russian food, part two

I love talking about food, therefore we’re going to continue this series a while longer.

This time, I want to talk about Russian food culture. I don’t mean “cultural foods”… I mean the culture around foods. Let me begin by describing two typical family meals, one with my family in America, one with my tutor’s family here in Ukhta.

The first scene opens with Mom in the kitchen laying pieces of meat on some sort of plate, Katie putting silverware and napkins on the table, Kristen grabbing the salad dressing (not mayonnaise), and Dad walking to the table from his office. In a minute, the middle of the table is occupied by a large glass bowl of salad (60% romaine lettuce, 10% tomatoes, 10% raw mushrooms, 10% cucumbers, 10% fresh-grated cheddar, 0% mayonnaise), a platter of italian-marinated grilled chicken breasts, and a basket of bread. Each plate has already been served a helping of rice, because a rice pot on the table is just uncomfortable. Each plate also has standing above it a glass full of cran-apple juice (Dad and Katie) or water (Mom and Kristen). We all sit down together, pray, and begin passing the food around. We discuss our day, the things we did, the people we saw. We eat, really slowly, pausing also to drink at various points in time. When we’ve finished, one of the servants (i.e. Kristen or Katie) takes the dishes to the sink, where they will be washed later. If Dad takes the dishes to the sink, he probably washes them right away. In an hour or two, people begin trickling back to the kitchen to dish themselves a bowl of ice cream, which might be eaten upstairs while working on the computer, downstairs while watching TV, or in the kitchen while staring at a wall. The lights dim, the curtain falls.

The second scene opens with Katie entering a Russian apartment for the fiftieth time this calendar year, taking off her boots, greeting the cat, and beginning to regret wearing a sweater (because it’s 90 degrees in this apartment). Natasha, her tutor, is maybe finishing something in the kitchen, while Natasha’s mom is sitting at the computer playing Solitaire or Mahjong. Katie goes to the kitchen and asks if she can help, at which point she is given a bowl and told to give herself as much soup as she wants. Katie ladles some soup into the bowl and goes to the living room, where a little table has been set with paper-towel-placemats and silverware, along with a bowl of salad (60% cabbage, 10% bell pepper, 10% onion, 10% cucumber, 10% tomatoes, 0% mayonnaise, because they know Katie by now). Natasha comes soon, bringing her own soup. She offers Katie mayonnaise or (because she loves Katie) sour cream for the soup. She asks her mom if she wants anything, to which her mom says (for the fiftieth time this calendar year), “No I don’t want to, I just ate.” Natasha and Katie eat soup, during which time they talk and Natasha’s mom chides her for talking and not letting Katie eat. Then Natasha disappears into the kitchen and reappears with two plates of mashed potatoes and cutlets. After these have been eaten, Natasha takes the plates to the kitchen and reappears with cups, two kettles, and a tiny teapot. The tiny teapot is full of zavarka, which basically translates to “incredibly strong tea.” The kettles have, respectively, kipiatok (boiled water) and kholodnyy kipiatok (cold boiled water), for the watering down of the zavarka. Tea is consumed with chocolate, store-bought cupcakes that sometimes taste heavenly and other times taste like cardboard, or buttered bread with cheese. After tea, the cups and teapot are left on the table, because in an hour or two we’ll probably have second tea. Exit Stage Left. etc.

So, you’ll notice one thing right away: Russian mealtimes are very structured. One does not eat the hot food (usually called the vtoroe, or “second”) before the soup, or tea before the vtoroe. Meanwhile in America, all of the food is on the table at the same time, and you eat as you like. Maybe you want to finish your salad before you start your chicken. Maybe you want to eat one bite of each thing in a circle around your plate. Up to you.

Speaking of not having tea before the vtoroe, in Russia, one drinks after one is done eating. Sometimes there can be mors (cranberry compote) during the meal, but more often than not it too will make its appearance at the end. Meanwhile in America, the eating and drinking usually happen in tandem. This relates to another big difpeter-pan-confusedference, which I haven’t noticed as much as the Russians around me: Americans drink a lot of water in comparison with people here. I literally always have a water bottle with me, and I usually consume 1.5-2 liters a day (which isn’t really all that much). I can’t make it more than a few hours without water. But here they just don’t have that expectation, and usually when people realize how much water I drink they ask, “Are you on a diet?” I at that point look down at myself, look back up at them, and give them my best “really?” face.

The last difference I’ll note in mealtimes is the expectation here that you would not eat and talk at the same time. That’s probably very mannerly, in fact, now that I think about it. Guess Americans are rude after all.

Another difference in food culture here is that you do not eat while you walk, unless it’s ice cream. That’s literally the only time it’s okay. For a perpetual eat-and-walk-er, this poses a problem. Not because I’m going to stop my strolls through the park with big crispy apple in hand, but I sometimes get embarrassed feel like I have to hide the apple behind my back when someone approaches me from the front. It’s part of a more leisurely culture, I think, where taking a 3pm tea break is not only normal, it’s expected, and it will probably be extravagant by American Starbucks-to-go standards. Yes, eating on the go can be a purely voluntary activity, especially when the weather is nice and you want to stand outside in the sun, but you don’t smoke, so you need something else to do. But many times I’ve eaten on the go, it’s been because I’m running from one class to another and have barely enough time to get there, let alone eat lunch. Or because I have roughly the metabolism of a butterfly.

The last difference I’ll note is in the conception of portions/types of food necessary to health. Here, I’d say 40% of your diet is easily potatoes. The other 60% is divided between bread + dairy + eggs + fruits + vegetables + meat. Beans and nuts don’t make much of an appearance, and honestly neither do many vegetables. Maybe I’m too much of a southerner to understand how potatoes with cabbage and onion constitute a veggie dish, but… I need crunchy things with bright colors! This is why I carry an apple with me everywhere, to the confusion of my friends. I think the American diet easily comprises a lot more raw vegetable matter, and a lot less starch/dairy than the Russian diet. And yet, somehow, Russians go to America and gain weight, and Americans go to Russia and lose weight. This doesn’t make any sense until you realize that humans are actually phototrophs. This is not a well-known scientific fact, but I’m working on some research right now.

Coming soon: what Katie actually eats!

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