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The White House Cook
Welcome to Vladivostok
When Tom and I arrived in Vladivostok in the summer of 1993, one of the first Russians we met was Alla Brovko, a neighbor who lived with her husband, Pyotr, and their two sons in our apartment building, a prefabricated concrete high-rise on the edge of the city. Pyotr was a geography professor at Far Eastern State University, where Tom and I also worked. Alla taught English at an elementary school in our neighborhood and spent much of her spare time trying to help the new American faculty in our university program cope with the challenges of daily life in the Russian Far East.
Shortly after we moved into our apartment, we were delighted when Alla and Pyotr invited us to their home one evening. "Come for pies at eight o'clock," said Alla. Thinking that she planned to serve pie-and-coffee for dessert at that hour, we ate a full dinner at home beforehand, then walked up the five flights of stairs to the Brovkos' place in another wing of our building. As soon as we stepped over the threshold into their small foyer, Alla greeted us warmly, calling us her "dear guests," before asking us to take off our shoes and change into tapochki — floppy, comfortable, house slippers provided by the host — an old Asian custom that the Russians have adopted.
Inside Alla's apartment, the scene was typical of many meals we would eat in Russian homes during our time there. Hosts, guests, and children sat elbow-to-elbow on mismatched chairs and little backless stools around a drop-leaf dining table temporarily set up in the middle of the living room, almost filling the small space. (Most Russian apartments didn't have a separate dining room.) Crowded onto the table were plates and glasses of various sizes and patterns — whatever the family had been able to acquire during decades of Soviet scarcity. Platters of home-cooked foods vied for space with bottles of Russian vodka, Georgian brandy, Russian champagne, and imported fruit-juice drinks.
Convivial conversation in a mish-mash of Russian and English covered topics from the personal to the political, while one of the Brovko boys performed pieces by Chopin on an upright piano in a corner of the room and Proshka-the-kitten played at our feet.
Pride of place on Alla's table that first evening went to her homemade pies — thick, rectangular, and family size, with top and bottom crusts of yeasty dough enclosing fillings of meat, potatoes, cabbage, mushrooms, and plums. Having expected only a slice or two of sweet pastry with a cup of coffee or tea, we were confronted with our second meal of the night, an entire dinner of maindish pies. And we quickly learned that when Russians say "pie," they mean much more than just dessert.
From that first evening of pies in Vladivostok, when Alla discovered our particular interest in Russian food, she took Tom and me under her wing, sharing family recipes, shopping tips, and culinary stories with us. The Brovkos also invited us to family celebrations, to simple suppers, and to sumptuous feasts for Russian holidays. And through long hours of talking around their dinner table, they taught us more than we had ever hoped to learn about daily life in Russia, past and present.
Alla herself was an excellent cook. Talented and inventive in the kitchen, she had a natural ability to ferret out a wide variety of foodstuffs in a country where shopping was a daily challenge, and to combine those ingredients in ways that made every dish seem grander than the sum of its separate parts.
She was always open to new culinary ideas, expanding her range of traditional family recipes to include any new dishes that captured her imagination. Like many good cooks, she could visualize a recipe and predict its taste even before she made it. She was also a wealth of information about folk remedies concocted in the kitchen from flowers, grasses, herbs, berries, lichens, bark, and tree sap. And to top it all off, she was a can-do person whose energy and enthusiasm infected everyone around her. Whenever I mentioned something that I would like to see or do or taste in Russia, Alla would immediately say, "Well, why not? Let's do it!"
The White House Cook
Alla was a living link to Russia's culinary past, to the cuisine of Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Born in 1948 in Yakutsk, in northeastern Siberia, she had also lived as a child for a year in a village near Irkutsk, more than a thousand miles to the south of her home town. At the age of eight she moved with her family to Sakhalin Island in the Soviet Far East. And for many years of her childhood, Alla — like most other Russian children in a society where both parents worked outside the home — was raised by her grandmother Polina, the woman who first taught her how to cook.
