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From Russian Brooklyn with Love

May. 1, 2018

From Russian Brooklyn with Love

By Richard McCarthy, Slow Food USA Executive Director

Russia seems to be everywhere these days: the White House, national news, the slew of new books commemorating last year’s 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and in my neighborhood of Brooklyn.

I grew up during the Cold War. Any mention of Russia was meant to elicit fear or mocking. I think back to 1987 when I visited Russia and Uzbekistan. At the time, Perestroika was an iffy proposition. Locals whom I spoke to were unsure if and how things would shake up. Among the many surprises, I was delighted to discover the hustle and bustle of commerce in the public markets—the command economy did not dictate all forms of social and economic life.

Today, my understanding of Russia is a combination of what I follow in the news with the life I lead in my neighborhood. On the one hand, the spread of Putin’s authoritarian "managed democracy" is of major concern. Meanwhile, I also find myself immersed in the rhythm of commerce and community of south Brooklyn. Not only is it home to a great many former Soviet peoples’ supermarkets, bakeries, restaurants, and public baths but also to Jewish communities of varying levels of Orthodoxy plus Chinese and Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants…the diversity is dizzying.

The potential to forge trusting relations with all these new Americans is great. In the space where pleasure and tradition intersect lie opportunities for many, many connections to be built. This concept of food as a universal bridge to authenticity is central to Slow Food’s values.

A Global Cuisine

During the Cold War, the terms “Russia,” “the Russian Empire,” and the “Soviet Union” were used interchangeably. Walking through the aisles of Net Cost Plus, a local chain of Russian grocery stores, I contemplated the value to this line of pluralistic identification. I observed Central Asians speaking Russian purchasing Lithuanian breads and Polish butters. In this regard, Russian food is as global, if not more so, than our own.

In Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, a thoughtful recounting of twentieth century history and eating, Anya Von Bremzen describes her mother’s discovery of Jewish pastries from the Black Sea region after moving there as a child from Moscow.

Mastering Soviet Cooking book cover Slow FoodWhat I myself have discovered on the various Russian restaurant menus around my neighborhood is that each national food is held in high regard as a valued yet distinct asset to the wider region’s whole. It is my impression that while Slavic restaurants proudly uphold their version of a shared dish such as borscht as distinct and superior, there is also a genuine love for other people’s foods.

Longstanding trading routes like the Silk Road delivered the unexpected blending of flavors from Turkmenistan to Tibet. Also, more recent political blocs have delivered unusual bedfellows. Consider the Korean-Uzbek restaurant Café At Your Mother-In-Law that serves up traditional Korean peasant classics with subtle Russian influences in Brighton Beach. (This area is known to locals as “Little Odessa.”) The plight of Koreans in the Soviet Union is one of many stories of migration patterns not widely known to the West.

Gardens and Fresh Produce

I met recently with our new banker after moving offices, and it turned out that he grew up tending his father’s dacha in Siberia. He is now an enthusiastic gardener who covets fresh herbs and vegetables and defends bees and biodiversity. This position aligns closely with what I have observed in Russian grocery stores: the fresh quality of superior produce and an astounding diversity of breads, honey, seafood, and cheeses.

 

Banya, Brighton Beach, and the Banquets

In Von Bremzen’s book, she describes the role of food in the canon of Russian literature. Whereas the French may wax eloquently about physical love, the prudish Russians deploy their passions for the plate. In Brighton Beach, I see ample evidence of families devoting time and resources to this pleasure, a sigh of relief in an otherwise overstressed city.

During the winter, the place to escape the frigid cold is the Russian banya (or bath), institutions where you discover relaxed moments to eat, drink vodka, hot tea (sweetened with jam), and kvass (an intriguing low-alcohol fermented beverage made from pumpernickel bread – talk about a drink ripe for commercial discovery among hipsters). This is also where I’ve had some of the best Russian borscht and Georgian bread in all of New York.

Kvas Slow Food Summers are on the beach; winters in the banya; and Sundays are spent around the banquet table gnoshing on salads, soups, and sipping cocktails of tarragon soft drinks blended with vodka, champagne (of which there are some surprisingly tasty Russian brands) or brandy. Again, here the pleasure of the table reigns.

Georgian Wines and the Reinvention of Tradition

If one former Soviet cuisine is poised for global greatness, it is Georgia's. Its famous “wine with skin” technique places it in the center of the current fascination with natural wines. The nation is rediscovering traditional winemaking, something it almost lost during the Soviet drive to industrialize the world’s oldest wine region to produce cheap wine for the capitol. As is the case in parts of southern Italy and Greece, traditional Georgian wines are aged below ground in distinctive bell-shaped pots for six months with the skin of the grapes intact. This imparts an orange-like tint, hence the name orange wine, along with characteristic yeast, sediment, and funkiness. Also remarkable is the biodiversity found in Georgian vineyards. From what I gather, we do not know even half of the names of the local grape varieties. 

Tasting Georgia book cover Slow Food

One source to turn to for Georgian food is Carla Capalbo’s award-winning tribute, Tasting Georgia: A Food and Wine Journey in the Caucasus. Or you can simply dive into any of the notable Georgian restaurants in New York City. If intimidated by the unfamiliar menu, begin by ordering khachapuri. This divine flatbread creation is baked at a high temperature with the corners folded in to keep the soft white cheese from spilling out. Before it reaches the table, a raw egg is plopped atop, ready to be whisked into the cheese with a fork. The “salads” are also memorable but by salad, do not look for leafy greens. These are instead chopped, chilled concoctions of fresh herbs with aubergine or green beans. Former Slow Food USA board member and Brooklyn resident Nazli Parvizi compares Georgian food with her native Iranian cuisine as having similar textures and complex flavors.

Uzbek table Slow FoodIf you are as fascinated with Russian and former-Soviet foods as I am here are a few suggestions—especially if you live far from the shores of Brighton Beach:

Visit Brooklyn
Give the hipster Brooklyn of Williamsburg a rest and explore the hip-replacement Brooklyn of Midwood, Boro Park, Brighton Beach, and Sheepshead Bay: purchase Georgian wine at 5 Star Liquors, bring bottles into the adjacent Azerbaijani Village Café or across the street to the Slavic Slavyanskiy’s Bazar.

For steam and dumplings, venture into Brooklyn Banya, the Georgian Tone Café, or Guest House.

Spend the day with the League of Kitchens where you can learn Uzbeki cook Damira’s recipes while you cook and eat in her home kitchen.

Read and Watch
Von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is a must, as is Carla Capalbo’s Tasting Georgia and Deena Prichep’s Kachka. (Here's great interview with Deena on NPR’s "The Salt.")

If the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution peaks your interest, two recent books are worthy of attention: Enzo Traverso’s Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History and Memory and Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government, the history of one pivotal apartment building in Moscow since the Revolution. (Here's a great review from The Nation.)

Two recent films worth watching: The Death of Stalin includes some great comedic dinner scenes. Houston We Have a Problem, a documentary with a fascinating attention to food, sheds light on a remarkable conspiracy involving John F. Kennedy, the U.S. space program, and the Mediterranean hustle of General Tito's attention-grabbing Yugoslavian socialism.

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