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Homeward Bound


liuzhou
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It’s early days, but I am vaguely planning a trip back to the UK in January or February for maybe three weeks. This will be my longest visit in twenty years. The last time I went was over eight years ago and that was a three day visit for my son's wedding. Once he went on honeymoon, I headed home. I’ve lived abroad for thirty years in total with only very occasional trips back.

 

I will spend some time in Scotland visiting my 87 year old mother (for what we both know will probably be the last time – traumatic or what?) and the rest of the time in London, my spiritual home, with my daughter. A side trip to my son on the south coast of England facing France, my other spiritual home. Then back to China, my home home.

I’ve been thinking about this for months and being me, food comes into the equation. I’m looking forward to eating things I can’t get here. I’m not looking for wonderful Michelin restaurants or fine dining or even average restaurant dining. I’m looking forward to ingredients. Nor am I looking for childhood stuff I wouldn’t eat now even if I had never left.

My short list so far is short indeed but includes Stornoway black pudding, Arbroath smokies, dirt cheap lobsters bought from the boat as we did as kids, mussels and crabs which we never paid for – foraging before it had a name. I’ll think of many more. You will have noticed a preponderance of seafood, and why not?

But then I didn’t mention cheese. About 17 years ago, I made another short trip back and an old dear friend (ex-girlfriend) invited me for dinner. We arranged that I meet her outside a certain supermarket after she finished work. She had to pick up a few things, then we would head back to her place where she would cook. Everything went to plan – nearly. As we approached the checkouts, she said to me

 

“Oh s**t, I forgot … (some cleaning products, I recall). You go pick a bottle of wine and I’ll be back in a minute."

 

She returned equipped to clean and found me standing in front of the wine selection like a rabbit in the headlamps of a car.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

I could only mumble “but they have more than one kind of wine!”

Now, let’s be clear, I make most of my living by writing about wine. I don’t consider myself an expert. I have LOTS to learn, but I’m not totally ignorant. But years in Chinese supermarkets and a bad case of reverse culture shock had left me stunned.

Then we crossed the road to the specialist cheese shop. I swear, I walked in and burst into tears before I even looked at the cheese. Just the aromas set me off – and I’m not usually an over-emotional person.

The woman running the shop asked my friend what was wrong with me and was informed that I had just returned from years in cheese-free China. Fortunately, she had visited China (in a tour group) and had some idea of my suffering. She then gave us many tasting samples; we bought far too much cheese and went back to my friend's place and ate the lot. Plus the dinner she had prepared (a dish I had taught her years before). Next morning, the cheese vendor arrived to open up her shop and found me standing there waiting for a refill.

 

These memories led me to wonder. I know there are a few people here who no longer live where they grew up. Some revisit. Some never will. Some never can.

Over the next few months, I will think of more things I crave from the dim and distant past. But what would be yours?

 

Edited by liuzhou
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...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.

 

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A real honest-to-God pork pie.  With lots of jelly between the top of the meat filling and the underside of the top crust.  

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Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

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I miss going down to the Santa Monica, Ca, pier the day before Thanksgiving and picking out the biggest, baddest lobster there.

We took  it home and call it "turkey."  Like you, fresh seafood springs to mind. 

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Whenever I am able to go back to Germany, my first meal is always a "Mettbrötchen": A rye bread roll, lots of butter and "Mett", raw minced fatty pork with raw onions and some spices. Hits the spot everytime and tell my body (specifically my gastro-intestinal system) that I am home ...

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This is only slightly off-topic but certainly food related. Actually, it gets to the topic in the end!

I lived and worked for a year in what was still then the Soviet Union, based mainly in Moscow, but with frequent trips to Leningrad as it was then known (St. Petersburg, now) and other cities. While I was there, I had a Russian interpretor - a lovely young woman called Natasha. I would meet her at 7:30am every day and she would stand behind my right shoulder until maybe 10pm or later, giving me a simultaneous translation of what was being said to me. She had studied English at Moscow University but had never been out of Russia - few Russians had. In fact, she had never been to Leningrad until I took her. Not only that, but she never dreamed it was even possible.

 

About six months after I left, I was still working with Russian relationships and was helping organise a joint Russia-UK medical conference in London. This involved high level contacts within the Soviet Union embassy in London. At one point it was suggested that I should be supplied with an interpretor. I immediately requested Natasha. After a year of her hovering behind my ear 95% of my time awake, I desperately missed her. Every day I felt something was missing - like you forget to put on your trousers or something!

