I grew up in Moscow in the 70s and 80s, eating only what was in season. My staple diet consisted of beets, cabbage, carrots, and potatoes—often wilted and stored in large sacks in a closet—made into borscht and served with buckwheat or coarse rye bread and butter. And once a year, the government imported Moroccan mandarins as a special Christmas treat.

But every summer, I left Moscow to spend three months in paradise at my grandfather’s dacha (summerhouse) in the countryside. My grandfather built that house with his own hands on a quarter acre plot—land that was a gift from the state for his heroism as a WW2 fighter pilot. That quarter acre, alive with the magic and bounty of nature, profoundly shaped my young psyche, and my relationship to life, food, and family.

When I would arrive at the dacha, my grandparents and I would start working the land. My parents came on weekends, as they worked during the week. Each morning, we rose with the sun, ate a breakfast of hot millet or buckwheat with milk and honey, and worked for several hours until it got too hot. We pulled weeds; moved rocks; chopped, hoed and raked the soil, and fertilized it with cow manure bought from a neighbor; and planted seeds of every kind.

We lined every available inch of that quarter acre with small rectangular rows and planted them with various salad greens, sorrel, dill, cilantro, strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, aronia berries, black, red, and white currents, sea buckthorn, potatoes, beets, radishes, carrots, and more.

We also hunted mushrooms in the surrounding forest—firm noble porcinis, small orange chanterelles, and tiny colonies of honey funguses were dietary staples. Also standard were apples, cherries, peaches, plums, and pears picked from fruit trees my grandfather had planted in the late 1940s after the war. We traded this fresh produce with my grandparents’ neighbors for fresh eggs, raw milk, and slabs of amber honey still in the comb.

Working the soil together as a family—for a common purpose and shared reward—formed a special bond. It brought us closer together and added to the sacredness and the taste of the food we produced together. Food you’ve grown and harvested fresh tastes better than any other! Meals around the dinner table in the evenings—especially our traditional Sunday dinners—were joyous occasions, celebrating nature’s abundance and our love for one another.
These celebratory feasts lasted for hours. Everything on the table was fresh and alive: salad made of crisp lettuce, greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, and radishes; roasted potatoes and succulent mushrooms in freshly churned butter; cold summer borscht with carrots, beets, cabbage, cucumbers and tomatoes; bowls of fresh fruit salad; and the aroma of food mingling with the fragrance of the roses outside the windows. Life itself slowed down and blossomed through us as we talked, laughed, and told stories. Looking into one another’s sparkling eyes provided nourishment I appreciate all the more now, when it can seem scarce.

Those golden summers planted in my soul an awareness that food, a most natural reason to gather, can be a vehicle for sacred occasions, for sharing with each other the abundance of the earth, and the love that comes from our deepest nature. They taught me that life itself can be a feast of love.

Anya El-Wattar Newsletter Signup