December 01, 2019

An Immigrant's Story, with Cake


An Immigrant's Story, with Cake
Napoleon cake photo by Andrea Hubbell

Mom: “So, you start with four eggs…”

Me: “But I thought last time you said five."

Mom: “Oh, hmm… Ok, nu horosho. (Alright.) What size are your eggs? If large, start with… actually start with six eggs.”

Me: “Mom, last time you gave me the recipe, it was for five eggs. Now you’re telling me six?!”

Mom: “Ok, ok. Start with five eggs…”

So goes Polina Chesnakova’s Chesnok blog, where she posts mainly Georgian and Russian recipes. Chesnakova is a Seattle-based cookbook author and cooking instructor. Born in Ukraine to Russian and Armenian parents from Georgia, she describes her life as a “typical immigrant story.” A typical immigrant story of endurance, love, passion, and success, with a touch of cake, I might add. 

The endurance began with Polina’s great grandfather, who, around 1925, having been tipped off by a friend that the following day he would be arrested and exiled as a kulak (“wealthy peasants”, whom the Bolsheviks declared war on in the 1920s). So he packed his things, his family (wife and 5 children), and they found themselves on the road, which eventually led them to Georgia. 

Tbilisi was home for three generations, it provided shelter, great produce (even if Polina’s mom had to get at five a.m. to start queueing for it), and a connection that Polina feels to this day.

Polina with her parents
Polina and her parents.

When independence turned to conflict and war in Georgia in the late 1980s, Polina’s parents, her mom pregnant, went to Ukraine for a short while to be with Larisa's brothers. They returned to Georgia with a newborn and then, in 1990, emigrated to America, a country they had never been to before.

Polina, an only child, says she was raised in a community of her family, cousins, and other migrants. They supported each other through the difficult years of getting settled in a new country, learning a new language, finding jobs, and raising children in an area with high crime rates. Her aunts, or tyoti, as she calls them in her blog, are like second mothers to her, and she grew up eating their khachapuri, borscht, kotlety and Napoleon cake, the Russian version of mille-feuille. 

Food has been a big part of Polina's identity. While she has only visited Russia once, when she was 12 (she saw the Kremlin, and OD'd on buckwheat), she nonetheless identifies herself culturally as  Russian, even though she cooks slightly more Georgian than Russian at home.

Polina discovered her passion for cooking in college, while studying to be a doctor. She was known as the girl who was always cooking and baking, and while she thought it was just a hobby, after one and a half years of university it became clear that it was her main passion, her calling. So she changed her major to Eastern European studies and immersed herself in cooking, which meant starting the Chesnok blog, and transcribing many of her mom’s recipes (“no recipe recipes”, as she calls them).

Her first cookbook, Hot Cheese came out in September, and she already has a second one, Piece of Cake, on the way. It will feature a few of her mom’s cake recipes, including Napoleon. Clearly, the success part of her story, is just beginning.

Chesnakova and her first cookbook, Hot Cheese
Polina at a book signing.

As for the love, it’s everywhere, especially in the batter. Polina finds that cooking helps her stay connected to her background and provides an outlet for creativity and sharing her culture.

For her mom Larisa, Polina’s cooking has been an inspiration. Having experienced the cook-work-cook-repeat cycle, where cooking wasn’t so exciting, she came to see her own food differently after Polina started sharing it with her American friends. It became a source of pride and excitement, and now Larisa is cooking with a new-found passion. 

The two now spend hours on the phone, where Larisa recalls how many cups of flour go in a recipe, measured by “that orange cup we got at TJ Maxx,” and Polina writes it all down and transforms it into recipes anyone could follow. “I always tell my immigrant friends to write down their family recipes. It’s so important,” she says.

You can find her recipe for Napoleon, along with many others, here. Her Instagram page is @polina.chesnakova.

See Also

Pearl of the Caucasus

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The Republic of Georgia is a land of exquisite paradoxes that are sometimes lovable, sometimes infuriating.
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