The request was considered and, to my astonishment, duly passed, but no one remembered to tell her. I had to go back to Moscow, track her down and tell her the news. She was furious!

"Why are you teasing me like this! It's impossible."

"No", I explained, "We have clearance at the highest level!"

"Stop it!" She was in tears and very, very angry, sure I was deliberately torturing her for some unknown reason.

I managed to get hold of her mother and explain (my Russian had improved a bit by that time) and we entered into a conspiracy. Somehow a passport was acquired without Natasha's knowledge (embassy help, again!). She was to travel on a group diplomatic visa so that was no problem.

She was told there was an out-of-town meeting where her assistance was needed and she would be picked up early in the morning. She packed an overnight bag, unaware that mama had also packed her a week-long bag.

Sure enough, a car picked her up in the morning and drove her to Moscow airport, where I was waiting. When she saw me, she broke down again and cursed me out (you always learn cursing first when learning a new language - it saves a lot of bother!) She still thought I was winding her up in some cruel joke.

But somehow we got her onto the plane and she cried all the way to London. At first in anger as she was sure we would land in some gulag in Siberia and she would never see her family again, but as she looked out the window and listened to the announcements, she realised that she was no longer in or over Russia and her tears changed into something else. Happily, the cloud cover broke as we passed over Scandinavia and she clearly recognised the shape from her high school geography text books. I remember her saying "it's just like the map!"

When we landed in London, she had to go through the non-native passport control, whereas I went straight through unchecked - those were the days. I stood waiting for her at the arrivals gate (although I had just arrived myself). The moment she came through was probably the most emotional of my life. Her face was awash with tears, a veritable flood - but she was grinning from ear to ear. She ran to me and threw herself into my arms - the first and nearly last physical contact. She just kept repeating "This is London!" over and over again.

She finally calmed down enough to do the work she was there for - standing behind me talking into my ear again! But we had time for sight-seeing and stuff, too. A few times more though, she reminded me that "This is London!"

We had receptions at the London Embassy where the bankrupt Soviet government served up Beluga caviare by the kilo. Russian "champagne". Georgian brandy. No expense spared. But I also took her to a London fish and chip shop and we had some time in a pub. It was strange but wonderful to be able to actually see her when she spoke to me for a change!

During her trip, she was paid a pretty good allowance, but her hotel room and all meals were covered by the embassy, so she hadn't spent anything. On the last day, it was decided that perhaps she might like to buy a few gifts to take back. Like most Muscovites, she lived in a tiny apartment with her parents, brother and grandmother. One bedroom. Normal. Food was scarce and the people lived on rough bread (if you queued for hours), cabbage and if you were very lucky, some bits of pork gristle.

Of course the elite (including me) could buy pretty much everything in special shops where you had to show your high-ranking communist party ID or foreign passport to the armed guards on the door. 

So her gift choice was mainly food related (the regulations on importing foodstuffs were looser then), so I took her to a supermarket. Safeways in Camden Town, should you happen to know it.

A few minutes into the shop, I heard this ghostly wail from behind me and turned to find Natasha sitting on the floor in hysterics, sobbing uncontrollably. Other shoppers were gathered around, some trying to help; most just staring. Ghouls.

I asked her what was wrong and I will never forget her answer.

"They have food here!"

She had never been in a supermarket which had anything more than pickled cabbage before and was overwhelmed by the cornucopia on offer.

That night we had a farewell dinner party for the visiting delegation including Natasha. We bought shed loads of fruit which of course didn't get eaten. In the morning, we departed to the airport, but what Natasha didn't know was that all the uneaten fruit was going with her. The Soviet diplomats pulled strings. As she left, she hugged me and whispered "thank you" - in Russian, "cпасибо". In her emotion, her English had abandoned her.


I only heard much later that when she landed in Moscow, she went home and found a delivery truck at the door with enough fruit to feed the entire neighbourhood for days. More tears.

Which brings me to the on-topic point of my long tale. She wrote and thanked me for everything, including the fruit, but said that when she got home all she really wanted was her grandmother's cabbage and gristle stew. She wasn't being rude or ungrateful at all. Just needed that 'back home, feel good' factor after a welcome but overwhelming experience.

