I lived in Russia for nine years. I was not a typical expat posted to Moscow. I was on my own. I had no support system and no job when I went there. I lived in a Russian apartment and spent a lot of time with Russians.
My husband, Nicholas, brought people home for dinner all the time. I think I fed half of Moscow. We also were invited to many people’s homes. I was never served Beef Stroganoff or Chicken Kiev or Koulebiaka. The only time I remember seeing blini was when somebody died. It was always the first course after a funeral.
What I do remember were the dinners that went on and on for hours and hours. It didn’t have to be a holiday but it often was. We would gather for New Year’s, or somebody’s birthday. Most of my husband’s family lived in Moscow and we would have anywhere from seven to 15 people around a table.
The dinner would start with flowers. People always brought flowers. The flowers would come in odd numbers, three, five, or eleven. Even numbers of flowers were only given at funerals. There were many such traditions in Russia and people paid attention to them.
The first course would be on the table when the guests arrived. It was the “zakuski” course. The table would be covered completely in small plates and bowls. These could possibly include: cold salads (potato, carrot, beet, tuna, egg), sliced meats, sliced cheese, pickled herring, sprats, sardines, pickles, wild mushrooms, eggplant caviar – or sometimes real caviar, and bread.
Along with the food there was champagne, wine, and a bottle of vodka, chilled. There would be sparkling water or some kind of carbonated beverage for the children.
The dinner would start with a toast, using the champagne, welcoming everybody, followed by other toasts congratulating people and thanking the hosts. The wine was for general drinking and the vodka was used for toasts once the champagne was gone.
Toasts could be about anything. They could be about the topic of conversation, for example, say you were discussing a famous poet, it was common to toast the poet.
The appetizer course could go on for an hour or more. To be honest, the first time I attended one of these dinners, I was surprised to see a second course. I couldn’t believe we were going to eat more! I went to some people’s homes where no second course ever materialized but they were usually quite poor and you could tell they had gone all out by inviting us at all. We felt honored.
When we did have a second course, it was common to have beef stew with boiled potatoes. It was cooked with fresh herbs and lots of garlic so it was tasty. A popular Georgian dish made with lamb and eggplant cooked in special clay pots was delicious. The Siberian Pelmeny was something I also saw a lot of. It was a dumpling, kind of like a wonton or a giant ravioli filled with meat.
If we were at a dacha (country home) or anywhere outside, we would have Shashlik, a shish kabob made with lamb, mutton, or beef. My first New Year’s eve in Moscow, we went to Nicholas’ cousin Valery’s apartment near Red Square for dinner. We were still on our zakuski course when the neighbors asked us outside for Shashlik.About twenty neighbors had a big bonfire going in the back courtyard.
The kids were playing around the fire with sparklers and other fireworks that would shoot out a display. One of the kids lit one practically under Nicholas’ feet that sent us all running. There were about six long skewers with beef and onion placed in the fire to cook while we toasted the New Year out of 4 communal glasses. I was glad it was dark and I couldn’t see anything.
Luckily the second course was doled out in small portions. It was consumed quickly and then people had a rest. This was when we would go into the kitchen and do the dishes because there were never enough plates for all the courses.
The final course was usually a torte purchased at the local bakery, some Russian chocolates, and lots of tea. At this time the cognac would come out. The Armenians made a good brandy that was popular and known as Armjanskij Konjak.
My son used to play in our local park with an Armenian boy whose father worked for Ararat, the company that makes this brandy.
The final toasts of the evening were dedicated to the women who worked so hard to make all the food, to the hosts for inviting them, to health and happiness.
Surprisingly enough, it was rare that anybody got really drunk. They would be high, happy, maybe, but not obnoxious. I’m sure all that food helped.
In the morning I would take the metro to work and outside the stations were always kiosks selling food and beverages and cigarettes. When I walked by these kiosks early in the morning I would always see men having a beer for breakfast. Valery swore it was the only way to start the day after an evening of drinking.
Kathleen Gamble was born and raised overseas and has traveled extensively. She has a BA in Spanish and has worked in publishing, printing, desktop publishing, translating, and purchasing. She also designs and creates her own needlepoint. She started journaling at a young age and her memoir, Expat Alien, came out of those early journals. Over the years she has edited and produced an American Women’s Organization cookbook in Moscow, Russia, and several newsletters. Her first book, Expat Alien, was published in 2012 and she recently published a cookbook, 52 Food Fridays, both available on Amazon.com. You can also follow her blog at ExpatAlien.com.