Today we are joined by debut author, Liz Jacobs, whose first book is an amazing New Adult look at growing up and discovering oneself while abroad. We highly recommend it! She joins Binge on Books to talk a Russian Feast (with pictures!)
Food (and drink) is a pretty significant part of Abroad: Book One. In a key scene, one main character teaches another to cook. In various scenes, friends gather around a meal. I have always loved a gathering where people can eat, drink, talk, and really just enjoy one another. I grew up with such gatherings. In Russia, having a celebration wasn’t just a matter of going to the grocery store and cooking some stuff. In the 80’s and early 90’s, it required multiple trips to multiple stores, searching to see if any of them carried something as simple as chicken, or beef, or pickles, or carrots. Every dish required a monumental effort on my mother’s part to put together. Thus, it was always special to me, even before I learned to appreciate some of the staples that my mom would come out with on special occasions.
Nowadays, the staples remain—and the table is a lot easier to fill. A few days ago was my mom’s birthday and I took advantage of the situation by taking multiple pictures of the dinner table to show you what a Russian dinner feast may look like. This is what I picture my MC Nick’s mom doing every New Year’s Eve (Russia’s biggest holiday) and any special occasion.
(This is a fairly modest effort, I should add. Sometimes, there are at least three other separate dishes.)
Please note: this is only the first course.
Warning: very much not vegetarian friendly.
So, what have we got here?
This is my mom’s salted salmon, garnished in lemon and dill, as – I am not sure you know this – Russians love them some dill. You cannot leave my parents’ house without finding a piece of dill on you somewhere, at some point. This salmon is absolutely delicious, my mom is a master at it, and she sent us home with a Tupperware filled with another giant hunk of this stuff. I might have it for dinner, in fact.
“Hmm,” you’re probably thinking. “Some sort of beef?” Well, yes. It is, uh, how do I put this delicately, cow’s tongue. Another one of my mother’s specialties. She stuffs the whole (uncut) thing with garlic and carrot, then cooks it, and it is, I hate to say, absolutely delicious. Obviously also dressed in dill. (I do feel a personal responsibility to point out that my mom discovered her parsley had gone bad, otherwise it wouldn’t have all been dill garnish. Just some of it.) The highlight of her cutting this up was her patiently discussing Outlander as she wielded it.
Gefilte fish! Obviously. (This is salmon and whitefish.) I have only begun taking chances on these in the last few years, scorning it as too weird when I was younger. It’s still not my favorite, but it is strangely comforting. Jewish food: sometimes bland and comforting and that is okay.
The star. The staple. The biggest hit of any Russian celebration: Salat Olivier. It’s sort of like potato salad, except about 157820 times better. It’s potatoes, peas, carrots, eggs, pickles, meat, sometimes apple, sometimes onion, all diced small and dressed in mayo, and somehow the entire combination elevates every single ingredient to an art form. Once you start eating this stuff, you can’t stop. It is intensely good. There’s a reason I mention it in ABROAD. A true classic.
The ubiquitous Platter of Meats, pictured here as put together by my American wife who has, by now, attended a countless number of these get-togethers. She’s got a knack for this part, I think. Not pictured: plate of bread to go with the meat. Because nothing beats bread and meat (I’m pretty sure that’s an ancient Russian proverb.) (I’m kidding, but only sort of.)
Now this is a more controversial addition. Well, maybe only controversial to me, because I have never ever managed to warm to it. Ladies and gents: chopped liver (also known as the classier sounding liver pâté.) A family recipe from my great-grandmother, I believe. This beast smells amazing when it’s being prepared, just like all liver does, and always a disappointment when I taste it. My entire family swears by it. But we can never be friends. My grandma used to conveniently “forget” that I never liked it, and in true Jewish grandmother style she would ask, “Would you like some? Oh? You don’t like it? Since when? But I worked so hard…” I love you, too, grandma.
And, finally, the most controversial dish of all: kholodetz. It’s quite a polarizing dish. Can you tell what it is yet? If you’ve watched or read any Julia Child, you’ll probably recognize it—it’s aspic. A savory jelly with bits of meat and garlic inside it. I know, right? Much like chopped liver, it smells absolutely divine when it’s being prepared. It requires a metric ton of garlic and all sorts of beef parts you’d rather not think about it, and when the whole thing is simmering on the stove, it smells like utter comfort. But then…it gets refrigerated and turns into jelly, and, well, that is where we largely part ways. It’s something my entire family loves. A family friend will literally fly across the country if he’s promised my mom’s kholodetz will be present, and he’ll be sent home with a whole tub of it. But I’ve always been ambivalent about kholodetz. Sometimes, it really hits the spot. Other times, I can’t even look at it. It’s the ONE DISH my wife refuses to put in her mouth despite knowing that everything my mom makes is delicious. And I can’t say I totally blame her.
Also present are some veggies, but hey, who doesn’t know about veggies?
The final tradition I wanted to illustrate was this: no room at one table? Add another one and pretend like it was always there. (We immediately called it “the kids table,” laid claim to it, and sat around it with my friend-since-we-were-literal-babies, her husband, and their baby. It was great. We had our own bottle of wine.)
And there you have it – traditional Russian celebration
Oh, did you notice that I had called this the first course? Good eye. For the second course, my mom made golubci (stuffed cabbage) and I was too hot and full to remember to take pictures. By this point, so many toasts have been said and so much wine drunk that the enthusiasm for golubci is painful – they are delicious! Smell divine! Good god, we shouldn’t have had so much of the first course! BRING IT ON, with extra sauce and sour cream.
Basically, by the end of one of these shindigs, we have to be rolled out of the table and onto the couch.
But wait! There’s more. Because once everyone has more or less digested their two courses, tea and dessert are a must.
(Picture courtesy of kotbaun.ru)
Yeah, that goes about as well as you’d expect.
Liz Jacobs came over with her family from Russia at the age of 11, as a Jewish refugee. All in all, her life has gotten steadily better since that moment. They settled in an ultra-liberal haven in the middle of New York State, which sort of helped her with the whole “grappling with her sexuality” business.
She has spent a lot of her time flitting from passion project to passion project, but writing remains her constant. She has flown planes, drawn, made jewelry, had an improbable internet encounter before it was cool, and successfully wooed the love of her life in a military-style campaign. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for her essay on her family’s experience with immigration.
She currently lives with her wife in Massachusetts, splitting her time between her day job, writing, and watching a veritable boatload of British murder mysteries.
Note: all pictures are courtesy of the author with the exception of the last photograph which is properly credited in article.