About two months later the Soviet Union collapsed, but Natasha was OK. She continued to work for the new Russian government in Moscow. The next time I saw her was on the BBC news - standing behind Boris Yeltsin talking into his ear. A step up from me. She is now married with two teenage sons and we keep in touch to exchange Christmas cards etc.

But I have never met her again.

Edited by liuzhou
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...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.

 

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When we lived in Chula Vista, California, some of my earliest food memories are pizza at an Italian restaurant my mom would occasionally take us to. It had those straw covered wine bottles with candles in them and the now old-fashioned red and white tablecloths. The pizzaiola would hand flip and stretch the crusts in the air. I remember that while I liked toppings, she sometimes limited us to cheese pizza because of the cost, and that she bought some sturdy red plastic glasses from the restaurant for us to use at home. I also remember becoming indignant when a waiter ignored my request for no dressing on my salad, and had to confirm it with my mother. I was a precocious child. Even today my favorite food is pizza or rib eye steak, both of which must be executed perfectly to qualify for the category of favorite.

 

Also from Chula Vista is the lemon trees and the apricot trees on the landlord's property we rented from and were allowed to eat all the fruit from the trees that we liked. I have never had better apricots. I usually don't even bother buying then in North Carolina, because the ones we get here are pale, pale ghosts of the sweet-tart perfumed specimens I cut my permanent teeth on.

 

Later, I remember the pork, and chicken from my grandparents' small family farm in Louisiana that I helped to raise and butcher. It was all free range, and the best I'm ever likely to eat. One of my aunts raised rabbits in hutches for meat and we got our share of that in exchange for chicken and pork. Free range goat was usually purchased from another farm for pit barbecue along with a couple of our own hogs for the big Fourth of July family reunions. We usually had around 200 people in attendance and folks brought potluck dishes, some really good, some not so much. There was so much food, who cared that my aunt's potato salad looked like yellow mashed potatoes?

 

Of course there were fresh vegetables from the garden too, but the great meats are what stick in my brain, and I'm not even much of a meat lover today, but that's probably because what I can usually afford are factory farmed excuses for meat. The ever present eggs were stellar too. One time Grandpa took a short trip into Texas and we came back with a pickup truck load of tree ripened peaches to sell from the truck bed parked under one of the ancient oak trees in the front yard. Us kids were allowed to eat all the fragrant, juicy peaches we wanted! My aunt took us one time to pick purple hull peas from a pick and pay field. These were memorable, and I just bought some frozen ones and have a stash in the freezer. They might even come up to the level of the memory. We shall see. Oh, and crawdad boils! We kids got them from the cattle ponds.

 

In Vermont, I remember the sugar houses in early spring, and the great and relatively inexpensive maple syrup. I can still get maple syrup sometimes. I am hoarding a small bottle from Trader Joe's in the fridge now. There is no way to reproduce drinking the sparkling clear, slightly sweet and ice cold unprocessed sap from a collection bucket hanging under the tap of a majestic maple in the Vermont woods now. We had home grown veggies there too. There was a "hippie" goat farm down the road. I went to school with one of the daughters. We bought some of their excellent goat cheese sometimes. I didn't care for the milk though, when I tried it when sleeping over one night. It was a sad memory when one of the pregnant nannies got lost outside during a blizzard, gave birth, and her two kids lost the tips of their ears to frostbite. :( Could have been worse, though, I guess in that brutal climate, and I seemed to mind it more than the happy, playful little goatlings did. Baby goats are CUTE!

 

In Toronto Ontario, there were a bunch of (good to me at the time) take out places near where I worked where I usually ate. One had the funny name of Takee-Outee, and I loved the stuff on sticks and other things I didn't have any experience with. I think that was my first experience with an eggroll.

 

On my way back to the states, I stopped in Windsor, Canada for a week or so, and there was a smorgasbord restaurant just across the road from my motel. They had many, many dishes on the buffet, and dang they were good! I was in a food wonderland after my modest farm beginnings.

 

My (really good) restaurant experience only starts after I got out on my own in Memphis. I didn't have much restaurant experience at all or culinary horizons beyond the "Betty Crocker Cookbook" until then. Sorry I can't remember the name of the restaurant, but I do remember some of the dishes I had there. There was a "Mobile Shrimp Dinner" that was shrimp done four ways, and I was always devising ways to get there and eat this dish. One day, at this same restaurant, the daily lunch special was spaghetti with shrimp in garlic butter. My young and ignorant self stood for several seconds on the sidewalk staring at the chalkboard near the entrance stunned by the genius of this chef, and of course, that is what I ordered. I had never dreamed of pasta and shrimp in the same dish.

