February Food Nostalgia

February 11, 2012

Leaving the MacArthur office yesterday, I said goodbye as I headed out the door. “Всего хорошего, Хиллари,”[1] called the two remaining women. Although I’ve thought about it before, it hit me then how much I like that phrase in Russian. It’s warmer than goodbye, although not as warm as using the English translation would be. I might write “All the best,” in a formal card or letter, but saying the equivalent of “(I wish) you everything good” as I left a group of friends? In Russian the phrase is much more casually used, but it still strikes me as a warm way to bid someone goodbye. (And way better than “Have a nice day.”) It also makes a great replacement for best, in email signoffs. It makes me feel much less stilted than the typical Уважаемая ваша[2] for formal letters. Russian and non-Russian speakers take note – learn this phrase in Russian, use it if you’re ever here!

If I were to name the different stages of studying abroad, I think I would call the beginning of the sixth month “Food Nostalgia.” Or, for Americans in Russia, specifically: “When you start wanting spicy food really, really badly.” All throughout the first semester, I was so excited to have soup as the first course for every meal, to eat пирожки, and to thoroughly appreciate the flavor of dill. I am, of course, still fully appreciating the vast array of Russian milk products, but over the past couple weeks I’ve really been wanting non-Russian food. For me, it’s less that I want home food (although that would be lovely) than that I want food with sharp flavors that do not include sour cream, dill, or sunflower seed oil.

Maybe one of the triggers of this desire for non-Russian food came from the last lecture in my social reforms class. The professor expounded, at length, on the morbidity rates and mortality rates of Russians, as compared to other nations, and while attributing the differences mainly to alcohol and drug use and poor healthcare, he also reserved a mention for Russian cuisine. (Incredibly unpatriotic, I know). Traditional Russian cuisine involves (by my semi-vegetarian Vermont standards) large consumption of meat, potatoes, of course, cabbage, really fatty milk products and the employment of rather large quantities of oil in many cooking processes.

Now, Russians and Russian food-lovers, don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t change Russia’s fatty milk products, everything-imaginable-pickled or love of mushrooms for the world! And boy does Russia do soup. Russia does soup really well. And though I brush away my host mom’s apologies when there aren’t fresh herbs to sprinkle on said soup, she’s right – sprinkling some dill or parsley on top is a nice touch. Delicious сметана[3] and творог[4] aside, I have been craving green things like kale and spinach, and I’m pretty ready to skip the soup before every dinner. See, already my American-ness shows: I think of soup and dinner separately, that is, soup can be dinner and dinner can be soup, but dinner is not soup + plate of meat and rice. Last week, I got home late after soccer practice and ate a perfectly-normal-to-me dinner: leftover rice with an egg on top and a big bowl of green salad. (Carbs? – check. Protein? – check. Veggie goodness? – check. Avoiding severely clogging my arteries? – check.) My host mom’s response after entering the kitchen? “No soup and no meat? What kind of dinner did you eat? No, really, what did you eat?”

So here’s my warning for future study-abroaders, right around the sixth-month mark, you might start to crave food that is not of your nation’s cuisine. This may occur even without a lecture on the connection between your host country’s mortality rates and its eating habits. I really value the cultural opportunity to cook and eat with my host mom, especially since mealtimes are when we interact the most. Great for Russian language skills and general friendly atmosphere! And I’ve introduced my host mom to a range of American delicacies (I use the term broadly). She now regularly asks me to roast veggies in the oven and has informed me that I am free to make berry crisp and applesauce any time I like. (The chili and cornbread were not such a hit for the Russian palate, FYI). Lesson learned? Bring some chili spices and pumpkin pancake mix with you to Russia – or get lucky when kindly aunts send them to you for Christmas.

Nate, Sarah – your current relations with Russian food? Favorite dishes, cooking adventures, stories of astonished babushkas…

Until I survive the -30 cold tomorrow, (Yes, Nate I know that’s old hat to you),

Hillary

 


[1] All the best! Literally (I wish you) all the best. Commonly всего доброго, with pretty much the same meaning. Vsevo horoshevo, vsevo dobrovo

[2] Respectfully yours – used in formal business letters

[3] Smetana – sour cream

[4] OK, you guys should know this one by now. Hint: my favorite thing in the world. tvorog

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2 Responses to “February Food Nostalgia”

  1. sarahinthegoldencircle said

    I had to laugh when I saw this post, because you’re so spot on. This is EXACTLY what I’m going through right now! During break, all I ate was indian in the UK and mexican at home. I wanted spicy!

    I think “nostalgia” was a really good word to pick for this stage. I definitely miss foods from home, but I still love the foods here–especially now that Galya’s preparing for maslanitsa (a March Russian holiday) already! I won’t say too much more on that, because I’ll be posting on that shortly. If I can extract the secrets of Galya’s ways, there will even be a recipe or too….

    I think they should add this stage to our orientation meeting in the beginning of the year. Seriously.

  2. nateinsiberia said

    Hey Hill,
    When I think about Russian food, the first thing I think about is borscht, for many reasons. It’s pretty, it’s ubiquitous, it’s delicious. I know, it’s also actually Ukrainian, but I am comfortable saying that it is highlight of the Siberian cookbook. And “highlight” here is not dramatic: more than spicy food, I miss food with color. (This, however, is being said after basically making a European tour of Indian restaurants. Sarah, I like how eat.)
    I did, however, have a surprising experience this week. The new-and-improved Middlebury group met up at Irkutsk’s sole vegetarian restaurant on Monday, and there I found something called “spicy sauce.” Figuring it would be like the typical, somewhat sweet “spicy ketchup” you see all the time, I threw it over my rice by the spoonful, not thinking much of it. In the end, it was way too spicy, and only with Herculean willpower and a few extra glasses of mors did I finish most of my plate. My lesson has been learned: once you think you’ve gotten to know her, Russia plays another trick on you.

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