Sunday, November 25, 2012

Thanksgiving in Moscow

I read a lot of food and recipe blogs, and most of the authors cite an almost identical source of initiation into the world of food.  Each recounts a childhood memory where she sat in her mother's kitchen soaking up every bit of activity going on around her. As she grew, her duties as assistant became more advanced, until one day, she was the one doing all the cooking, absorbed in every minute step.  These are all sweet stories, and I wish I could draw on one of my own, showing the clear linear path to my current obsession with all things food.  Unfortunately, I rarely helped my own mother in the kitchen.  Instead, I was the one waiting for her to leave and check her e-mail, sneaking in with a spoon to get a taste of whatever was on the stove.  I was the one climbing on chairs to reach the highest cabinet, where I knew the special treats and candies were hidden.  Often times during college when I'd return home for a weekend, my mom would buy my favorite salt and vinegar potato chips, among other things.  She'd always joke that before she could even show me what she'd bought, I'd already "sniffed everything out." So, yes, instead of that cute child trying her best to fill her mother's measuring cups, I was the one wiping crumbs from my cheeks and begging to lick the bowl.

After moving out of my parents' house, I quickly learned that in order to enjoy the foods I gorged on growing up, I had to learn to prepare them.  With each year of college, I grew more and more independent in my cooking.  I began experimenting in the kitchen.  I can still remember e-mailing my mom for the family chicken paprikash recipe.  My roommate and I used the shared kitchen of our dorm to attempt the meal.  I felt like such a real chef substituting skinless, boneless chicken breasts for bone-in chicken thighs.  I didn't even know what to do with bone-in chicken thighs. Somehow, the recipe turned out great, and we had leftovers for a week.

Gradually, I became infatuated with the process of cooking: searching for a recipe, gathering the proper ingredients, preparing for each step, improvising when necessary, then, best of all, enjoying the finished product. Soon my weekend visits home involved testing new recipes with my mom.  We discovered our similar liking to dishes that were unusual to the rest of our family.  Many times we'd prepare something for them, while experimenting with a little something for ourselves. My dad and Anna would look critically at our salmon burgers, then take a huge satisfying bite of their beef.

When I moved to Columbus, I was so excited to have a kitchen of my own.  I inherited many of my great grandmother's cooking utensils, many of which had purposes completely unknown to me.  I only learned last week what a pastry cutter is.  I can tell you that's not what I used mine for. I started simply with casseroles, pastas, and other easily-assembled dishes.  I was cooking for two 20-something college boys, for goodness' sake.  I had to cook something that would fill their bottomless stomachs.  Kyle bought me a fancy stand mixer, on which I tested cookie recipes from Halloween through the New Year.  I also began building up a collection of cookbooks.  This enthusiasm continued through our six months in Naples but took an unfortunate halt last February when we arrived in South Korea.  I had two burners, a microwave, and a sorry collection of ingredients to work with.  I continued cooking, but it was with the sole purpose of consumption. I felt a wave of relief when I saw a real kitchen with a working stove and oven when we first stepped into our apartment here in Russia, even if there was a washing machine in the thick of it all. But my excitement hasn't been the same.  Ingredients are difficult to track down, and when you have to walk a couple miles to the grocery store, you're less inclined to try new recipes. 

My second main obsession besides food is the holiday season, which in my calendar starts a week before Halloween and continues on until New Year's Day.  I have a strong feeling these two obsessions are intricately woven together, but regardless, Thanksgiving's approach struck an idea in me.  I decided to create, to the best of my ability, a Thanksgiving meal for us to share here in Moscow.  If we couldn't go home for family and food, I'd try to recreate as much of it here as possible.  I made an elaborate plan, which consisted of which ingredients to buy and at what time, what steps of each recipe to carry out on each day, then finally how to make it all come together Thursday night.  We had no time off work that week, so I needed to prepare as much in advance as I could.  Each working day contains only a few hours of free time, so I had to balance that as well.  Though I can certainly say my cooking skills have developed since my first chicken paprikash attempt, I've never made so many dishes for one meal in the middle of a full-time work week.  Most of the dishes for Thanksgiving I've never made at all. 

