Northern Michigan Recipes: During the day, Tanya Witkowski styles hair at Epiphany Salon in Traverse City, but on off-hours, she re-directs her creativity to cooking, often re-creating the Ukrainian dishes she learned growing up in Nikolaev, Ukraine, just north of the Black Sea—like her new home, also not far from the 45th parallel. With the holidays at hand, we asked Tanya to share with us some of her food memories and a holiday dinner’s worth of recipes—appetizers through dessert—inspired by her other northern home.
Four years ago Tanya immigrated to the United States to build a family with her new husband, George. But she is not alone as a Ukrainian in Traverse City, where over the past 20 years some 500 of her countrymen have moved, many through the help of local churches. Like every immigrant group in history, Traverse City’s small cadre of Ukrainians brought with it a heritage of traditional cooking, and that heritage has enriched holiday tables here for two decades.
In Ukraine, people celebrate Christmas on January 7th, in the Christian Orthodox tradition, but otherwise people celebrate in much the same way we do here. Tanya remembers so well gathering on Christmas Eve at her grandma’s house, walking in and smelling that soul-comforting aromatic blend of roasting chicken, fresh baked rolls, pies.
One of her first memories of helping her mom with Christmas meal involved crushing poppy seeds for dinner rolls. “In the Soviet Union, we didn’t have the electric grinder,” she says. Tanya’s mom asked her to take the mortar and pestle and grind the seeds by hand. She still remembers how hard that was for a little girl, but she also remembers why it was important for the recipe. “When you crush the seeds you get so much more flavor for the rolls,” she says.
Cooking is a big part of Ukrainian life, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Tanya was drawn to cooking at a remarkably young age. Even as an 8-year-old, she loved fresh food, and she wanted different meals every day. Her mom, who worked full-time, told her that if she wanted that, she would have to do the cooking herself. Tanya accepted the challenge. “So when my parents got home from work, dinner was ready,” she says. “I spoiled my dad with cookies and cakes.”
In the Ukraine, when an important dinner like Christmas or a birthday arrives, the woman of the family will cook for three days, typically solo. Creating 15 to 20 separate dishes for the meal is a common feat. When Tanya’s American husband, George, had his birthday recently, she made 24 dishes for the event.
The recipes Tanya shares with us are classic Ukrainian dishes served at holidays and other important dinners during the year. She modified the recipes slightly to accommodate American cooking styles, but she assures us the flavors are entirely authentic. She offers them in the spirit of women she grew up with. “In Ukraine, the women are amazing cooks,” she says. “Every time you go somewhere to a big meal, you say, ‘Share with me this recipe. I want to learn.’ ”
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