Perhaps I’m giving away my age when I tell you that I vividly remember the last time Russia hosted the Olympics. Of course, back in the summer of 1980, it was still the Soviet Union and the Cold War was so entrenched that the American delegation ended up boycotting the Games. However, as a 7-year-old American journalist’s kid being driven to the Anglo-American School in our boxy Russian Zhiguli car with the smiling face of Mischa Bear — the Moscow Olympic mascot — the geopolitical nuances that surrounded me went straight over my head.
Now the Sochi Winter Olympics are in full swing, and while the Soviet Union has gone the way of the Walkman and Cosby sweaters, my nostalgia for the country I called home for so many formative years remains. The Americans aren’t boycotting this time, although there are strong concerns about human rights and security in this southern region of the country. And while the debates rage on, I, now a chef and food writer, am caught up in wistful daydreams about the Russia I knew and the food that defines it in my memory.
My family spent most of the years between 1979 and 1990 in Moscow, living in a foreigners’ compound near the center of town. We were given housekeepers and drivers, ostensibly on the payroll of my father’s employers, but most certainly doing double-duty for the KGB, minding our every move. However, Svetlana, Volodya, Yuri and Ludmilla became like surrogate aunts and uncles to me. They were the closest relationships with the locals we were ever permitted to have and the people who taught me the most about the Russian soul.
It was at the apron strings of Svetlana that I threw my first dinner party for my family in the fourth grade. She helped me prepare chilli and a big green salad. I remember watching her flip blinis for hours in her special cast iron skillet as she and my mother rushed to finish canapés for 100 impending guests.
Later, when I attended Soviet high school, my best friend Elina took me to her hometown of Ordzhonikidze, not far from where the Sochi games will be held in the Caucasus Mountains. Her mother served us a sturgeon soup when we arrived from the airport, so good I’d love to recreate it properly. On that trip we gorged on pelmeni (dumplings) and cheese-filled bread and blini with caviar (it most certainly was not the luxury item it is here in the West). Often, when coming back to the States to visit, we’d stash huge tubs of cheap but top quality caviar to give as gifts. It’s strange what’s valued where.
With all of these memories swirling around in my head, I thought it would be fun to host a Russian-themed viewing party for the Olympics. It’s a perfect opportunity to showcase some of my favorite dishes to friends, allowing them to experience a cuisine that is often maligned in the culinary world
These are all zakuski, which comes from the word zakusit, meaning “to snack.” Much like tapas, these dishes are set out on the table all at once and serve mostly as an accompaniment to vodka shots, the centerpiece of any authentic Russian gathering.