I scouted the ingredients in the three nearby grocery stores and compiled a menu: roasted dill chicken, stuffing, mashed potatoes, mushroom gravy, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, rolls, and apple pie.  I challenged myself to make as much from scratch as possible, which included everything except the cranberry sauce and rolls.  Green bean casserole is not really from scratch, at least not when you open a bag of frozen green beans and mix them with a can of cream of mushroom soup.  Somehow, some way, the meal came together without mishaps.  We sat down, as scheduled, around 10 pm on Thanksgiving night and stuffed ourselves silly. 

And, he liked it!

Saturday, November 10, 2012


"We should probably go soon," said Kyle. 

I looked up from my scrambled eggs, which contained every last morsel of perishable food from the refrigerator, and asked, "What time is it?"


"Oh, crap!"

What a great start to the trip; we had planned to leave at 5:00 am.  I shoveled all that could fit into my mouth, tossed the unwashed dishes into the sink, and covered them with a layer of hot, soapy water.  I fell into my last-minute, traveling habit and started grabbing any object I thought I could possibly use over the weekend.  Into my bag went three extra pairs of socks, some jewelry I didn't even know I owned, and a dozen more Q-tips.  You never know, right?

We hurried out the front door and walked the 2 kilometers to the subway station.  When we finally arrived, I swiped my subway pass and pushed through the gate.  I glanced back briefly before heading down the stairs.  An 80-year-old woman with 10 bags and a coat that could fit two more humans was scanning her card at each gate.  A resounding tone indicated her card was not valid. Kyle was waiting behind her.  I watched him tap her on the shoulder, scan his card, then gesture for her to pass through.  Wow, he really is in a good mood today, I thought.  When he scanned his card to allow himself to pass, the familiar tone sounded again.  "Shyest minooti!" the guard called out to him.  Let's add six more minutes to our already late status...

Finally we climbed onto the empty subway car and rolled several stops to our train station.  Somehow we made it to the correct platform and into our seats aboard the Sapsan train.  Nodding off, we rode comfortably for three and a half hours into St. Petersburg. When we stepped out of the train some outrageous orchestral song was blaring from the speakers.  We were just stopping in for the weekend, but the music made us feel like we were returning home from a hard-faught war.

Downtown St. Petersburg

We searched for our hotel like true tourists, our necks straining to gaze at every gorgeous structure, while constantly referring to our crisply folded map. I tested my Russian at the hotel front desk, asking the man if he spoke English.  His furrowed brow first showed confusion, then clarity, "English? Oh yes, of course!" Did I mention how good my Russian is getting?

We dumped our belongings into our room at the Comfort Hotel and set off in search of lunch.  We wound through the streets in the drizzling rain until we finally settled on Jerome's cafe.  With our dinner reservation only hours away, we enjoyed a light lunch of soup and bread.  The setting was gorgeous, with exposed brick ceilings, sturdy wooden tables and chairs, along with spurts of fresh gray decor. My only complaint was the $10 bottles of water. Honestly.

With full stomachs and desire to find the Neva, we returned to the drizzling gray weather.  A student of mine scored a deal at a hotel in the center of St. Petersburg, so we were able to travel the entire weekend on foot.  We walked through a narrow park covered in fallen leaves. 

The trees began to thin until the park opened to a sprawling green field.  At the end of the field stood the famous bronze horseman statue.  The deep gray color was striking against the bland clouds and sunshine-yellow building beside it. 

Me with the Bronze Horseman

Just across the way, the Neva River rocked gently.  We followed a bridal party along the river, snapped photos of more buildings and statues, then unexpectedly came upon the Winter Palace. 

Across the Neva River
Our first sighting of the Winter Palace
We made our way back to the hotel, where I slipped into a pair of heels I hadn't seen in months.  Our dinner reservation was at a place called Teplo, loosely translated to 'cozy' or 'comforting' in English.  It quickly became the most quaintly unique restaurant I've ever visited.  We weaved through some buildings until an empty, but well-lit and decorated patio awaited us.  I clambered down the steps in my heels, and a hostess led us to our table.  Candles flickered on every table, a collection of slippers were available for guests to borrow, and blankets were draped over nearly ever edge.  There were varying degrees of formality in each room.  We passed groups dining at mismatched wooden tables and chairs, a father and son competing in foosball, and couples sipping tea at a counter overlooking the kitchen.  The restaurant was essentially a house turned into a restaurant, with the original rooms preserved.  We entered what would be the living room.  A pair of families sat on a sofa and loveseat and ate at the coffee table.  Another group nibbled at their desserts over a game of Jenga.  In the back corner through a shorter-than-average doorframe, I saw several children sprawled on foam mats building castles with blocks.  Each menu was handmade and a cross between a scrapbook and photo album.  We tasted each other's Russian borsch, pumpkin soup, and beef tenderloin.  The most delicious vanilla rooibos tea rounded off the meal.

