1910s: The Last Days of the Czars
My mother is expecting guests.
In just a few hours in this sweltering July heat wave, eight people will show up for an extravagant czarist-era dinner at her small Queens apartment. But her kitchen resembles a building site. Pots tower and teeter in the sink; the food processor and blender drone on in unison. In a shiny bowl on Mom’s green faux-granite counter, a porous blob of yeast dough seems weirdly alive. I’m pretty sure it’s breathing. Unfazed, Mother simultaneously blends, sautés, keeps an eye on Chris Matthews on MSNBC, and chatters away on her cordless phone. At this moment she suggests a plump modern-day elf, multitasking away in her orange Indian housedress.
Ever since I can remember, my mother has cooked like this, phone tucked under her chin. Of course, back in Brezhnev’s Moscow in the seventies when I was a kid, the idea of an “extravagant czarist dinner” would have provoked sardonic laughter. And the cord of our antediluvian black Soviet telefon was so traitorously twisted, I once tripped on it while carrying a platter of Mom’s lamb pilaf to the low three-legged table in the cluttered space where my parents did their living, sleeping, and entertaining.
Right now, as one of Mom’s ancient émigré friends fills her ear with cultural gossip, that pilaf episode returns to me in cinematic slow motion. Masses of yellow rice cascade onto our Armenian carpet. Biddy, my two-month-old puppy, greedily laps up every grain, her eyes and tongue swelling shockingly in an instant allergic reaction to lamb fat. I howl, fearing for Biddy’s life. My father berates Mom for her phone habits.
Mom managed to rescue the disaster with her usual flair, dotty and determined. By the time guests arrived—with an extra four non-sober comrades—she’d conjured up a tasty fantasia from two pounds of the proletarian wurst called sosiski. These she’d cut into petal-like shapes, splayed in a skillet, and fried up with eggs. Her creation landed at table under provocative blood-red squiggles of ketchup, that decadent capitalist condiment. For dessert: Mom’s equally spontaneous apple cake. “Guest-at-the-doorstep apple charlotte,” she dubbed it.
Guests! They never stopped crowding Mom’s doorstep, whether at our apartment in the center of Moscow or at the boxy immigrant dwelling in Philadelphia where she and I landed in 1974. Guests overrun her current home in New York, squatting for weeks, eating her out of the house, borrowing money and books. Every so often I Google “compulsive hospitality syndrome.” But there’s no cure. Not for Mom the old Russian adage “An uninvited guest is worse than an invading Tatar.” Her parents’ house was just like this, her sister’s even more so.
Tonight’s dinner, however, is different. It will mark our archival adieu to classic Russian cuisine. For such an important occasion Mom has agreed to keep the invitees to just eight after I slyly quoted a line from a Roman scholar and satirist: “The number of dinner guests should be more than the Graces and less than the Muses.” Mom’s quasi-religious respect for culture trumps even her passion for guests. Who is she to disagree with the ancients?
And so, on this diabolically torrid late afternoon in Queens, the two of us are sweating over a decadent feast set in the imagined 1910s—Russia’s Silver Age, artistically speaking. The evening will mark our hail and farewell to a grandiose decade of Moscow gastronomy. To a food culture that flourished at the start of the twentieth century and disappeared abruptly when the 1917 revolution transformed Russian cuisine and culture into Soviet cuisine and culture—the only version we knew.
Mom and I have not taken the occasion lightly.
The horseradish and lemon vodkas that I’ve been steeping for days are chilling in their cut-crystal carafes. The caviar glistens. We’ve even gone to the absurd trouble of brewing our own kvass, a folkloric beverage from fermented black bread that’s these days mostly just mass-produced fizz. Who knows? Besides communing with our ancestral stomachs, this might be our last chance on this culinary journey to eat really well.
“The burbot liver—what to do about the burbot liver?” Mom laments, finally off the phone.
Noticing how poignantly scratched her knuckles are from assorted gratings, I reply, for the umpteenth time, that burbot, noble member of the freshwater cod family so fetishized by pre-revolutionary Russian gourmands, is nowhere to be had in Jackson Heights, Queens. Frustrated sighing. As always, my pragmatism interferes with Mom’s dreaming and scheming. And let’s not even mention viziga, the desiccated dorsal cord of a sturgeon. Burbot liver was the czarist foie gras, viziga its shark’s fin. Chances of finding either in any zip code hereabouts? Not slim—none.