Alla always spoke about her "Granny" with great tenderness and affection, often phrasing her comments in the present tense, as if Polina were still in the next room instead of 18 years in the grave. And after I got to know Alla better, she told me the story of her grandmother's life — the tale of a woman I came to think of as "The White House Cook."
The oldest of several children in her family, Polina had been born in the mid-1890s in a village near the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. When she was still in her young teens, her father died and her mother remarried. But her new stepfather didn't want so many mouths to feed, so he arranged to marry off Polina to an older widower in the village, a cobbler with three children of his own. Polina resented being forced into marriage at such an early age, to a man she hated and with all those step-children to take care of, too. Only a month after the wedding, she sneaked out of the house one night and ran away to the home of a relative who lived in another village a few miles down the road.
Polina eventually made her way to Irkutsk, the capital of Eastern Siberia, where she found employment in the household of the governor-general of that vast region of Russia. For six years she worked in the basement kitchen of the palatial residence that housed the last three governors-general before the revolutions of 1917. Known as the Bely Dom (The White House), it was a three-story, colonnaded, white stone mansion built by a wealthy merchant in the early nineteenth century. The historic Bely Dom is still a landmark in the city today, where it now houses the scientific library of Irkutsk State University. In 1994, whenever I attended university conferences and official ceremonies held in the elegant setting of the Bely Dom's restored tsarist-era rooms, I tried to imagine the meals that Polina had once prepared for the last upper-class families who resided there before the Bolshevik Revolution changed all of their lives.
Polina began working at the Bely Dom when Nicholas II was the tsar of Russia. Initially she was only a "market girl," sent out to purchase fresh food supplies for the kitchen every day. But Polina, who had already learned how to cook from her own peasant grandmother back in the village, continued to hone her culinary skills in the governors' affluent household in Irkutsk. In addition to fetching food from the markets, she began assisting the cook, a kindly, middle-aged woman with an excessive fondness for drink. Over time, as the cook faded further and further into alcoholic oblivion, Polina took over more and more of her duties in the kitchen. Finally the cook left altogether, and Polina took her place, after five years of informal apprenticeship in the basement of the Bely Dom.
Polina's position as the official White House cook lasted only one year, before her culinary career was cut short by the revolutions that shook Russia in 1917. In October 1917, the Bely Dom was occupied by Siberian revolutionaries, and during the fierce fighting between those Red Bolshevik supporters and the White tsarist forces, the interior of the building was severely damaged and the exterior pocked with bullet holes. A year later, the White House was turned over to the newly established Irkutsk State University, which still owns it today.
During the civil war in Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution, Polina married a communist revolutionary, a man whose health had already been broken from the years he'd spent in prison under the tsarist regime. They were married for only two years before he died, leaving behind Polina and their young son. Sometime later, Polina married again, her third husband, a Tatar with whom she had other children, including the daughter who gave birth to Alla in Siberia three years after the end of World War II.
In the 1950s, when Polina began teaching her young granddaughter Alla how to cook, she was passing along culinary knowledge that reached back to the mid-1800s, to her own grandmother's time — recipes and techniques transmitted from generation to generation over an entire century, through wars, revolutions, and purges — from a Siberian village to a governor-general's mansion to post-World War II urban apartments in the Soviet Far East. And indeed, many of the dishes that Alla prepared for us seemed to come from the pages of classic nineteenth-century Russian novels, not a tiny kitchen in a post-Soviet high-rise apartment building on the eastern edge of Russia.
Alla spiced many of our culinary conversations with statements that began "As Granny used to say ..." before recounting Polina's domestic advice, cooking tips, and household superstitions. Like many Russians, Granny Polina thought it was especially dangerous to leave a knife sitting out on the table overnight. She told young Alla that when crumbs were left on the table after a meal, she should never brush them off onto the floor with her hand, but instead use a rag to sweep them into some kind of receptacle; otherwise, her future husband would go bald. (The lesson stuck: Alla turned out to be a meticulous housekeeper, and her husband Pyotr had a full head of hair.) Granny also never allowed Alla to sweep the floor at night, or to toss the floor sweepings out into the yard; they had to be burned in the stove instead. In fact, Granny Polina believed that nothing should be thrown out of the house after sunset — water, bones, vegetable peels, anything at all — or you might lose everything you owned. Likewise, she would never wash her floor late at night, for fear of washing away all her money. And Granny never let anyone move the furniture or clean the house on the same day that a guest or family member set off on a trip, to ensure that the person's journey would be easier along the way.
