15 September, 2011

The Gastronomic History of Grigory Alexievich

Grigory Alexeyevich was born outside Yaroslav, and raised in a military household of three children, the only son of a First Class Major Alexey Pavlovich and his devoted wife Anna Pavlovna. His father was a great lover of food, and his mother a consummate cooking virtuoso. Thus, from the inception of Grisha's life (for Grisha is what he was called even into well into his young-manhood), within the remote walls of a house in Yaroslav, his lifelong love affair with food began. And what a love affair it was. Oh Russian cuisine! He thought. How you derive your rich and varied character from the vast and multicultural expanse of the Motherland!

It was true. The food of his ancestors had foundations laid by the peasant food of the rural population in an often harsh climate, and had nuzzled its way into the folds of Grisha’s heart. It was this wondrous combination of plentiful fish, poultry, game, mushrooms, berries, and honey; the crops of rye, wheat, barley, and millet that provided the ingredients for the sensational plethora of breads, pancakes, and cereals, the crisp and refreshing kvass, beer, and vodka; all of which filled his belly and his soul with a rapturous satisfaction. 

When Grisha was a boy, his mother fed him and his sisters Syrniki garnished with honey, and apple sauce. She prepared whole fowl dishes baked on a baking tray in a stove called a zharkoye[1], and taught them to make Smetana, a key garnish made from the souring of heavy cream. The children filled the kitchen like cherubs, golden-curled and floating, each taking their turn licking the sour spoon.

His father was an austere man, with favorites like Studen (sometimes called Kholodets), which were jellied chopped pieces of pork or veal meat served just the way he liked it with major amounts of spices like pepper, parsley, garlic, and bay leaf, and minor amounts of vegetables. Even to this day, the smell of jellied pork always reminded Grisha of his father, with his rugged jaw, his upright posture, and his stern but twinkling eyes. Indeed, Alexey Pavlovich was a solider to his core, and went by The Major even in his own home. He recommended a strict diet of well-prepared meat, and he liked it boiled in large pieces for long periods of time. Once it was chopped in to pieces, he would have it boiled again and finally allowed it to rest for three or four hours while it formed a jelly mass.

Studen was always accompanied by a flavorful soup or stew of some description, which usually centered on seasonal or store-able produce, and served hot or cold. Cold soup was a favorite of Grisha’s, but when it came to the concept of cold soups, Eva couldn’t quite get behind it.  Savory flavors didn’t settle well with her when served chilled and smashed, they tasted harsh and kind of squeaky. They lacked the fullness of body and rich aroma of their hot counterparts. Moreover, it just felt suspicious to slurp cold fluid from a spoon! Cold liquids, this part of her argued, should be sipped from a glass[2]. Which is why, when Grisha suggested a recipe for a traditional chilled parsnip soup, she nodded her approval with the vaguest enthusiasm.

But then there was Shchi. Oh Shchi, he thought. Shchi was his favorite cabbage soup, and pleased both halves of the couple completely. Shchi was warm and hearty and had been the main first course in Russian cuisine for over a thousand years.  It included several ingredients: cabbage, meat, carrots and parsley roots, spicy herbs (onions, celery, dill, garlic, pepper, bay leaf), and finally, sour components (green apples, cabbage, pickle water). But the unique taste was derived from the fact that after cooking, it was left for hours to draw in a Russian stove[3], and when the soup was served, smetana (produced by souring heavy cream) was served in an artful dollop on top, and the lot was eaten with a chunky piece of rye bread. Although Grisha’s tastes had changed over the years, shchi steadily made its way through his life in several epochs, constantly evolving to fit his tastes and economic status, knowing no social or class boundaries. Even if when rich he had richer ingredients, and when poor he made it solely of cabbage and onions; all his "poor" and "rich" variations were cooked in the same tradition. It was gastronomic perfection, and could be eaten regularly, and at any time of the year[4].

When Grisha finally went off to the military academy (and indeed became Grigory Alexeyevich), he recalled polishing off hearty porridges and cereals for breakfast, and at lunch, the school served various boiled meats that were then baked with root vegetables. Sometimes the meat was garnished with pickled products like sauerkraut, soaked apples called mochoniye yabloki, and cranberries. Even in the army he made the most of the traditional peasant Russian cuisine. He had missed his high-spirit family at the Academy, and longed for them now. Since the untimely demise of the Major, relations had eased, but his Jewish bride was still a thorny topic of consternation with his mother and sisters despite multiple attempts to quell them. He longed for the days the three children would pretend to make their very own “magical potions” alongside their mother as she prepared a traditional soup. How The Major would lead the feasting! How they would dig in! How the family loved to devour Mama Anushka’s latest offerings!

To gather. To converse. To eat.

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1 from the word zhar (жар) meaning, heat)
2 Cold soups are not, sadly, much like today’s milkshakes.
3 The "Spirit of shchi" was a description of the essence of the dish that was inseparable, and constantly remained in the atmosphere of a Russian izba (log hut).
4 During much of the year when the Orthodox Christian Church prescribes abstinence from meat and dairy, vegan versions of shchi are made that Eva found much more culturally “palatable” in every sense of the word.

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