But still, we’ve made progress.
Several test runs for crispy brains in brown butter have yielded smashing results. And despite the state of Mom’s kitchen, and the homey, crepuscular clutter of her book-laden apartment, her dining table is a thing of great beauty. Crystal goblets preen on the floral, antique-looking tablecloth. Pale blue hydrangeas in an art nouveau pitcher I found at a flea market in Buenos Aires bestow a subtle fin-de-siècle opulence.
I unpack the cargo of plastic containers and bottles I’ve lugged over from my house two blocks away. Since Mom’s galley kitchen is far too small for two cooks, much smaller than an aristocrat’s broom closet, I’ve already brewed the kvass and prepared the trimmings for an anachronistic chilled fish and greens soup called botvinya. I was also designated steeper of vodkas and executer of Guriev kasha, a dessert loaded with deep historical meaning and a whole pound of home-candied nuts. Mom has taken charge of the main course and the array of zakuski, or appetizers.
A look at the clock and she gasps. “The kulebiaka dough! Check it!”
I check it. Still rising, still bubbling. I give it a bang to deflate—and the tang of fermenting yeast tickles my nostrils, evoking a fleeting collective memory. Or a memory of a received memory. I pinch off a piece of dough and hand it to Mom to assess. She gives me a shrug as if to say, “You’re the cookbook writer.”
But I’m glad I let her take charge of the kulebiaka. This extravagant Russian fish pie, this history lesson in a pastry case, will be the pièce de résistance of our banquet tonight.
“The kulebiaka must make your mouth water, it must lie before you, naked, shameless, a temptation. You wink at it, you cut off a sizeable slice, and you let your fingers just play over it. . . . You eat it, the butter drips from it like tears, and the filling is fat, juicy, rich with eggs, giblets, onions . . .”
So waxed Anton Pavlovich Chekhov in his little fiction “The Siren,” which Mom and I have been salivating over during our preparations, just as we first did back in our unglorious socialist pasts. It wasn’t only us Soviet-born who fixated on food. Chekhov’s satiric encomium to outsize Slavic appetite is a lover’s rapturous fantasy. Sometimes it seems that for nineteenth-century Russian writers, food was what landscape (or maybe class?) was for the English. Or war for the Germans, love for the French—a subject encompassing the great themes of comedy, tragedy, ecstasy, and doom. Or perhaps, as the contemporary author Tatyana Tolstaya suggests, the “orgiastic gorging” of Russian authors was a compensation for literary taboos on eroticism. One must note, too, alas, Russian writers’ peculiarly Russian propensity for moralizing. Rosy hams, amber fish broths, blini as plump as “the shoulder of a merchant’s daughter” (Chekhov again), such literary deliciousness often serves an ulterior agenda of exposing gluttons as spiritually bankrupt philistines—or lethargic losers such as the alpha glutton Oblomov. Is this a moral trap? I keep asking myself. Are we enticed to salivate at these lines so we’ll end up feeling guilty?
But it’s hard not to salivate. Chekhov, Pushkin, Tolstoy—they all devote some of their most fetching pages to the gastronomical. As for Mom’s beloved Nikolai Gogol, the author of Dead Souls anointed the stomach the body’s “most noble” organ. Besotted with eating both on and off the page—sour cherry dumplings from his Ukrainian childhood, pastas from his sojourns in Rome—scrawny Gogol could polish off a gargantuan dinner and start right in again. While traveling he sometimes even churned his own butter. “The belly is the belle of his stories, the nose is their beau,” declared Nabokov. In 1852, just short of his forty-third birthday, in the throes of religious mania and gastrointestinal torments, Nikolai Vasilievich committed a slow suicide rich in Gogolian irony: he refused to eat. Yes, a complicated, even tortured, relationship with food has long been a hallmark of our national character.
According to one scholarly count, no less than eighty-six kinds of edibles appear in Dead Souls, Gogol’s chronicle of a grifter’s circuit from dinner to dinner in the vast Russian countryside. Despairing over not being able to scale the heights of the novel’s first volume, poor wretched Gogol burned most of the second. What survives includes the most famous literary ode to kulebiaka—replete with a virtual recipe.
