A Taste of Ukraine in Oklahoma

by Randy R Potts


The Ukrainian protests since last November reminded me of this photo I took of my two daughters several years ago. We had everything we needed to follow the one Ukrainian recipe that was passed down on my father’s side and, seeing all the food spread out on the table, I insisted we take a photo.

My son watched from the sidelines as my girls agreed to lie on the table, allowing me to place the vegetables, the lard, the potatoes, and the flour around them. When I was a boy growing up in Tulsa I used to press my father for details of our Ukrainian origins, frustrated that his memories were few, but he did remember one word, “arbuz,” because his grandfather’s favorite summer treat was the watermelon. How this Russian word ended up on the tongue of my German-Ukrainian great-grandfather is part and parcel of Ukraine’s history, rarely able to disentangle from its neighbors.

Ukraine and Oklahoma, though far apart, have strange ties—both windswept prairies spawning legends of heroes on horseback—cowboys in Tulsa, Cossacks in Kiev. For both, one loud, brash neighbor has always attempted, too often successfully, to dominate the conversation—oddly enough, Rick Perry and Vladimir Putin agree on much of their politics, what to do with “the gays” in particular. Oklahoma is the birthplace of agrarian socialism, farmers uniting against the banks during the Great Depression; across the sea, in Ukraine, “kulaks” became public enemy number one while Stalin, “Man of Steel,” started his mass collectivization project.

Most Tulsans aren’t aware, but the famous poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko is of Ukranian descent and has lived in their midst for the last 20 years, teaching at the University of Tulsa; in Soviet times Yevtushenko could pack out an entire football stadium in Moscow. He is one of the few Soviet poets whose voice broke through the Iron Curtain; his most famous poem, “Babii Yar,” was a triumphant voice against intolerance and anti- Semitism among the Slavic peoples. Referring to the unmarked graves resulting from frequent pogroms, Yevtushenko wrote:

“And I myself
am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.
I am
each old man
here shot dead.”

I have to wonder, who is Tulsa’s Yevtushenko? Which poet will write a poem called “Greenwood?”

And I myself
am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.
I am Tate Brady,
I am the night watchman,
I am so many Negroes shot dead.

Tulsa and Kiev have their ghosts. Let them lie, some say. The protests on the streets of Kiev, some say, are about the age-old choice—Russia or Europe, West or East, but most Ukrainians will tell you it is not that complicated. They want free elections, and the right of assembly, the freedom of speech, and a real fighting chance against corruption. In Ukraine today, Orthodox priests are standing in the way of the guns aimed at protesters— where was the church when the banks were taking away homes by the thousands during the Dust Bowl? I don’t know; if Steinbeck was right, even the preachers were forced to pack up and move to California. The only people left in Oklahoma were the bankers, and, together, they bred Republicans.

In my family, nothing of Ukrainian politics or even its language has survived, but, once a year, my children and I follow our family recipe: first, the dough. We let it rise and then, countertops cleared, we roll out the dough into thin sheets. My youngest likes to cut the dough into squares using a butter knife while the other two drop spoonfuls of cooked cabbage and onion, maybe potato, or a little dill, with me coming up from behind, gathering the corners, pinching them together, my husband placing the “varenyky” on cookie sheets. Or, “krautbruch” rather, the name my family has given these little stuffed bread pockets, a name I haven’t found in any cookbook anywhere—the literal German translation of “broken cabbage.”

Sometimes, it’s the things that are broken which bring us together.


Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5 Issue 3. Feb. 01, 2014.