Day 29: Russia
The world can be a depressing place. We are, it seems, always at a crossroads. Bad things are happening all over the place and we do our best to care about everything, but doing so is downright impossible. It would, quite literally, drive us mad. It’s enough to make you question your faith in mankind, if you had any to begin with. But miraculously, the overwhelming positive of this whole crazy food project has been that people, somehow, are still good. Cooks in small kitchens throw everything they’ve got into putting out a great dish on a slow day. Owners and servers take an individual interest in making sure that, at least in this moment, you’re going to be taken care of. Then there are times like this, when a group of people decide to go so far out of their way to do something special for some unemployed prick they’ve never met before. Their daughter tells them that this guy she kind of knows is writing about food from every country he can get his hands on, then says “Hey, you guys could make him dinner!” and for some reason they agree. What drives people to be nice to some schmuck like me? I have no answer. The only thing I can come up with is that maybe things in the world aren’t as bad as they seem. Or if they are, at least there are people out there willing to take you in, offer shelter from the rushing avalanche and give you a chance to catch your breath for the night.
Ellie is a friend of Mr. Meatball’s from high school and she and I have held conversations only sparingly. Her mother and father came from Russia in the 80s and have been back only once since. They don’t eat Russian food very often, but tonight I’m welcomed into their home for a true Russian dinner. It begins, not surprisingly, with a shot of vodka followed by the customary bite of something pickled to chase it down— in this case, cucumbers, mushrooms and green tomatoes which taste of love and vinegar. There are bellinis with caviar, aggressively flavored little fish on dense, buttered rye bread, an eggplant dish similar to a caponata , a beautifully well rounded tomato salad with onions and dill and a bowl of sauerkraut with carrots and cabbage. Then, of course, more vodka. We toast, we eat, we drink, we talk and then we do it all over again.
Joined by her mother, father, cousin (who I recognize from middle school, but neither of us can figure how), their German house guest and Mr. Meatball, Ellie tells me that “In Russia, you don’t invite people to a party. They all know it’s your birthday, so they come over and you make sure you have enough food.” The night rages forward, I show Ellie my favorite joke in the world, which is a wine glass filled all the way to the top, (she isn’t in the mood for vodka today) we talk of everything from love to jobs to tales of drunken excess and I am absolutely in awe of this wonderful, kind and happy family. Mom, I know you’re going to read this, but I kind of want them to adopt me. Another shot, another pickled chaser and I’m really liking this combination— two extremes ingested side by side to create a perfect balance.
Ellie’s mother brings out some hot borscht and tells me that “In Russia, the food is usually much blander than this. Be we like it with a little more flavor.” Slightly spicy from red chili flakes but mellowed with sour cream, the soup combines with the vodka to make me feel like there are tiny people in my chest wearing sweaters and drinking hot cocoa by the fire. My head is starting to blur just slightly and it becomes very obvious that I will be taking very few notes tonight. The evening is too magical, the people too nice and the food too good. There are certain times where this project feels a little bit like work, but tonight, I can barely remember to take pictures.
Nowhere near hungry, but still needing something heavy to close the deal, I am more than accommodated by a gorgeous plate of good old fashioned meat and potatoes dotted with stewed tomatoes. It’s hearty, tender and makes me wish it were snowing outside. Served with herbs and fresh cucumber on the side, crunching into the juicy green spear and feeling the snap against my teeth refreshes me, joining with the vodka to beg “Please, ladle some more of those wonderful, delicious globules onto your plate and get them in your mouth.” I’m already hoping I’ll get to eat here again some day.
We sit outside while people smokes cigarettes (I don’t smoke those things, but her father Michael and I opt for some cigarillos) and enjoy the air after a perfect meal. The conversations turn to life as a whole and goals for the future, the camera is passed around and I’m reminded yet again that food, no matter how good, can be overshadowed by outstanding company. The cigarillos send a relaxing, sobering rush to my head and Ellie’s mother Yelena calls us in for tea. We chew grapes and strawberries, munch Polish chocolates and Russian sweets, drink tea and watch the clock wind well past the midnight hour. My body feels like it is being coated from the inside out by a thick, smooth molasses and realize, with no decision whatsoever, that there’s no place I’d rather be. But it is a Thursday night and I am the only jobless person at the table, so this, as with everything, must come to an end. Hugs and thanks run wild, the door shuts behind me and Mr. Meatball and I share a knowing, appreciative grin. People are good, I’ve decided. Faith in mankind has been restored and I’ll try my best not to let somebody else ruin it for me— but if they do, Ellie may be getting an e-mail. “You don’t know somewhere I could get some Russian food, do you?”
Food Breakdown: Endless appetizers, 1 soup, 1 entree, a good amount of vodka, grapes, strawberries, tea, candies, chocolates and some sparkling water for good measure
Distance From My House: 6 miles