The main event of the evening was a performance of Carf Orff's Carmina Burana at the well-known Mariinsky Theater.  We saw Carmina Burana performed for the first time by Toledo's syphony and were blown away.  If you're interested, the most recognized part of the piece can be found here.  The theater was gorgeously decorated, with ornate golden molding among marble and soft velvet. 

The interior of Mariinsky Theater
The performance was just as amazing the second time.  It lasts just over an hour but felt vastly shorter.  The soloists were stunning and displayed masterful dramatization.  During one portion, an unnoticed children's choir seated in on of the balconies stood and joined the singing. 

Mariinsky Theater
Sitting in a famous Russian theater in St. Petersburg gave such an overwhelming feeling that even a performance of 'Hot Cross Buns' by my sixth grade band would have sounded great. We left the theater on a high and spent the rest of the evening walking along the canals of the city.

Monument to Nicholas I

On a footbridge over one of the many St. Petersburg canals

Famous composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov across from Mariinsky Theater

A tribute to the Russian author Vladmir Nabokov

The next morning we enjoyed a simple meal provided by the hotel in the adjoining restaurant.  The most awaited part of the weekend, a visit to the Hermitage, was the only mark in our agenda for Sunday.  Though the museum opens at 11 am on Sundays, there were already two large lines at 10:15 am.  The museum is one of the most celebrated in the world, high in the ranks with the Louvre of Paris.  It consists of four or five buildings and holds millions of pieces of artwork. 

The main entrance to the Hermitage
With our short visit, we decided to spend the day in the Winter Palace, the portion holding some Russian artifacts but mostly Western artwork.  The collection was started by Catherine the Great and has been preserved ever since.  Some of the rooms were arranged to display the living style of historic Russian royalty. 

The Room of Malachite, where Tsarist officials met for the final time before being captured
Kyle's dream room
Other rooms held classic Greek and Roman statues, Russian antiques, and Baroque artwork. The top floor is dedicated to Modern and Impressionist art. We spent a little over four hours in the museum and still felt there was plenty more to see. We were most impressed with the top floor, where entire rooms were set aside each for Van Gogh, Picasso, Pissarro, and Matisse. The palace was a museum in itself, so even when the art seemed redundant, the windows, floors, and architecture provided entertainment.

Pablo Picasso's The Farmer

Van Gogh's Portrait of Madame Trabuc

One of Henri Matisse's most famous- The Dance
For the last site before our departure, we stopped at St. Isaac's Cathedral.  Alexander I ordered the construction of the church following the defeat of Napoleon.  It took nearly 40 years to complete, and the architect died soon after it was finished.  Perhaps the most fantastic part of the cathedral is its enormous golden dome, which was painted black during WWII so as to not attract enemies' attention.  The cathedral is now a museum, where you can walk inside as well as up the 200+ stairs to the collonade.  We decided to see both.  Somehow, the only 30 minutes of sunlight of the entire weekend corresponded with our visit to the collonade.  We were able to see for miles across all directions of the city where colorful spires of various cathedrals poked through the skyline. It was truly breathtaking.

Kyle atop St. Isaac's Cathedral

The view of southern St. Petersburg

The Hermitage, Palace Square, and Alexander Column in the distance
Palace Square with the Alexander Column up close
Our final stop was the cathedral's interior, which was immensely overpowering.  Every inch of the ceilings, arches, and walls were covered with religious artwork.  We gawked at numerous murals of saints and Biblical figures.  There were maybe hundreds of different sculptures.  Even the two main doors boasted intricate carvings.  The colors from golden trim, malachite ornaments, and marble columns was almost blinding.

St. Isaac's Cathedral altar

This one's for you, Sister Catherine

A weekend has never flown by so quickly.  We made idiots of ourselves trying to track down the correct train car but returned to Moscow blown away by all that we saw in St. Petersburg.  The city exceeded our every expectation.  The people were kind and relaxed.  Every alleyway held hidden treasures.  St. Petersburg contains too much to see in one month, let alone two and a half days.  Everything about it was entirely charming, from our first long-distance train ride to the dozens of free hot cocoas I slurped down in the hotel lounge.