Russia Day (June 12) is not a holiday I grew up with, as my entire childhood was spent in Soviet Russia. It has been celebrated only since 1991, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and Russia’s newly found independence (although it is hard to define from whom, exactly). At any rate, this holiday presents a perfect excuse to celebrate being a snooty Moscow girl :-).
This year I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to the reception at the Russian Embassy in Washington DC hosted by the Russian Ambassador and his entourage.
The focal point of the evening was Russian food. The spread was lavish and exquisite; it lacked the grotesque excesses of the pre-revolutionary aristocracy, and of the “new Russians” (as in, large tubs of caviar and champagne fountains). The event as a whole was in amazingly good taste, and it was marked by the conspicuous absence of scantily dressed leggy 20-year old Russian babes. Instead, it was full of classy and beautiful women who have managed to escape the curse of premature aging so common in Russia. (The unintended consequence of looking young is that some Russian women currently living in the U.S. still get stern looks from the cashier and demands to see some ID when buying alcohol at a grocery store :-))
The spirit was clearly celebratory. Delicacies abounded, – caviar, sturgeon, tongue, roasted piglet, you name it. They were served side by side with homey but amazing meat pies (“pierozhki”), shish kebabs (“shashlik”), dumplings (“pelmeni”), eggplant rolls, a shrimp-laden version of “Olivier” a.k.a. “Russian” salad…the list goes on almost indefinitely.
Libations were as plentiful and potent as the Volga river, the traditional drink of choice being pure, unadulterated liquor (no mixers, no ice cubes). Those of you who have read “The Master and Margarita” may even recall Behemoth’s immortal line, “Do you think I would offer vodka to a lady? This is pure grain alcohol!”
Joking aside, we did toast with Rossijskaja vodka, – smooth as a baby’s bottom, with all the traditional chasers (caviar, smoked salmon, pickled mushrooms and cabbage, tongue with horseradish, herring, hot-smoked sturgeon, etc. The other “choices of a new generation” were whiskey and gin; this was no place for molecular mixology.
Thank God, there was no “Soviet Champagne” (“Sovietskoje Shampanskoje”), ubiquitous at every Russian gathering back in the day. Essentially an alcoholic grape soda pop, it bore as much resemblance to the real stuff as American pumpernickel bread to the Russian “black” rye bread . A “Soviet” sparkler would not be appropriate for the occasion, anyway.
After the party we did not feel the need to check off any additional boxes, and decided to skip the original plan of tasting blini, caviar, and premium vodkas at the nearby Russia House lounge and restaurant. It has one of those inviting façades marred by Russian bandit bouncer types, sporting the mandatory bad haircuts, jogging suits, and gold chains. Instead, we just slowly walked home…
This holiday made me think of one of my favorite childhood treats: spoonfuls of homemade dulce de leche (soft caramel), made by boiling an unopened can of condensed sweetened milk for several hours (“var’onaja sgushenka”):
If I weren’t lazy (of course that would be starting with a counterfactual :-)), I would make something ambitious like a traditional cake called “The Count’s Castle Ruins” (“Grafskije Razvalini”), in order to celebrate the occasion. It is one big delicious mess featuring layered soft caramel, merengue, nuts, etc. that perfectly illustrates the aftermath of many political events of the past.
You reminscences of Soviet cuisine and manners are a bit jaded by experience, nyet?
Vodka as smooth as a baby’s bottom? Hmmmm….
No, not Soviet manners. Post-Soviet manners. And yes, Soviet food. Russian food is fantastic.
Either a baby’s bottom is not as smooth as I have been led to believe, or you have not had good vodka?
Adds a whole new dimension to the old Western toast, “Bottoms Up!”, don’t you think?
I like vodka– but have never loved it– maybe I never had a great one. Is there such a thing– this Holy Grail of Wodka? (I think I know how might answer that.)We should consult with our esteemed Liquor Magician at Putney Farm.
And speaking of manners from the Soviet era (yes, I know “Post-Soviet” Manners…) you have reminded me of a photo that I posted last year relating to a certain President’s bad manners: http://sybaritesauvage.com/2011/05/08/another-nixonian-dilemma/
So, I see you are implying that being Russian, I am incapable of objectively evaluating vodka :-)… Of course vodka is no cognac or scotch, but differences in quality of grain and distillation/filtering processes (as in, triple distilled vodka) are glaring. Think of it as a “bread wine”.
