A friend of mine—a genuine gourmand—recently departed DC for a long-term work assignment in Bucharest, Romania. She bequeathed the contents of her freezer, pantry, and liquor cabinet to lucky me, who became the proud steward of a bison steak, a pound of ground venison, mango chutney, Minnesota wild rice, assorted spice rubs, 3 bottles of pure maple syrup, as well as bottles of champagne, cognac, Armagnac, almond liqueur, and a few other assorted spirits.
Searing the bison in a little lard the other night, I wondered what would surprise her most about life in her first eastern European city. That’s the question I remember Russians asking me most often when I first arrived in Moscow as an exchange student. I wasn’t sure how to answer it. While many little things were different, the undercurrents of life—the pressures and satisfactions of work and school, family, homekeeping, friendships, preventing the entropy of everyday existence from spinning outside the bounds of the acceptable—that was all essentially the same. I wanted to say something profound about the inner lives of Russians and Americans, but all I could come up with were things like. “You guys eat a lot more soup than we do, and your spoons are way bigger.” Back then I swatted these observations away as mundane and insignificant, instead smiling, shrugging, and muttering some cliché about how everyone looks so serious all the time.
Within a matter of months, many of the quotidian surprises that had intrigued me at first now seemed ordinary, and I stopped noticing them. But when I arrived in Kiev in November of this year on my own work-related trip, they all struck me again with renewed force. Though I’d never visited Kiev before, the city bears so much in common with its counterparts across the border in Russia that I had the bizarre sense of coming back to a place I’d never been. Nowhere was this more evident than in the kitchens I visited over the course of the week.
Everything in a post-Soviet kitchen, from utensils to dishes to furniture and appliances, tends to be smaller than what Americans are used to, except for soup spoons, which are huge. Most people’s refrigerators are half the size of American ones, and they never fill up the way ours do. No one seems to own anything as large as an American dinner plate. Instead they might eat a first course of soup and then a second course small enough to fit on a lunch plate, or they serve themselves little by little from serving dishes placed directly on the table. This is especially common if a family has company over, because they will most likely be eating in the living room at the only table in the apartment large enough accommodate both plates and serving dishes (and often just barely, at that). Almost no one has a separate dining room.
In the Soviet Union, mass production of consumer goods with little or no variation in design meant that cupboards across the enormous expanse of the USSR contained remarkably similar sets of dishes—the red mugs with white dime-sized polka dots, the squat ribbed glasses that might as easily contain a full cup of vodka as water. Twenty years after the collapse, plenty of these are still kicking around. Pots and pans, which people store inside their ovens, also look alike: almost everyone seems to have the white aluminum pot with the universally chipped black lip, tiny handles and a flower design on one side.
The people I’ve met never use paper towels in their kitchens and don’t own Ziploc bags or tupperware. They store their leftovers in the pots they were cooked in or the dishes they were served in, overturning a plate on top. They are as likely to keep leftovers out on the stove overnight(s) as they are to put them in the refrigerator. As surely as there is a toilet in the bathroom or WC, there is an electric kettle in the kitchen for boiling water for tea.
Taken one by one, none of these details jumped out as particularly illustrative of any inherent differences beween the US and the former USSR. Many of them are common to other parts of the world as well. But taken together, they represnt a uniquely post-Soviet experience that has become comforting to me in spite of (or perhaps because of?) its foreignness.
I’ve never been to Bucharest, so while I know that Soviet influence impacted Romanian political structures, I’m curious to learn how much it infiltrated their kitchens.