October 14, 2016
Dr. Eric Schmaltz, professor of history at Northwestern Oklahoma State University and co-executive director of the endowed NWOSU Institute for Citizenship Studies, presented on the food ways of Germans from Russia on Sunday, Oct. 9, before the Golden Spread Chapter of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia (AHSGR) at the Senior Citizen Center in Shattuck.
The Great Plains, including northwestern Oklahoma, claim a significant number of descendants of this group who immigrated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Schmaltz made introductory remarks aided by Power Point before showing the long popular 2000 Prairie Public Broadcasting (Fargo) video documentary, “Schmeckt Gut: The Food Ways of the Germans from Russia.”
“We Americans today in particular often seek convenience when it comes to eating,” Schmaltz said. “With the rise of standardized fast food culture in recent decades, we are often forgetting or moving away from many of the culinary practices of our ancestors. This modern cultural phenomenon is now also happening across the globe, above all with the Americanization of food ways.”
Schmaltz observed that eating typically represents a communal or family activity.
“The consumption of food is a basic and essential survival instinct, but it can also mean something more,” he said. “It offers a more intimate way of communing with others, especially family and friends. Food ways can become personal and emotional for people, whereby individuals often relive memories when they see, but especially smell and taste, foods from their formative years and special occasions. In a way, it can bring people ‘back home’ to one’s beginnings. Childhood memories particularly play a role in how we regard food. Often these communal eating activities were or still are associated with holidays, religious traditions and special occasions, whether Easter, Christmas or weddings.”
Many of the video’s cooking demonstrators, including men and women, are the second- and third-generations of German-Russians who had migrated to North America from the regions of Bessarabia, the Black Sea, and the Volga (in what are now parts of Russia and Ukraine). A handful of the older individuals recorded in the documentary even were the children of the immigrants, a vital link in the chain of memory, history and tradition.
Schmaltz added that “the traditions of gardening and canning also tie in with food way practices. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the canning of foods became an important activity of preserving and storing food reserves during the long winter months. Self-sufficiency was long a hallmark of many German-Russians and other groups, especially in rural areas and communities. As in the old country, the German-Russians loved to tend to their gardens and root cellars, and basements were used to store canned goods for any duration.”
PICTURED LEFT: Eric Schmaltz presented on the food ways of Germans from Russia (Shattuck, Oklahoma). Some of the types of food included (clockwise from top left) Fleischkeuchla, Plachinda (blachinda), Bierocks (Runzas) and Kuchen.
Since this immigrant group had first migrated into parts of the Russian Empire during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Eastern European and even Turkish or Central Asian influences on the Eurasian steppes helped influence and shape some of their food ways. Different culinary traditions were adopted along the way.
Besides varieties of noodles, sausages, home-baked bread and home-made drinks like schnapps (Red Eye) and tea, other notable German from Russia foods include Bierocks or Bierox/Pirogies (bread stuffed with meat, cabbage, and onions), Fleischkeuchla (meat and onions stuffed in bread), Plachinda/Blachinda (a turnover with pumpkin filling), Borscht (soup), Halupsy or Halupsie/Galupsi (meat-stuffed cabbage leaves, like pigs in a blanket), and Kase Knoephla/Knepfla (dumplings, similar to cheese buttons).
“My German-speaking paternal great-grandfather, who emigrated from Russia in 1898, and his sons in south-central North Dakota were butchers by trade with their own family-run businesses. My grandfather was a great cook and sausage maker,” Schmaltz recalled. “With lots of calories, and sometimes deep fried, many of these foods today might not always be the best for the arteries in a more sedentary society!” Schmaltz said. “But at the time they provided vital daily nourishment for farmers, laborers and pioneers.
“In many instances, some recipes and culinary practices have become local and regional delicacies in independent area or family-run restaurants across the Great Plains,” Schmaltz added. “I grew up eating many of these foods at home or family gatherings on the Central and Northern Plains. In fact, the Runza Restaurant chain, started up by a Volga German family in Lincoln, Nebraska, specializes now in a standardized version of Bierocks or Pirogies. Over the decades, this family restaurant has expanded as a food chain across their home state and even into Iowa, Kansas and Colorado. Meanwhile, Kuchen, a popular sweet custard dish, was named several years ago the official state dessert of South Dakota, where many Germans from Russia settled.”
Because of geographical dispersals, cultural and dialect differences, and the pitfalls of word translations, often the pronunciations and spellings of these traditional recipe foods vary from place to place across time, even among families and individuals.
“It remains quite important to document and preserve these traditions, practices and memories,” Schmaltz said. “Some of these food ways, though not all, are fast disappearing with the passage of time. Indeed, food ways constitute a more direct and immediate way of staying connected with one’s heritage. It can cut across generations and be enjoyed by family, friends and others. It also permits some variety.”
For the past several years, Schmaltz has received numerous invitations from the Shattuck chapter and others in the region, nation-wide, and internationally to discuss various German-Russian topics.
For more information on Schmaltz’s presentations contact him at (580) 327-8526 or firstname.lastname@example.org.