Alla became especially enthusiastic whenever she described the dishes her grandmother had cooked at home, including elegant desserts that you'd expect to see on a governor's table in Irkutsk a hundred years ago. But during the three decades following the Bolshevik Revolution, Alla's grandmother did not always have access to the kinds of ingredients that she'd once turned into elaborate dishes in the kitchen of the Bely Dom.
Except for the privileged few, life has never been easy for people living in Siberia. And conditions were even worse during wartime. Alla told me that during the Great Patriotic War — the Russians' term for World War II — "many people lived on potatoes and grass." This "grass" was actually several types of greens, both wild and cultivated, including the greens known in English as goosefoot, which belong to the same family as spinach and chard. "That's what saved us," Granny Polina always said to Alla, as she recalled making a kind of pancake from grated unpeeled potatoes, chopped goosefoot greens, and salt. If she was lucky and had an egg that day, she added it to the mixture, too. After shaping the ugly mass into patties, she cooked them on a hot griddle — not in a skillet, because she had no oil for frying. The patties came off the griddle colored an unappetizing dark brown or black. "Many times that was the only food for my children during the war," remembered Granny.
Alla noted that potatoes, goosefoot greens, cheremsha (wild garlic), and brusniki (lingonberries) saved many people in Siberia from starvation during the Great Patriotic War. "People in the north of Russia have always preserved a lot of these berries for winter, without sugar, because sugar was often scarce or unavailable," she told me. "The berries are full of vitamin C, and tea made from the leaves of this plant is good for the kidneys." She went on to describe how villagers in the north still pick brusniki in September, put them into wooden barrels, fill the barrels with cold water, and leave them on the veranda or in a cold room of the house to freeze solid. Then during the winter they chop out whatever amount they need — to make sok (berry juice), to use as a filling for baked pies, and to make frozen berry cream, a simple sweet consisting of berries, sugar, and cream, a winter treat that was one of Alla's favorites when she was a child.
Of Cabbages and Carrots
One evening in mid-October, before the first frost, Alla and Pyotr came over to our apartment to show us how to make kislaya kapusta — Russian soured cabbage, a sort of crunchy, mild-tasting sauerkraut with a delicate flavor far removed from the assertive taste of most commercially pickled products. Earlier in the week, following Alla's instructions, we'd purchased five large white cabbages, several carrots, a small amount of anise seeds, and a kilogram of salt. Alla arrived with her own long knife for shredding the cabbage. "Granny had a special long knife that she used only for making kislaya kapusta," said Alla, "and she became very angry if anyone tried to use that knife for anything else." We got the message.
After tearing off and discarding the tough outer leaves of the cabbages, Alla cut the unwashed heads into quarters. Wielding her knife like a pro, she proceeded to shred three cabbages in the time it took me to slice only one, while Tom finely shredded five carrots on his own. When the table was covered with a mountain of cut-up cabbage, we mixed it by hand with the carrots, adding a soup spoon each of anise seeds, sugar, and freshly ground black pepper, along with a cup of salt. Then we crushed the ingredients together by handfuls, pressing them between our palms to "bruise" the cabbage a bit.
Alla showed us how to pack the mixture into a 10-liter enameled metal bucket, alternating it with layers of large cabbage chunks that she'd held in reserve. Alla mentioned that some people season their kislaya kapusta with cranberries, lingonberries, bay leaves, allspice, caraway seeds, or dill. And once at a farmers' market we saw kislaya kapusta flavored with chunks of apples and green tomatoes. Alla sometimes put thin layers of raw salmon between the layers of shredded cabbage in her own sauerkraut bucket, a variation I was never brave enough to try myself.
