Blood, Phlegm & Bile:
Parenting with Humor

May
Learning about life and gardening in Russia


I’ve traveled to Russia quite a few times over the years and people there often ask me where I’m from in the U.S. You might think the name of our provincial flyover state would mean no more to a Russian than it would mean to you if a Russian visitor told you she was from Chelyabinsk Oblast. But in fact, every man, woman, and child in Russia has heard of Colorado, and the very mention of the word makes them recoil in horror.

No, not because of John Denver. They love John Denver over there. Even so, Russians associate Colorado with the two most vile scourges ever to invade their homeland, with the possible exceptions of Napoleon and Hitler: the TV show Dynasty, and the Colorado Potato Beetle. At first I couldn’t understand why they would care about potato beetles. The people I tended to meet were city dwellers, not farmers. But like virtually all Russians, they were also gardeners.

As I was happy to discover, one thing I have in common with most Russians, in addition to liking John Denver’s music, is a love of gardening. If fact, I can trace my interest in gardening to those early trips. As a young adult, I worked in a Russian city, spent my weekends hiking and biking, and bought all my food at the grocery store. My Russian friends and colleagues were urban professionals too, but they spent their weekends growing food. Not in small backyards or community gardens like we have in our cities, but at little cottages called dachas. In the “green belt” around most cities, hundreds of dachas, each with a small plot of land, are packed together into villages. Every weekend, countless urbanites crowd onto commuter trains to get away from the noise and heat of the city, relax with their families, and most importantly, grow food.

Some dachas are large, luxurious vacation homes, used by the party elite in the old days and affluent “New Russians” today, but the typical dacha is basically a garden shed with a crude kitchen and a couple of cots. Instead of a manicured lawn for sunbathing and frisbee, every square inch (well, centimeter) is planted with beets, tomatoes, beans, and other vegetables. And when they’re not tending the dacha garden, they’re strolling along the nearby hillsides, foraging for mushrooms.

But mostly they grow potatoes, a delicious and versatile crop that is the most efficient way to produce a lot of calories. Perhaps not coincidentally, they can also be used to make vodka.

Hence the Russians’ grave concern about the Colorado beetle and their suspicion that I was somehow personally responsible for setting it loose in their ecosystem. The dacha was the first place where I experienced recreation as a productive activity. Although they find time for eating together, reading, playing guitars, and of course, drinking vodka, I still found it exotic and a bit sad (that’s an obscure pun, by the way, because the Russian word for garden is sad) that they spent their time off not playing like us, but working in the garden.

Russians combine work and play largely from necessity. In the inefficient Soviet agricultural system, a huge proportion of the country’s fresh vegetables and fruit came from individual gardens. Grocery stores were mostly empty in the old days and are filled with items many people cannot afford today. So gardening at the dacha is not just a hobby; it serves as an underground food system.

The Underground has always been a big part of Russian life. Whether seeking shelter from the oppressive government or the oppressive weather, the best and most interesting things about Russia – dissident intellectuals, potatoes, art, beets – tend to develop underground, staying out of sight until conditions are right for them to emerge.

The best Russian food certainly comes from unofficial, underground sources. Potatoes and beets are just the starting point of borshch, a cultural achievement that is as good as The Brothers Karamazov and only slightly less dense. Borshch is a Russian word that, loosely translated, means “pick everything in your garden and put it in a pot.“ With its abundance of fresh, healthy ingredients, it’s the bright spot in an otherwise bleak culinary landscape of mayonnaise salads, mysterious meats, and the official “delicacy” Chicken Kiev, a fried chicken bomb that explodes molten grease when detonated with your knife and fork.

It’s a universal truth that homegrown food is better than anything your can buy, so gardening is becoming more popular here at home again. But of course there’s nothing new about growing some of your own food. People do it all over the world, and most did here until a generation ago. My parents grew vegetables in their backyard in the 1970s, not because they wanted to be “locavores”, but because then, as now, the only way to get a decent tomato was to grow it yourself. Gardening wasn’t a hot trend.

It was just a normal part of life. That’s what it has always been in the rest of the world, where people don’t live-blog the germination of their tomato seeds or send tweets about their bean harvest. They just do it. Before I went to Russia, I thought of gardening as work.

It is, of course, but it’s healthy physical exercise. And spending time at dachas showed me how fun and satisfying it is to provide food for your family. Now I spend most of my free time in the garden too.

But in all my years of gardening, I’ve never seen a Colorado potato beetle. Looks like we succeeded in sending them all over to Russia.

© 2011 John Hershey

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Parents are the bones on which children sharpen their teeth. - Peter Ustinov

John Hershey is a dad, a writer, and a lawyer (in that order). He writes a syndicated biweekly humor column about parenting and family life.. His columns have been published or accepted for publication on websites and in magazines around the world, from Maine to Oregon, Colorado down to Texas, and down under in Australia.

Blood, Phlegm & Bile: Parenting with Humor appears monthly on menstuff.org. But, why the gross title? Well, for one thing these are three substances with which every parent becomes quite familiar. They were also called the "humors" by medieval scientists who believed that the proportion of these bodily fluids determined a person's health and temperament. So it's a pun! A pun requiring a lengthy explanation, but a pun nonetheless. E-Mail



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