Due to the absence of most grocery products in the 1990s in Russia, people had to develop quite remarkable culinary skills. One had to be truly inventive in order to come up with any interesting dishes, besides a piece of bread with butter (and even butter was at some point totally unavailable in the shops). I remember the period when we would eat either cabbage pies for weeks in a row, or spaghetti with minced meat for months in one go. One would get used, however, to such a simple life quite quickly: if there was nothing available, one had no choice but to adapt.
Being a teenager during that difficult period in the history of Russia, I wasn’t paying much attention to it, unless I was confronted with it directly, like when I had to buy floor and sugar with vouchers or think strategically about how to store bread in a freezer. Most of the time, I was preoccupied with other things, such as where to get a new book in the French language, how to get more tickets to my favourite theatre, and where our next escapade with my best friend would take in the city. Were there so many new things to discover in our native town adjusting itself to a new, very weird ideology, where all those who had been proclaiming ‘to each, according to their needs’, would suddenly become busy with setting up their new businesses, mostly small corner shops, which would start selling vodka but also an array of American goods, such as Cocal-Cola, Snickers, Mars, and Marlboro Light. It was strange to observe the sudden interest of my nation in all things American right when shops still stood empty of the goods most needed on a daily basis, like bread or milk.
But during one winter in Moscow, I had to learn how to be creative and inventive like the rest of the local population. One could fill oneself with Mars and Coca-Cola only to a certain extent. It lost its appeal and even flavour after a couple of months or so. After all it wasn’t what we had grown up with, and the taste was even disappointing after a while. Russian people are more used to a simpler taste, and their own selection of favourite dishes, that one starts to crave after some time passes. And then it comes to traditional festive period, Russian people have to have what they have been used to since years. On the eve of the New Year, which is the main festive day in Russia, one always expects to celebrate it with the traditional Russian dishes, such as venegret (a Russian salad), Olivier salad, roast, potatoes, Vodka and medovik (Russian honey cake).
In 1992 I was invited to attend the New Year celebration at a friend of my boyfriend then, who studied at the university of cinematography in Moscow. I never declined invitations coming from people studying at that prestigious place as these were the funniest and most outgoing bunch of people I’d ever met in my entire life. They were all studying acting and it reflected in how they were in real life. Something interesting was always happening in their lives, and the group where my boyfriend studied had the most remarkable characters. The oldest daughter of Nikita Mikhalkov was among the group, and while the current celebrity culture was totally absent then, I was still in awe. I was at the final years of secondary school then, and for me it was an outlet to a grown-up, much more interesting and exciting world.
I was always invited to all their events for also ulterior motives on the part of the group. I was extremely talented in making the cake Medovik, based on a secret, passed through generations of my step-mum recipe. Every time there was a party they would call me, and after asking me whether I was interested to join, add as an after-thought: “Ekaterina, do you think you can bring your cake, please, as well?” Despite the fact that the cake would take hours to make and had to be made the day before to acquire the melting taste, I never minded to deliver. It was fun to be among them, drinking like a grown-up, dancing till dawn, witnessing the improvised acting on a script written during the gathering.
In 1992 shops, while getting better (one could at least make a cake based on what was on offer), still stood empty of the products that were needed the most for a New Year’s party, such as sausages (necessary for salad Olivier), or even peas. But Andrei, the friend of my boyfriend, had procured the sausages for the part, and this was a task assigned to me for the party preparation. I had to cut them all for our planned salads. It would be actually our main dish (the salad), since we hadn’t managed to get any meat for the roast. That and my three Medovik cakes, that Andrei had hidden as soon as I arrived so that others wouldn’t eat it before the party would start. They really liked my cake. The secret ingredients were the chocolate topping and roasted nuts in the crème, plus, in reality, the recipe was absolutely different from all known medoviks on the market, but this fact I kept for myself. It was named ‘medovik’ and thus, stayed called so.
Andrei had a big dog who was affected by the absence of products like all of us. He was constantly starving and had to eat the cat food for a year or so, when shops suddenly got a big supply of Whiskas and of nothing else. It was a very friendly, outgoing creature, just constantly starving.
How could we have forgotten that fact, I still wonder today? How come we totally missed the dog in the picture of our party? Maybe because the dog was sleeping in the corner during our preparations, lurking, as if invisible, sniffing the delicious sausages, being cut for the main dish for twenty people or so.
It took me two hours to cut the sausages, and I deposited the huge bucket with them on the table when I was done and went for a cigarette break. Some other people stayed behind in the room. Maybe if it was just me, I would remember the dog in the corner. But we all forgot. Others had left the room shortly after me, and it was only ten minutes or so later that I heard a shriek from Andrei coming from the room:
“Where, the fuck, are the sausages???”
We all rushed to the room and stared into the bucket. It was empty. As in a slow movie we moved our heads to acknowledge the dog, not anymore sleeping, but leaking his paws with a satisfied grin. He was the culprit, but who could blame him really? It was New Year’s eve after all, and the dog had his best meal in years.
As to us, we had to improvise on the spot and prepare the salad without any meat. But we had enough of medovik cakes, and some vodka, and the story of the dog became the best joke we had for years.
It was, of course, one of the best parties in my life. Because it was around experience of fun and laughter and unexpectedness of life, sometimes, harsh, sometimes, better, and not around consumption, buying of useless stuff a year ahead, and expensive overpriced presents that no one really needs for a happy and cheerful life.
Best moments in life lie in their simplicity.