I love that post of yours! While many transgressions are not unique to any one country, hording good alcohol, however expensive, is just not what Russians do. I hope you have had the pleasure of being entertained by a Russian. If not, you are really missing out.
Implying nothing of the sort! Though we all know that taste is subjective– have you tried doing a vodka blind tasting to see if your “preferences” are legit? You know, I love a good steak, but sometimes a Sabrett’s Dirty Water Dog is the only way to go! OK, bad analogy, but you catch my drift, don’t you?
I don’t want you to think that American culture has a tradition of keeping the good stuff for one’s exclusive and personal consumption only. Certainly, it is bad form to do that while everyone else is drinking the more inferior plonk. That event spoke more about Niixon than about our poeple. But you live here and so, I know you already know all of this.
Another of our greater Presidents, T-Jeff was notoriously generous with his sharing of first growth French wines with visitors. This, he did despite the damage to his personal purse.
I personally like to take a more middle of the road approach—either share the good stuff, or drink the plonk along with everyone else—depending on the size of the group and the depth of my pockets…
I totally agree with the blind tasting approach. It is something I am very comfortable with, having spent several years as a wine professional. The best kind of a blind tasting for this purpose is not even about which one you prefer, but whether you can even tell the difference.
As for generosity, I think it is quite safe to make the generalization that Americans and Europeans as a group are more chintsy than Russians (obviously, the Nixon case is very extreme, and I am not talking about such an obvious breach of hospitality). Nor am I just talking about sharing premium booze.
Russians have a huge tradition of gift-giving, and of extreme generosity and hospitality (there is a Russian saying about giving away one’s last shirt to a stranger). In more practical terms, anybody who stops by your house will always be fed a full meal (as opposed to being offered a glass of water and maybe peanuts). By the same rationale, you never go to anybody’s place without a gift.
Actually, what you describe as Russian culture is very similar to Puerto Rican-American culture, Italian-American culture, Jamaican-American culture and a host of other American subcultures. Family or no, just try to get out of my mother’s house without a full belly– it’s not possible!
Maybe you need to get out more! 😉
Seriously– a glass of water and peanuts? They must have overlooked all your charm!
Not that you are doing this, but there may be certain other American sub-cultures that are not as open on the hospitality front. I am reminded of George Costanza’s mother complaining that George’s future in-laws had failed the hospitality test by not putting out a piece of cake to have with their after dinner coffee. Is this the America of Hydration and Stale Nuts of which you speak?
Well, this has turned into an interesting discussion of what constitutes “American”… By your rationale, my attitudes towards hospitality (or anything else) could also be considered American, since I live here.
However, I think one should distinguish between the behaviors and attitudes of various ethnic communities (Puerto Rican, Russian, Italian enclaves, so to speak), and the mainstream prevalent culture of fully assimilated Americans of, say, 3rd generation and up, who have fully embraced the new lifestyles and attitudes, and who do not think of themselves as French, Mexican, German, etc first, and American second. I guess the easiest way to describe it is “America as portrayed in sitcoms”.
I work with the latter by day, and dance Argentine tango with the former by night. My tango friends here in DC are French, Puerto Rican, Argentine, Brazilian, Korean, Russian, Portuguese, Colombian, Italian, Polish, etc. etc. So I do get out a fair bit.
Anyway, this kind of conversation flows much better when accompanied by a glass of wine…
Agreed about that glass of wine.
This conversation could actually go in many directions. However, it bears saying that all of us Americans are from somewhere else– even those who defined the “mainstream prevalent culture of fully assimilated Americans” are immigrants. I believe that Americans of all generations are essentially a generout lot, but that generosity is not unbridled and perhaps that is the distinction you have experienced. OK, you get the last word– I’m done.
Now, about that glass of wine… 😉
Why have I never been to a Russian restaurant? I will have to remedy that as soon as possible. Happy belated Russia Day!
Do go!(but bring a fat wallet). Nothing Russian is cheap anymore, not even the good potatoes. Better yet, score an invitation to a home-cooked meal, and experience Russian hospitality at its finest. Be sure to fast for a couple of days beforehand.
Oh, and thanks!
How do you get invited to such parties!?
Ohm… the old Behemoth… Now I have to reread The Master and Margarita again… I find that the book is a must read every two years or so…
It was pure luck (and the fact that I work on the Capitol Hill).
Bulgakov NEVER gets old.