Lunches in Russian immigrant family households must have been a three-course affair, if my younger years were any indication.
My grandparents lived at our house then, sleeping on a makeshift bed in the downstairs area; my mother traveled all over the country, making a living by painting canvasses.
In the summer, I’d venture to the nearby library in search of fantasy: I devoured everything from The Golden Compass, Ender’s Game, Garfield comics, Ramona and her ilk, and most memorably, everything in R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series I could get my hands on.
This particular slew of books now reminds me of the impending Californian autumn, the only autumn that exists there—crisp air and the hope that something is coming, a change, at the very least the anticipation of a new school year. But really, it was mostly fluff, a chilly breeze on some nights’ air to be brushed off by a light sweater, harsh words exchanged in front of the middle school.
I brought my Goosebumps books home from the library and hid in my room upstairs. My grandparents, who watched me during those summers, prepared the food. When lunch was ready—every 2 p.m., like clockwork—my grandmother would yell up the stairs to me, or occasionally burst into my room to witness me lying on the carpet on my back or stomach, book clutched in hand. Knocking wasn’t an act common in our household.
The first course was soup, always a soup to offset the facetious impending airy chill yet cognizant of summer, something light like borscht or a quiet broth of mushroom, potato, and spinach.
On occasion, my grandmother would make Top Ramen on the stove, adding more water than necessary, splitting one package between my grandfather and I. This was a favorite of mine—the salty, watery broth and soft noodles swimming in the bowl, occasional dull chunks of orange and yellow dehydrated vegetable. I always ate with both a fork and a spoon, spinning the noodles up with the prongs and ladling the remaining liquid into my mouth.
I liked Top Ramen like I loved Taco Bell—it was the kind of salty, highly processed food that I never got to eat save for special occasions like when I performed well at a piano concert or there was nothing else left in the pantry.
There was an unspoken certainty that I’d read while eating; my grandparents seemed happy that I was reading, although the bulbous green lettering on the front of the Goosebumps books convinced them it wasn’t the most intellectual of texts. They’d gently nudge me to read other things, like Dostoevsky or The Master and Margarita, but with no success. Nothing could tear me away from Goosebumps—Stine’s stories of shrunken heads, worm sandwiches, and werewolves.
As I read Goosebumps, my grandfather ate across from me, and my grandmother served us. In between courses, my grandmother sat down at the table and began leafing through the San Diego Tribune, licking her thumb before turning each enormous page.
I’d crack my book open, prop it on the table around my bowl, and read intently, slurping noodles. No book was safe from splashes of liquid—sometimes a little dash I wouldn’t notice until I read the book again; sometimes a more catastrophic blemish that I had to wipe off with a napkin. Sometimes, I had to air dry my books, specific food-soaked pages propped open with care by other, more intellectual tombs.
The second course was some sort of protein and starch; my favorite was chopped potatoes pan-fried in garlic and oil until they turned crispy, salty, and browned. My grandfather’s favorite was (and still is) chicken legs baked simply in the oven with oil and garlic, a plate of fresh, coarsely chopped vegetables—cucumbers and tomatoes—on the side. At this point in time, my cat Mish-Mish would likely take a seat at the table, mewing plaintively for a piece of chicken that my grandfather would inevitably sneak under the table—a small but especially juicy morsel right from the bone.
The final course would be black tea with whatever chocolate or sweet was around. Occasionally, my grandfather bought mini Milky Ways or Snickers on sale at the grocery store. Other times, no tea—simply fruit. Every so often we’d buy a watermelon and my grandfather would cut it right down its plump middle, serving me a thick circular slice, cut into pieces like a pizza. I’d complain that it was too much—I couldn’t possibly eat that amount of watermelon after everything that had already transpired. “It’s just water,” my grandfather would urge, in Russian.
Throughout all this, my book stayed put, simply having switched out one plate for another. I barely lost my place in the story. I read them, and reread them, and reread them again over those summers, paying little heed to the pages splattered and crusted over with soups, stews, bits of potato, dehydrated vegetable, and splashes of watermelon juice.
An hour or two after lunch, I’d hear my grandmother’s footsteps as she ascended the stairs to my room where I lay, reading—a plate of cut peaches, apples, plums, or nectarines likely suspended in hand. The stories and courses continued long after the official meal had ended—crunching, splashing, and spinning into life, consuming one and the other, one and the other, and a third time, again.