My brother-in-law had a house in Fallsburg, the Catskill Mountains. The Kastilsky Mountains, as the saleswoman at the Russian deli in Brighton Beach called it. She was busy ladling salad Olivier from a plastic bucket when a regular customer asked her where she was going for a vacation. “Kastilsky Mountains!” she yelled back, giving me a false impression of a strong Slavic influence over American geography.
It was the first time I was going to meet my brother-in-law and his family, and I wanted to make a good impression. They lived in a creaky house with a compost pile in the back, next to outcroppings of rhubarb and a grouping of tomato plants fighting for sunshine against tall weeds the size of small trees. Patches of strawberry plants crept toward the woods and disappeared into a forest of nettles. The word dacha – really nothing more than an overgrown plot of land my parents’ summer place had deteriorated into after my father’s death – floated up in my mind and made me think of mushrooms.
The timing and the place were perfect: it was late August, and all around the house stretched a forest of pines and aspens and even an occasional birch, the name of a foreign-currency store in Leningrad no Russian was allowed to enter. There were no baskets in the house, so I picked up a Pathmark plastic bag and headed for the woods.
Through the loam of brown leaves and crumbling branches, as far as I could see, sprouted mushrooms: red caps on stout stems flecked with black; gray caps on long, skinny legs; and the best mushrooms called belye – the Zeus of the mushroom Olympus – with velvety tops the color of chocolate. Some were in their prime, others – crumbling from age, a sight you never see in a Russian forest where every mushroom is picked before it has a chance to grow to its full size. Twenty minutes later – a record for a mushroom hunt – my plastic bag was full.
Back in the house, I was ready for a frying pan and butter. “What are these?” said my niece, 3, wrinkling up her nose. Her mother gave my husband a startled look and pulled her daughter closer. As I cleaned and diced the mushrooms and piled them into the pan, a small circle formed around me to watch: my husband, my brother-in-law, his wife, my husband’s parents, and someone who seemed to have walked in and stayed. The familiar aroma of the dacha filled the kitchen as the mushrooms sizzled into a perfect, dark, meaty stew. It tasted thick and foresty, just like it did back home. “It’s ready,” I announced with a generous smile. “Please have some. Everyone should try it.”
No one moved. They stood in a silent circle around the stove, staring at the steaming heap in the pan. No one reached for a plate. No one rushed to set the table in anticipation of a feast, as they would have done back in Russia. The smell of wild mushrooms didn’t excite anyone but me. A scary thought popped into my head: if these people had never heard of eating wild mushrooms, what other things in life that I knew how to do, were alien to them? What else about me would frighten them, make them suspicious, turn them against me?
I felt pitiful and hopeless under the stare of seven people who wouldn’t try the mushrooms I’d gathered and cooked for them. It dawned on me that my mother could have been right, after all, when she warned me that America was the mouth of a shark. It was even worse, I thought: it was the mouth of an alien shark, odd and unknown, and I had no clue where to watch out for the teeth.
As we all stood there in silence, my husband took the fork from my hand, drove it deep into the pile of mushrooms I made, and filled his mouth with the fragrant stew. “Excellent,” he announced as he chewed and swallowed. “I highly recommend it,” he said as everyone looked away and promptly disappeared.