I swayed slightly, the champagne bubbles working themselves into the lining of my empty stomach like so many grains of sand. I pictured myself face-planting into one of the ten or so Russian salads spread on the table before me (Russian New Year’s is traditionally celebrated “at the table”).
When I say salad, I mean it in the Russian sense, which is a heavy meat-and-potato based mixture designed to simultaneously soak up alcohol and put on a layer of blubber against the cold. No lettuce is involved; instead, the ingredients list resembles all those leftovers you might consider feeding your cat: Liver and eggs, beets under a layer of sour cream, pickles with potatoes and some form of grey meat, various mixtures of all forms of fish and root vegetables. Two standouts were “Silyotka under a Fur Coat” – potatoes, eggs, beets and apples on top of fish in oil – and the traditional Salad Olivye – potatoes, pickles, peas, onion, eggs and beef – that is always eaten on New Year’s.
It goes without saying that the second largest ingredient in any of these recipes is a coating of mayonnaise or sour cream. All were served cold. A mix of rice, crab, eggs, mayonnaise, onion, peppers and crab meat under cream sauce was the token international flavor at the table.
After I packed my gut like a real Russian muzhik and botched a toast to my hosts’ “gostepriimstvo” (hospitality), we headed over to a friend’s for a taste of Ukrainian New Year’s.
At least in comparison to the initial smorgasbord, the table here was still feeling the effects of the Ukrainian Famine. Three unidentified salads – one looked to contain either sardines or burnt string beans – glistened next to a platter of smoked fish.
As we sat down, Babushka Yulia, come from Ukraine to celebrate the New Year, just stared at me through the topography of her wrinkled face. Her wispy hair bound up in a platok and feet wrapped against the cold, she was a picture of the world-weary complacence that is so often found on the countenance of those who have lived through the Soviet regime.
I was too full to eat more than a bite of the “sala,” which, to put it nicely, is bacon’s sickly cousin. To put it bluntly, gelatinous pig fat. But my curiosity got the best of me when my attention was drawn to a 2-and-a-half liter water bottle of samogon (moonshine) glistening like pure glycerine on the headboard.
To the New Year!