Know My Food and Love Me: Making Friends with Americans through Cooking
The Sixty Minute Zakooska
It was coincidental that I saw the movie Julie/Julia the same day I scored a couple of great used cook books from the county library.
Just as Julia Childs was obsessed with teaching Americans about France through food, these cookbooks take a similar tone with the reader. One of the cookbooks, How to Cook and Eat in Russian, by Alexandra Kropotkin, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, was printed first in 1947, just after WW2. In those years, for sure, the Russians did have considerable image issues, the least of which was being Communists! But that wasn't enough to stop Alexandra Kropotkin from believing that if we just knew Russia, if we knew its cultural foodways, we would know its people and...the big clincher...how could we hate them if we love their food?
Good question. Could it be that Americans have always been willing to exchange their immigrant xenophobia for something good to eat? I guarantee you that even in the most remote and least diverse of towns in the U.S., you will be able to find Chinese food. I always heard that when they first came here we didn't used to like them at all. We made them do our laundry and build railroads...and now look! There is a Chinese take out place on nearly every Main Street in America. Why? We love Chinese food! (It's also quick, cheap, open late, and comes with a free fortune cookie, but that's another point.)
Same could basically be said of pizza and the Italians. We didn't like them at first either. Then someone ate a piece of pizza and it was a different matter entirely. So, it looks to me as if there is a pattern.
So, it's like, if we like your food...you are in? Really?
Maybe. In both the supermarkets near me there is an actual isle named: Asian/Mexican/Italian. Like, there is Isle 1, Isle 2, and so on, and then there is, Asian/Mexican/Italian.
Those three are so solid. Country-friends we will always feel good about. So why do we feel better about Italians today? Because we feel so good when we're eating lasagna! And a huge burrito? Viva Mexico!! And, although I'm not sure why anyone would feel good eating Chun King canned bean sprouts, but I do understand the euphoria found in a perfect egg roll.
it is our grocery stores who so cheerfully define the parameters of our multi-cultural comfort levels?
I just can't help wondering who just missed the cut and what that discussion was like. Who---what peoples of the earth---don't get to make friends with us each week with their own stocked isle at Safeway? Truth is, the stores always sneak the Kosher stuff in that Asian/Mexican/Italian isle, too, so maybe it was the Jews who were the runners up. Or was it the Greeks who always get a few bottles of olives, some oil and some grape leaves in jars put beside the Italian pesto. So they didn't really leave them out, right? Just off the signage. Yeah, right.
So with that in mind, we don't see a lot of supermarket isles devoted to Russian food. Even after 50 years, we still don't trust them...and, of course, head cheese with a vodka chaser never really caught on...except in some Midwestern American college towns during fraternity hazing. So, basically, we're kind of still unsure. Unsure about strange fishes and jellied things, a love of cabbage and copious amounts of cold clear alcohol. Which is to say, unsure about these Russian people.
Or, at least the people who name the shopping isles at Safeway, Holiday and Raleys are not yet convinced we should be entirely comfortable.
I wonder how Alexandra Kropotkin would react to the grocery store snub? She clearly felt that the reader of her book---one who also would try to re-create these wonderful recipes and social scenarios---would in the end be solidly convinced that Russia and its folks were A-Ok. I imagine she must be dead, or else we'd have heard of her campaign to get the Greek/Russian isle added at Safeway, don't you think?
She says in the book, “In the noise and anger of ideological clash, the Russian people usually are forgotten. That's too bad. Because Russians are pretty nice people.” At frequent turns she implores the reader to judge the Russians by their home life—by their traditions of cooking and eating. It's by these means that she has placed her faith in nation building: In the recognition of good food and in understanding how people enjoy it. These things can bring people together. Well, I believe that and I say thank you Alexandra Kropotkin for believing in that.
At the same time, I also have this image of Ms. Kropotkin as a sort of Russian-American Julia Childs. In my fantasy (and come to think of it, maybe hers too) is that she is catering a dinner party for a group of crusty old Russians and snotty Americans. She would, of course, for this occasion, insist on having the full 60 minute zakooska before dinner.
There is an entire section of the book dedicated to the zakooska which is worth the entire $2 I spent on the book. This is very important cultural stuff. Read about it. And for something like this, the Russians and the Americans, it would no doubt include at least the old-school limit of 10 dishes (the minimum to prevent raised eyebrows) but probably more because she listed no less than 49 zakooskas in her book. Every sea-related thing imaginable...red caviar, black caviar, fresh gray caviar, pickled herring, herring in wine, herring with mustard sauce, herring in sour cream, chopped herring with egg....you get the idea.
And then the vodka. The "dear little water" that should be clear, colorless as water, and 100 proof. Always served ice cold. She notes that "most Russians can get away with at least 6 little glasses without turning a hair," so in my fantasy I see her quietly advising the Americans, as she does in the book, to be smart and stay within the 3 glass limit.
All in all, it's the full sixty minute zakooska that does the trick. The Americans love the Russians (their vodka) and the Russians also love their vodka. It's all good. People are happy. As Alexandra said in the book,
“The host and hostess need not fear deadly silence which can devistate a dinner party. After a zakooska hour, everybody talks to everybody.”