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Russian rations

It’s winter and thoughts turn to the motherland


The nights are cold, my job sucks, and cabbage is the freshest thing in the produce aisle. Don’t bother me. I’m having a Russia moment. They come along every winter, when I look up and remember that good tomatoes are at least six or seven months away. It might be just another case of seasonal affective disorder, except I have a place and time to attach to the feeling: St. Petersburg, Russia—1992-’93. I’m simply homesick.

Why I should have warm feelings for this winter wonderland of food shortages is not immediately clear, even to myself. This was a place in which sugar disappeared from stores for weeks at a time, and the best price for fish could be found in the back of a dirty truck. Aren’t I just romanticizing a state of anarchic malnutrition?

Yes and no. Yes, my experience was rosier than the reality for most Russians. My companion and I were earning dollars, which meant that the farmers’ markets, with decent produce at exorbitant prices, were a viable option. And there were two of us to stand in lines, plus a Russian roommate who was happy to schlep shopping bags and make Turkish coffee in exchange for his share of the rent.

In spite of such luxuries, however, the pursuit of food demanded a significant expenditure of time, money, and energy, so we learned to appreciate the thrill of the hunt. There was always something on the street, melons from Moldavia or soy sauce or British crackers. One December we feasted for three weeks on mandarins and blood oranges, which had entered the country as aid from Italy and “fell off the back of a truck” at prices well below market value. If that’s not a humanitarian act, I don’t know what is.

The deli shops had their moments of excitement, too. If you could see past the smudged showcases and cats dozing on the scales (hey, at least there weren’t any mice!), there were some real finds, like imported Dutch cheese, instead of the chalky domestic stuff. As for the kolbasa counters, well, charcuterie would be too posh a term for the coarse-grained, thick-skinned bologna, but when meat prices soared, we looked forward to our dinner of fried eggs and bologna like anybody else.

Of course, we also looked forward to getting back to a normal system of food distribution. Our first return visit to an American grocery store was as exciting as we had imagined. And even now, nine years later, I still know we’ve got it good here. That cabbage is really fresh, and there is even some kale and good firm carrots lying about. The fish is laid out in clean ice, and there is always sugar on the shelf.

And yet, in the sameness of winter one longs for something else, a change of terrain or taste. So maybe it’s time for a field trip, 60 miles to the nearest Russian deli, where I can summon up my deteriorating Russian to ask for, say, a pound of salo.

It’s a long drive for what is essentially dry-cured pork fat, but the smell of it, salty and rich, takes me back to a little shop near the Mayakovskaya stantsiia metro. There the hurried shopkeeper pulled a small piece of salo out of a barrel of salt, brushed it off, and wrapped it in plain waxed paper, as expertly as an origami artist. Our Russian roommate showed us how to cut it into bits, fry it crisp, and crack eggs over the whole greasy mess. Traditionally, though, salo was eaten raw on bread spread with fiery mustard.

I have the mustard, at the back of my cupboard. All that’s missing is the salo. And yes, I know about cholesterol and trichinosis, but I don’t care. I just need a break from here and now, and a taste from then and there might help.

Vegetarian Borscht

Russians don’t use many cookbooks. It’s hard to plan a meal when you don’t know what’s in the stores. So when we made borscht over there, we relied on the recipe in my battered copy of the original Moosewood Cookbook. Traditionally borscht is based on a beef stock and has bits of beef in it, but this one is vegetarian, and can even be vegan if you use oil instead of butter and plain sugar instead of honey. Make sure to use fresh dill weed, and toast up some dark rye bread for real Russian flavor.
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced potato
1 cup thinly sliced beets
4 cups stock or water
1 1/2 chopped onion
2 tbsp. butter
1 tsp. caraway seeds
2 tsp. salt
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 large carrot, sliced
3 cups chopped cabbage
black pepper to taste
1 tbsp. + 1 tsp. cider vinegar
1 tbsp. + 1 tsp. honey
1 cup tomato puree

Place potatoes, beets, and stock in a saucepan and cook over medium-high heat until everything is tender. Drain and save the liquid. Meanwhile, melt the butter over medium heat in a large kettle, and add onion, caraway seeds and salt. Cook until onion is translucent, then add celery, carrots, cabbage, and liquid from potatoes and beets. Cover and cook until the vegetables are tender. Add potatoes, beets, and all remaining ingredients, cover, and simmer over medium-low heat for at least 30 minutes. Serve topped with dollops of sour cream and sprinkles of dill weed.

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