One's personal history often colors one's worldview, but... what about when that history spans multiple worlds? .
My mother is Russian, my father Armenian. She was born in the Republic of Georgia, he in Azerbaijan. Nonetheless, they were both raised in the beautiful ancient city of Tbilisi, Georgia where they eventually connected and married. Fast-forward to the collapse of the Soviet Union and an economically ruined Georgia, and it was a good time to high tail it out of there. Not, however, before I was born in southern Ukraine (where my mother’s father and brothers still live today). Soon after, we made the journey over to America and settled in the quaint little ol’ state of Rhode Island. Joined by four of my mother’s sisters and their families, they all settled here with the hope of achieving, at least for their children, the American Dream.
Despite the fact that our new home was geographically in Rhode Island, culturally it felt as though we never really left. We spoke Russian at home, ate Georgian and Russian food, our family friends were almost exclusively other Russians, and we attended a Slavic church comprised of refugees from all over the former Soviet Union. I took Russian reading and writing lessons, watched all the classic Mosfilm movies (and of course the beloved children’s show Cherburashka) and would listen for hours as my mother and aunts recounted their younger days spent in Tbilisi and the mountains of Georgia. I may be an American citizen, but I will always carry within me that uniting quality all Russians possess—a russkaya dusha, or Russian soul.
Still, that oft-asked question, “Where are you from originally?” can be pretty dizzying depending on how you look at it. Is it where I was born, in the countryside of Ukraine, where my parents only lived for a short time? Or Georgia, where they were raised and have the closest ties? You could also technically say Russia, seeing as it’s the language we speak at home and where my maternal ancestors are from. But, no one in my immediate family has actually lived in the country itself. . . How does one deal with this somewhat expansive ethnic narrative, especially when most of my friends have never even heard of the Causcasus, and when I say Georgia they only think of peaches, pecan pie, and sweet tea?
For me, as with probably many other first generation immigrants, this multi-cultural heritage was initially introduced, and best assimilated, at the dinner table.
While I grew up on mainly Russian and Georgian dishes, my exposure to the foods of the "old country," didn't stop there. There was Uzbek plov, the succulent rice and lamb pilaf that was ubiquitous at every Russian wedding I grew up attending; the melt-in-your-mouth blinchiki c tvorogom I'd be treated to at my Ukranian friends' houses—crepes stuffed with tvorog, homemade farmer's cheese; or varenyki, Ukrainian dumplings stuffed with a variety of fillings, from mashed potatoes to sour cherry jam. Delicious, too, are the Armenian dolma, grape leaves stuffed with spiced meat and served with a sour cream and garlic sauce.
My love affair with these foods—particularly Georgian cuisine—began at a young age while helping my mother and aunts prepare for holidays, birthdays, or simply a family meal (being the chefs they are, they scoffed at eating out and we hardly ever ate at restaurants). In cooking alongside them I was able to absorb these food traditions as well as a strong and proud sense of our heritage. For the older generation, turning back to these same recipes time and time again is a way to remember and honor the lives they left behind in Georgia. It is the way these dishes brought (and still bring) our family and friends together—and the experiences and memories they create and inspire—that compelled me to make the pursuit of food my life’s purpose.
So here I introduce to you Chesnok. The word itself, in Russian, means garlic—a king that reigns supreme in many a Georgian kitchen. It is also the root of my last name, Chesnakova. Chesnok is a tribute primarily to my Georgian and Russian roots, but will also tap in to the myriad other cultures that have influenced me while growing up. My aim is to educate and share with others the stories and histories (and of course recipes!) behind the dishes I grew up cooking and happily devouring. I hope to instill in others a deeper appreciation not only for this sublime and exotic cuisine—which is finally gaining the traction and attention it duly deserves—but also the power of food overall.
The way it unites, energizes, comforts, and most importantly, satiates us—making us whole.
When I was little, it was a daily struggle to get me to leave all my friends and mud pies behind to come inside and eat. Over the years, as my appetite and appreciation for these meals grew, it was more of a struggle to keep me away, sneaking bites from the pot when no one was looking. Today I am eager to celebrate this special food heritage of mine, and ask you to join me as I explore and cook my way through recipes that bring us all to the table, regardless of what corner of the world you’re from.