Finally she put a small plate on top of the cabbage and set a heavy weight on top of it, to press the cabbage down while it fermented. We kept the bucket on our kitchen floor, away from the radiator, for three days. Then we removed the weight and plate on top and poked holes in the mixture to release the gases that had formed during fermentation. Later that day we transferred the pickled cabbage to 3-liter jars, which we set outdoors in the corner of our balcony away from the sun. And a week later, the sauerkraut was ready to eat. One evening's work and a few days of tending the bubbling brew had produced enough kislaya kapusta to last us for the next three months.
Around the Samovar
Alla was one of those women whose high spirits and spontaneity seldom seemed to wane. At a moment's notice she would stop by our apartment or send one of her sons to invite me to her place for tea. (None of us had a telephone, so all invitations — whether to an impromptu brunch or a formal dinner party — were always delivered in person or in writing.) And since Russians never drink tea without eating sweet or savory tidbits along with it, Alla always prepared something different for me to taste — maybe a recipe of her own or one of Granny's, or a recipe given to her by a friend, or a new dish that she'd thought up herself that very day.
At those afternoon teas I also learned how the Russian concept of time can stretch as long as a task takes to accomplish, as long as a conversation needs to last, in a leisurely manner and often with frequent interruptions. I would be sitting in Alla's living room, sipping tea and talking with her about food, about politics, about daily life in Russia, when someone else would drop by, and then maybe two or three others — a teacher from her school, a young boy she was tutoring in English, a friend of her sons', a parent of her pupil's. As the circle of people in the room grew while darkness descended outside, I knew that Tom would soon have supper ready at home and be worried about my safety in returning alone through the unlighted labyrinth of our high-rise building. But I also knew there was no polite way to end the conversations around the samovar in Alla's living room until all the topics had been talked out. And just when it seemed that a convenient parting point was about to be reached, when I could make my excuses and leave, then someone else would knock on Alla's door — a friend, a neighbor, a student's grandmother — at which time it would have been very ill-mannered for me to skip out, right after another person, and a new conversation, had just arrived.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "T-Bone Whacks and Caviar Snacks"
Copyright © 2018 Sharon Hudgins.
Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Asian Side of Russia xi
Kitchen Notes xxiii
Chapter 1 The White House Cook 1
Welcome to Vladivostok 1
The White House Cook 4
Of Cabbages and Carrots 9
Around the Samovar 11
At Alla's Table 13
The Two Galinas 16
Chapter 2 The Stove-from-Hell 47
The High-Rise Village 47
Cooking by Candlelight 53
The Modern Russian Kitchen 58
Chapter 3 Shop 'Til You Drop 85
Russia's New Market Economy 85
T-Bone Whacks 92
Caviar Snacks 94
From the Dairy 96
Harvest of the Seasons 98
Processed, Preserved, and Packaged 103
Pantry Perennials 106
From the Baker's Oven 109
A Wider World of Tastes 111
Chapter 4 Hosts and Toasts 135
Party Time 135
An Alsatian Meal in Asia 137
Birthday Bashes 140
A Siberian Wedding Feast 143
Any Excuse for a Party 147
Tex-Mex in Vladivostok 149
Chapter 5 Winter Feasts 183
The Holiday Season 183
Christmas in Vladivostok 186
Holiday Shopping Rush 190
Gala Dinners 193
New Year's Eve 197
Happy New Year! 201
Russian Orthodox Christmas 203
"Old New Year" 205
Chapter 6 Siberian Spring 245
Welcoming Springtime 245
"Butter Week" Festival in Irkutsk 247
The Season of Lent 251
A Spanish Meal in Siberia 256
A Siberian Easter Feast 260
Chapter 7 Dinner On (and Off) the Diner 295
Trans-Siberian Commuter Train 295
Luxury Line 299
Dacha Days 302
Back of Beyond 307
Raw Liver and More 313
Recipe Index 349
Subject Index 363