce and flower department is a veritable explosion of color. Visible from the street are the colors that sharpen into individual products up close. Shiny red apples, speckled brown-pink pomegranates, pimpled baby mandarins in bright blue netting. I am a grown-up as I push my big metal carriage through the narrow aisles, a little blue cart I swore I’d never push again past childhood along for the ride. I peruse the dairy section for goat’s milk yogurt and organic brown eggs; these go in my cart even though it’s at least another year until I understand what “cage-free” means. Delicately spiced and sliced fish behind slanted glass glistens intimidatingly—two slices of vot toy, that one, please!—and around the corner, pryaniki, chayee, gotovaya yeda, idi, naberai, take all you can get from the honey cookies with ginger spice, the wide assortment of teas. Krasniy borscht, zeleniy, it’s poetry to me, the red and green soups, the mix of smells and colors bolstering me as I weave in and out of the rows of hot plates.
There is one counter I avoid.
The aromas lure me, and sometimes I come close to giving in. They are different sizes and shapes, fat boules and long baguettes, sturdy brown bricks peppered with whole grains and seeds, pumpkin, poppy, raisins, nuts. Their names are like a graveyard of authors, Borodinskiy, Moldovskiy, Stolichniy, Kalach. They write the stories of hunger, of comfort foods in the night, of a childhood tie to a nation that no longer exists, but lives on in our lustful mouthfeel, an ocean of immigrants tied to the yoke of memory. What hleb evokes in us, we can never really say, but that it always holds a place in between our porcelain dishes of salat and zharkoye, salad and stew, we know. Only through hleb do we go on.
As I roll my cart by the bread aisle at Gourmanoff, I don’t want to admit that sometimes, I have ice cream with cereal for dinner. I swim my spoon through the chocolate and waffle texture of the cereal and wish sadly for someone to come into my moldy basement apartment, so lonely and sad, and yank the spoon away from me. Feed me something else. Just feed me.
I am a mystery to my parent’s generation, who are purchasing multiple loaves of bread at Gourmanoff like they don’t know that carbs kill. Who am I, and do I even speak kolbasa and golubtsi, their language of kielbasa and cabbage rolls? They are my parent’s age, which means that somewhere in their rug-covered, leather-couched homes, toddlers wait for their grandmas and grandpas to bring them snacks saturated with Soviet nostalgia. I have not provided my parents with the fruit of my loins for them to pamper, to stuff little cheeks chubby with, to slip them fatty Russian treats that will annoy me, the health maven, to no end.
In Gourmanoff, married husbands answer their wives’ calls on modern touch screen phones with gnarled, Old World fingers.
“Lyuba, chto? Da, vzyal. Skolko? Pol pounda? Nu davai. Da. Da.”
What is it, Lucy? Yes, I got it. Half a pound? Okay. Yes.
And I swallow hard, because I do not have this. There will be good smells in my apartment soon, but they will be the curtains on a solo act. Beef with mixed veggies, sushi tempura, cold sashimi salad, and Vegeta-flavored chicken. There are no salatiki, salads rich with mayonnaise and cell death. There is no one to send out for bread that I have shed from my life, to grab a few things here and there while I continue my labors behind the stove. I do not know how to explain this to American friends. Does this even happen to Americans? Fetching the groceries, in so many ways, is the job of the husband, the father, the hunter-dobutchik. My father did it for my mother, for our family, except I am not with the family anymore.
When I moved to Bensonhurst a year later, I began to make bi-weekly trips to Cherry Hill on 86th street. This dab of Russian food heaven in a sea of Asian-dominated market stalls yielded creamy slabs of Napoleon cake, delicate, international brie, and airy Russian crepes. I dove back into making lazy golubtsi, medovik honey cake, tuna salad spreads. There was still, conspicuously, the absence of hleb in my life.
And then, a chance trip to the Sheepshead Bay Fruits and Vegetables Store, a super-sonic megastore of foodstuffs on Avenue Z, levels beyond the tiny Russian delis I once had known, brought me nose to nose with the same intoxicating aroma that had haunted me just eleven months prior.
There they were. Ukranian, rye, whole grain, full of salt, caraway seeds, and flour. Triangles, plump ovals, the bread was lined up in neat baskets a few inches in front of a burgundy apron-clad Uzbek cashier. I considered the soft, spreadable, gray eggplant salad in its tiny clear container in my blue plastic handcart, and heard my own voice ordering a half a loaf of classic dark rye, half a loaf of that pumpkin seed-studded one. Sliced.
Clutching the white paper bag to my chest the entire way out of the store, not wanting to sully it with the touch of my other groceries, I tore into the bread at the B4 bus stop directly outside. Tears sprang to my eyes unbidden as I understood what I had been missing that long, lonely, breadless year. Perhaps I was too old to cry, but here was sweetness and yeastiness combined, here lay the path to comfort long set aside. I munched and crunched the slices of both loaves the entire way home, not seeing anything outside, forgetting that bread was supposed to go under something, or perhaps, not caring if it did.
Three weeks later, on line at the bread counter at Sheepshead Bay F&V, I overheard the customer before began lecturing her son on the healthiness of the whole grain breads. The line stretched well into the next aisle, next to the canned chanterelles—so good with fresh potatoes!—and jams.
“Actually, rye is the healthiest,” I heard myself telling her.
“Why’s that?” she asked me suspiciously.
“It’s the least processed,” I replied, quoting some cooking show or other I had binged on Netflix a few days before. “Sourdough is good, too, but I don’t think they sell it here.”
The mother nodded and we fell into silence. The line progressed tediously on, and I was just pulling my phone from my purse when I heard, “Which did you say was best?”
I looked up. She was ready to place her order, and both she and the Uzbeki cashier were awaiting my reply. Smiling gently, almost to myself, I pointed.
“Narezat, da,” she said suddenly, switching to Russian. Yes, slice it please. My brows hiked up momentarily, but the warmth was real. I did not have the bread lines of the past, but I did have this. A bread line in the line of plenty.
Back at home, I plopped my white, waxy bag of bread onto its now rightful spot atop my microwave, where it nestled between a familiar cacophony of Valerian root and Wellness Multivitamins from my mother. I settled the rest of the fresh groceries into the fridge and cupboards and stretched my feet before preparing the evening meal. Outside, it was dark, but I was afraid no longer.
The hleb was back.