“Make a four-cornered kulebiaka,” instructs Petukh, a spiritually bankrupt glutton who made it through the flames. And then:
“In one corner put the cheeks and dried spine of a sturgeon, in another put some buckwheat, and some mushrooms and onion, and some soft fish roe, and brains, and something else as well. . . . As for the underneath . . . see that it’s baked so that it’s quite . . . well not done to the point of crumbling but so that it will melt in the mouth like snow and not make any crunching sound.
Petukh smacked his lips as he spoke.”
Generations of Russians have smacked their own lips at this passage. Historians, though, suspect that this chimerical “four-cornered” kulebiaka might have been a Gogolian fiction. So what then of the genuine article, which is normally oblong and layered?
To telescope quickly: kulebiaka descends from the archaic Slavic pirog (filled pie). Humbly born, they say, in the 1600s, it had by its turn-of-the-twentieth-century heyday evolved into a regal golden-brown case fancifully decorated with cut-out designs. Concealed within: aromatic layers of fish and viziga, a cornucopia of forest-picked mushrooms, and butter-splashed buckwheat or rice, all the tiers separated by thin crepes called blinchiki—to soak up the juices.
Mom and I argued over every other dish on our menu. But on this we agreed: without kulebiaka, there could be no proper Silver Age Moscow repast.
When my mother, Larisa (Lara, Larochka) Frumkina—Frumkin in English—was growing up in the 1930s high Stalinist Moscow, the idea of a decadent czarist-era banquet constituted exactly what it would in the Brezhnevian seventies: laughable blue cheese from the moon. Sosiski were Mom’s favorite food. I was hooked on them too, though Mom claims that the sosiski of my childhood couldn’t hold a candle to the juicy Stalinist article. Why do these proletarian franks remain the madeleine of every Homo sovieticus? Because besides sosiski with canned peas and kotleti (minced meat patties) with kasha, cabbage-intensive soups, mayo-laden salads, and watery fruit kompot for dessert—there wasn’t all that much to eat in the Land of the Soviets.
Unless, of course, you were privileged. In our joyous classless society, this all-important matter of privilege has nagged at me since my early childhood.
I first glimpsed—or rather heard—the world of privileged food consumption during my first three years of life, at the grotesque communal Moscow apartment into which I was born in 1963. The apartment sat so close to the Kremlin, we could practically hear the midnight chimes of the giant clock on the Spassky Tower. There was another sound too, keeping us up: the roaring BLARGHHH of our neighbor Misha puking his guts out. Misha, you see, was a food store manager with a proprietary attitude toward the socialist food supply, likely a black market millionaire who shared our communal lair only for fear that flaunting his wealth would attract the unwanted attention of the anti-embezzlement authorities. Misha and Musya, his blond, big-bosomed wife, lived out a Mature Socialist version of bygone decadence. Night after night they dined out at Moscow’s few proper restaurants (accessible to party bigwigs, foreigners, and comrades with illegal rubles), dropping the equivalent of Mom’s monthly salary on meals that Misha couldn’t even keep in his stomach.
When the pair stayed home, they ate unspeakable delicacies— batter-fried chicken tenders, for instance—prepared for them by the loving hands of Musya’s mom, Baba Mila, she a blubbery former peasant with one eye, four—or was it six?—gold front teeth, and a healthy contempt for the nonprivileged.
“So, making kotleti today,” Mila would say in the kitchen we all shared, fixing her monocular gaze on the misshapen patties in Mom’s chipped aluminum skillet. “Muuuuusya!” she’d holler to her daughter. “Larisa’s making kotleti!”
“Good appetite, Larochka!” (Musya was fond of my mom.)
“Muuusya! Would you eat kotleti?”
“Aha! You see?” And Mila would wag a swollen finger at Mom.
One day my tiny underfed mom couldn’t restrain herself. Back from work, tired and ravenous, she pilfered a chicken nugget from a tray Mila had left in the kitchen. The next day I watched as, red-faced and teary-eyed, she knocked on Misha’s door to confess her theft.
“The chicken?” cackled Mila, and I still recall being struck by how her twenty-four-karat mouth glinted in the dim hall light. “Help yourself anytime—we dump that shit anyway.”
And so it was that about once a week we got to eat shit destined for the economic criminal’s garbage. To us, it tasted pretty ambrosial.
Copyright © 2013 by Anya Von Bremzen. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.