For one violinist on tour with the New England Symphonic Ensemble, the choicest delicacy of St. Petersburg, Russia, was pizza. “I ate a lot at Pizza Hut,” remembers Keri Tomenko, now an adjunct faculty member of Washington Adventist University who maintains a private violin studio, and is also active in the Suzuki Association. The group’s cook had become ill, and pizza was one of her favorite meals out. “I don’t think I ate pizza for years afterward,” Tomenko adds.
Years later, Tomenko had more chances to explore regional Russian cuisine when she began dating Deric Tomenko, a Russian violist with the New England Symphonic Ensemble at Washington Adventist University. He eventually became her husband. Keri Tomenko describes him as an “adventurous eater,” a vegetarian who relishes the discovery of new foods.” The two became friends while touring with the ensemble 10 years before their first date, her birthday dinner.
Growing up, “I was your typical Adventist American; food was nothing wild and nothing fancy,” Tomenko says. Her family—father, mother and younger brother—on a careful budget regularly shared an evening meal at home, but Tomenko particularly looked forward to Tuesday. Tuesday meant “family nights”: dinner out, usually. “Pizza Hut, Taco Bell…it didn’t matter,” explains Tomenko. “Food meant an evening of family to me.”
As she grew closer to Deric Tomenko and his family, she also grew more at ease with the Russian foods. Since her encounter with authentic Russian cuisine at his house—she nibbled at new dishes, and turned to the bread, cheese and cucumbers for more sustenance—Tomenko’s taste buds have changed. Among her new favorites dishes are blini—thin pancakes similar to crepes—whether savory or sweet, with sweet jam, honey and sour cream tucked inside, and a variety of Russian soups and salads.
“Food builds community in our family,” Tomenko reflects. “Food and community are also building my character,” she adds. Tomenko finds new benefits in “being welcoming and inviting friends and family, even when I need to scramble to prepare more food or face major cleanup when I am already tired….It’s not worrying if I have enough matching dishes for everyone.”
For Keri, coming from a two-child family, the Tomenkos’ house full of relatives, cheerful noise and lots of food was a bit overwhelming at first, but something she grew to enjoy. “I look at my mother-in-law’s table, which is supposed to seat 10 people or less—there are regularly 15-17 there,” Tomenko says. Her guest list expands beyond “the 8-10 people our table claims to seat.”
Sharing recipes hasn’t been entirely one-sided; Tomenko says that her husband’s family has grown to love her cottage cheese loaf, and several of her other savory dishes. And of course, there are dishes familiar to both American and Russian cultures. An empty bowl, once full of Russian potato salad—similar to American salad, but with colorful perks such as carrots and peas—is a common sight on Tomenko’s table.
Now, borsch (no “t” sound on the end of the word in Russian), a beet and cabbage-based soup, is one of her signature dishes, no matter the season. “Hot soup on a hot day was unusual for me at first, but it was also very easy for me to adopt the Russian culture of eating soup every day. Russian soups are absolutely delicious,” Tomenko says. “Why not follow a Russian tradition of eating borsch year-round?”
Beyond physical nourishment and entertainment for taste buds, perhaps expanding horizons is another benefit of food in community. We learn to welcome new habits, such as warm soup on summer days. We step aside and let a new dish and culture sweep through the front door, conversation wafting through the house like the aroma of homemade pastry, golden-brown glory on a countertop. As an added benefit, there are often leftovers.
Keri Tomenko is an adjunct faculty member of Washington Adventist University and maintains a private violin studio at her home in Takoma Park, MD. She is also on the teaching faculty of the Greater Washington Suzuki Institute and on the Suzuki Association of the Greater Washington Area Board of Directors.
Photo credit: Pavel Tomenko
Olivye, Russian potato salad
This week’s recipe for Tomenko Family Borsch comes from Keri Tomenko. She adds, “Everyone’s borsch is a little different; some cooks add beans and/or vary the spices.” When preparing the recipe, it’s helpful to multitask, says Keri: “I peel, chop, or grate the vegetables before starting to cook. I shred cabbage while sautéing the onions, carrots and beets. I chop parsley and dill while I wait for the cabbage to cook.” Serve with bread.
Tomenko Family Borsch
Total prep time: about 1 hour
1 large onion, chopped
3 large carrots, grated
1 large or several small beets, grated
Several medium tomatoes, diced
1 6-oz can of tomato paste
3-4 cloves garlic, pressed
Salt, to taste
6 large russet potatoes
½ - ¾ of a cabbage head, shredded
Sour cream, to serve
1. Sauté onion, carrots and beets in olive oil. Let cook.
2. Add diced tomatoes and tomato paste, and salt to taste. Let simmer, then add garlic near the end.
3. Cook potatoes in a large pot. When they are about done, add the sautéed mix, then the shredded cabbage, and let cook. At the very end, add chopped dill and parsley. Add additional salt if needed. Ladle into bowls, swirl in a dollop of sour cream, and serve.