RUSSIAN MEALS AND CUSTOMS
The Russian day begins traditionally with a light breakfast of breads and tea and occasionally an egg or two fried or boiled. Lunch is most often a light meal, usually a hot meat or fish dish and often a pirog (type of pie). Even more frequently for a family lunch, the main attraction is a huge pot of kasha and a pitcher of milk with perhaps a fish or pot cheese dish for variety. A simple milk pudding or stewed fruit finishes the meal.
Since breakfast is small, snacks in the morning rare, and lunch generally a humble light meal, the true Slav spirit (obviously not in full bloom till later in the day) really appears with dinner. Obed or dinner begins anytime from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. and though seldom punctual always begins with zakusky plus vodka. The zakusky appetizer may be as simple as a plate of salt herring or ikra (chopped eggplant) or as elaborate as an array of fish and pickled vegetable dishes as well as one or two hot dishes. Small or large, the zakuskies are all eased down with many toasts of vodka and then the meal begins with hearty soup and probably piroshki followed by meat, fish or game birds, a vegetable and whatever elaborate desserts the hostess can conjure.
For a typical dinner, family and guests will sit down to a table set with a centerpiece of crystal or cut glass filled with fruit, and at each setting will be a small top plate for the appetizers and a larger plate below for the main dish. Soup is always served from a tureen into ample soup plates, and all the dishes that follow will be arranged on platters or in serving bowls. There is no place in the Russian kitchen or on the Russian table for “individual servings,” for in the Slav idiom a serving is not only what a person wishes to eat, but the hope is always engendered that he or she can be coaxed into “just a little more.” It would therefore be an insult to provoke the suspicion that the food had been measured at all.
Meats are always discreetly carved in the kitchen or on a side table, and heaping dishes are the sign of generous hospitality. While the hostess always sits at the head of the table, the host sits wherever he pleases. Both share in the responsibility to urge their family and guests to enjoy, that is, eat.
The vodka that was downed from one-ounce glasses following appropriate toasts during the sampling of the zakuskies is continued in a steady flow throughout the meal. All drink when toasts are made, for to decline is considered unfriendly. Though wine sometimes accompanies meals among more cosmopolitan families, it is generally regarded with suspicion and gulped down like a soft drink.
Meals end with many thanks to the host and hostess whose warm reply of “Yeshte na zdorovie” – “Eat and have good health” – congenially sums up the entire meal. Another ritual of delightful warmth and courtesy is the traditional welcome to guests or newlyweds: “chleb ee sol.” These words mean “bread and salt” and are presented with a freshly baked loaf of bread and a mound of salt as visitors enter the home. They must cut a slice and dip it in salt before eating. The beautiful symbolism indicates that the guests are welcome to share whatever the household can offer, and expresses the hope that there will always be at least bread and salt, the necessities of life.
Though life today in Russia is often more hectic and there is little opportunity to practice time-honored traditions, the customs associated with foods are still honored. Perhaps the most pleasurable tradition of all is the fourth meal of the day – vechernyi t’chai – that intimate get-together of friends and family around the samovar.
Over glasses and cups of tea – all scalding hot – and between hearty bites of breads, meats and cheeses and finally a torte or two, the talk is as continuous as the tea and sometimes as hot. There is a choice of thin lemon slices, sometimes apple slices, and always sweet preserves to enjoy with clear weak tea and cubes of sugar to suck. It is believed this practice of fruit or preserves added to tea was adopted from the ancient Chinese are favored by the men and usually the glasses are set into ornate straw or metal holders. But it is not unusual to see tea being sipped while the glass is held casually between thumb and third finger, the thumb resting on the upper rim and the third finger acting as the bottom stand. It would be a good bet that unaccustomed hands could scarcely touch the glass even after it was emptied. Women prefer to take their tea from cups and both men and women like to have a small cut-glass side dish from which to spoon up their preserves.
Even in the most modest of dwellings it is likely that a gleaming samovar will be one of the proudest possessions. Contrary to some notions, the samovar does not dispense tea from its spout. It is a large chamber heated by a central chimney containing charcoal embers and its sole purpose is to boil and dispense water. The embers are dropped in the chimney after the water is poured in the surrounding section. The top of the samovar is then connected to that special section of the pleeta (kitchen stove) in order to draw off the charcoal fumes. A strong essence of good tea is brewed in a small pot. When the water is boiling, the small pot of tea is placed on top of the samovar and the whole thing is transported from the kitchen to the dining room and placed at the right side of the hostess.
To serve tea, a small amount of the strong essence is poured into the bottom of the cup or glass which is then filled with boiling water from the tap of the samovar. A lemon slice is floated on top, sugar cubes or preserves are placed on the tiny side dishes. And though a tray of vodka and perhaps a few liqueurs may be visible during the evening tea, unquestionably it is the samovar and the good talk that highlight the vechernyi t’chai.