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Children of Catherine the Great: the Germans From Russia


Russia's Catherine the Great can take credit for an intriguing, little-known facet of California's ethnic cookery.

During her reign (1762 to 1796), the former German princess was determined to civilize the lower Volga region, which was overrun with robbers and ruffians, so she opened the doors to German immigrants. She offered land, religious freedom and other incentives for them to settle in the Volga villages.

Thousands responded, and all went well for about 100 years. Then the political situation deteriorated and thousands departed. A substantial number came to the United States, many putting down roots in Lincoln, Neb., which is now the headquarters of the American Historical Society of the Germans from Russia. Some moved on to California, settling around Fresno.

Among the Fresno contingent was a young couple, Jacob Heinrich and his wife, Elizabeth. Heinrich's great-great-grandfather, a carpet weaver, had settled in the Volga colony of Kukkus in 1767. Jacob was born there in 1882 and moved to the United States in 1902. He married Elizabeth "Lizzie" Felsing, another immigrant, in 1904.

Their descendants include granddaughter Karen Heinrich Shea of Lake Forest, who has become a chronicler of the Germans from Russia, especially their recipes.

A tall, striking woman and an excellent cook, Shea has compiled "Heinrich Family Favorites," a thick cookbook of recipes from descendants of Jacob and Elizabeth Heinrich. Along with the family genealogy, it tells how the Germans from Russia lived, worked and celebrated.

Elizabeth Heinrich cooked on a wood stove, put up jelly in half-gallon jars and made virtually everything the family consumed. "Grandma ... Heinrich's cooking day often started at 5 a.m., the 'crack of dawn,' " Shea writes in the book. "All cooking was from 'scratch,' no mixes or shortcuts. The family rarely, if ever, bought bread at the store, at 9 cents a loaf a terrible extravagance."

The Heinrichs had bought vineyard land on which to raise raisin grapes, and when they lost it during the Depression, they settled on 20 acres in Biola, about 10 miles from Fresno.

Although hard-working, honest and thrifty, the Germans from Russia were discriminated against. "Rooshian town" was the disparaging term for the part of Fresno where the early settlers congregated. They spoke different dialects according to the villages from which they came, and their Russian-influenced food was unknown to other Germans.

So obscure is this group that Shea, who was born in Fresno, says, "I never knew I was a German from Russia until I was in high school."

"Heinrich Family Favorites" contains more than 500 recipes. Only about 60 are the old Russian-influenced family recipes, but they are treasures.

Beerocks, for instance. These are big yeast rolls stuffed with beef, cabbage and onions, a "hand-held meal," as Shea describes them. Some Fresno churches sell beerocks at fund-raisers. "It's the longest recipe in the book. All my aunts and uncles wanted their version in," Shea says.

Shea's beerocks are light, tender oval buns generously stuffed with juicy filling. The counter on which they sat was draped with colorfully embroidered black shawls that her grandmother brought from Russia. The shawls, in perfect condition, had obviously been reserved for special occasions.

The sausages were made by Shea's father, Philip. Philip still uses his father Jacob's early-1900s meat grinder and sausage stuffer. His recipe, which calls for 15 pounds of pork and 12 pounds of "good beef," is in the book.

Shea's parents live on a grape ranch in Madera. From 1937 to 1954, they ran three bakeries in Fresno called Phil's Pastry Box. "They did beautiful wedding cakes, pies, candies, bread," Shea recalls.

Several recipes from the bakery are in the book, including oatmeal raisin cookies and a lemon cake glaze, both dated 1938. The streusel coffee cake that Shea served is her mother Maxine's recipe. It is topped with a sour cream mixture, then streusel and finally cinnamon sugar. Shea says she likes a variation topped with Thompson seedless grapes.

Other family favorites in the book include pork ribs and sauerkraut--"We have that quite often," Shea says--and Elizabeth Heinrich's turkey stuffing with raisins.

There are several recipes for blina (pancakes) and one for vareniks, stuffed dumplings that are boiled and then fried. "After making a batch of 150 vareniks, I know why my grandmother had skinny arms," Shea says. The dough has to be kneaded, then each varenik rolled out separately. The book gives a choice of potato-sauerkraut, apple, berry and cottage cheese fillings.

The recipe is laborious but not difficult. "None of this is very hard," Shea says. "It's just that most of us don't cook that way anymore."

She has had a gratifying response from other Germans from Russia who have bought the book and rediscovered the foods of their past. "The letters I get from people are what keep me going," she says.

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