The Story of Kachka
Excerpted from Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking
Kachka’s menu is firmly rooted in the Soviet era, with nods even further back to both czarist excess and traditional rustic foodways. But my own family’s story—and the restaurant itself—owes its very existence to a singular moment seventy-five years ago. In October 1941, in a little town called Bobr in Belarus, the Jews were rounded up into the ghetto, and forced to dig a large hole. The next steps were pretty clear. So my grandmother Rakhil Altshuler layered on all of her warmest clothes. Bundled up her three-month-old baby, kissed her parents goodbye, and slipped out under the barbed wire fence. A day later, all of Bobr’s 961 Jews were killed.
My grandmother spent two months on foot, traveling through forests from village to village, begging for something to eat or a place to sleep. Her baby starved, and she dug a hole with her hands to bury him in a field. Finally, she was stopped by a starosta—one of the Nazi-appointed town wardens. My grandmother repeated the story she’d been carrying: she was a Ukrainian woman on the way to her husband’s family. “If you’re from Ukraine,” he asked doubtfully, seeing the dark complexion of a Belarusian Jew, “How do you say ‘ootka’ [duck] in Ukrainian?”
My grandmother didn’t know Ukrainian. At home, she spoke Yiddish and Russian, a few words of Belarusian. So she crossed her fingers, took a deep breath, and pulled out the Belarusian/Yiddish word: kachka. And with this one little word, this little duck, the key slid in the lock and the gates fell open. My grandmother passed through, and went on to join the partizan resistance.
A generation later, her son—my father, Vyacheslav (Slava) Frumkin—would cross his fingers, take a deep breath, and say goodbye to his mother for the last time. He would leave the Soviet Union to move to Chicago with his wife, Lyubov, and young son, Simon, becoming part of the story of Soviet Jewish immigration to the New World. A year later, I was born. And when I took a deep breath and decided to open a Russian restaurant in Portland, there was no question what we would call it. The name Kachka is a shorthand for the courage of all these journeys—my grandmother’s perseverance through those life-or-death wartime years; my parents’ chutzpah in leaving everything they knew to make a life in a new world that may as well have been a new planet; and my own mission to bring the food, stories, and feelings of all of these threads of the Russian experience to an entirely new table. - Excerpted from the book KACHKA by Bonnie Frumkin Morales with Deena Prichep. Copyright © 2017 by Bonnie Frumkin Morales. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. All rights reserved. Photography by Leela Cyd.
Learn more about Bonnie’s story and Soviet cuisine in Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking