May 01, 2009

Meals from the Heart

last january I traveled to Russia along the same route I had taken on my very first visit there, in 1972. Perhaps it was the retracing that made me think back to the past, when Moscow’s decent restaurants numbered approximately three: the luscious Aragvi, the hotel-style Pekin, and Uzbekistan, which is, remarkably, still going strong after being renovated by the famed restaurateur Arkady Novikov. But even though I have by now eaten in Russia’s most lauded restaurants, I still tend to linger on the simple fare, the meals shared at friends’ apartments or at street stalls or cafés. Three of my favorite gustatory moments from the past are anything but fine dining.

First on my list might be the day I discovered ponchiki, Russian doughnuts. It was 1979, a crisp January morning when I just could not get warm. As I approached Moscow’s Belarus train station I caught a seductive whiff. I followed my nose to a tiny kiosk where steam billowed up in great clouds. A hefty woman was scooping hot doughnuts, still dripping with fat, right from the fryer into paper cones. She dusted them liberally with powdered sugar, which immediately clumped. That and the grease-stained paper should probably have made me steer clear of this artery-clogging temptation, but it didn’t. And truth be told, nothing could have been more satisfying. Although most of Moscow’s doughnut stands have been replaced by shawurma and bliny stalls, on my latest visit I happened upon a small indoor doughnut shop at VDNKh, Moscow’s grand exhibition grounds. Except for the fact that the ponchiki are dished out on disposable plates instead of in cones, they are every bit as greasy and satisfying.

A second memorable meal took place in 1983, in a birch grove outside of Moscow near the Abramtsevo Estate. In those days it was illegal for foreigners to travel outside the Moscow city limits without a permit. Friends agreed to accompany me on the condition that I not attract unwanted attention. The afternoon felt very spy-versus-spy. Again, the weather was freezing, well below zero. By the time we arrived at the Abramtsevo station we were ravenous. Because we couldn’t visit any public places, my friends had packed a freshly roasted chicken into a plastic bag for our lunch. We traipsed off into the woods, but it was too cold and snowy to sit down. So we ate standing up, tearing the chicken apart with our hands and quaffing brandy from a small flask. Just as we were enjoying our meal, a policeman in tall felt boots appeared out of nowhere, causing our hearts to race. But he passed by without comment, and we finished our meal. Roast chicken had never tasted so good.

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