 

I had many memorable meals at the Hungry Fisherman, which was right over the Mississippi state line from Memphis. They specialized in all you can eat seafood. It's also where I had my virgin lobster experience. I was kind of insulted when the waitress pinned a paper bib around my neck, but I got with the program quickly after I started cracking into the beast and stuff went flying everywhere. :D One of the funnest parts was going out on the huge deck out back and feeding your leftover fries and hushpuppies to the ducks, geese, swans and koi that lived in and on/around the large pond/small lake that abutted the restaurant. They had floodlights aiming down so you could see the beautiful fish and birds.

 

Another food memory that really sticks is Shakey's Pizza buffet, of which there were several in Memphis, including one handy to my first real job for lunch. I know it's pedestrian to some of you food connoisseurs, but let me tell you that for a young active woman with high metabolism, buffets were the bomb! The pizza, salad and fried chicken were all very good. There was live entertainment at night too, and beer. Well they probably had beer at lunch too, but I needed to keep that job. :)

Edited by Thanks for the Crepes (log)
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> ^ . . ^ <

 

 

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@liuzhou

 

What an amazing story. One of the best narratives I have read on eG in quite some time. 

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Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

Our 2012 (Kerry Beal and me) Blog

My 2004 eG Blog

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3 hours ago, liuzhou said:

This is only slightly off-topic and certainly food related. Actually, it gets to the topic in the end!

I lived for a year in what was still then the Soviet Union, based mainly in Moscow, but with frequent trips to Leningrad as it was then known (St. Petersburg, now) and other cities. While I was there, I had a Russian interpretor - a lovely young woman called Natasha. I would meet her at 7:30am every day and she would stand behind my right shoulder until maybe 10pm or later, giving me a simultaneous translation of what was being said to me. She had studied English at Moscow University but had never been out of Russia - few Russians had. In fact, she had never been to Leningrad until I took her. Not only that, but she never dreamed it was possible.

 

About six months after I left, I was still working with Russian relationships and was helping organise a joint Russia-UK conference in London. This involved high level contacts in the London Russian embassy. At one point it was suggested that I should be supplied with an interpretor. I immediately requested Natasha. After a year of her hovering behind my ear, I desperately missed her. Every day I felt something was missing - like you forget to put on your trousers or something!

The request was considered and, to my surprise, duly passed, but no one remembered to tell her. I had to go back to Moscow, track her down and tell her the news. She was furious!

"Why are you teasing me like this! It's impossible."

"No", I explained, "We have clearance at the highest level!"

"Stop it!" She was in tears and very, very angry, sure I was deliberately torturing her for some reason.

I managed to get hold of her mother and explain (my Russian had improved a bit by that time) and we entered into a conspiracy. Somehow a passport was acquired without Natasha's knowledge (embassy help, again!). She was told there was an out-of-town meeting where her assistance was needed and she would be picked up early in the morning. She packed an overnight bag, unaware that mama had also packed a week-long bag.

Sure enough, a car picked her up in the morning and drove her to Moscow airport, where I was waiting. When she saw me, she broke down again and cursed me out.(you always learn cursing first when learning a new language - it saves a lot of bother!) She still thought I was winding her up in some cruel joke.

But somehow we got her onto the plane and she cried all the way to London. At first in anger as she was sure we would land in Siberia and she would never see her family again, but as she looked out the window and listened to the announcements, she realised that she was no longer in or over Russia. Happily, the cloud cover broke as we passed over Scandinavia and she clearly recognised the shape from her high school geography text books.

When we landed in London, she had to go through the non native passport control, whereas I went straight through unchecked - those were the days. I stood waiting for her at the arrivals gate (although I had just arrived myself). When she came through was probably the most emotional moment of my life. Her face was awash with tears, a veritable flood - but she was grinning from ear to ear. She ran to me and threw herself into my arms - the first and nearly last physical contact. She just kept repeating "This is London!" over and over again.

She finally calmed down enough to do the work she was there for..Talking into my ear again! But we had time for sight-seeing and stuff, too. A few times more though, she reminded me that "This is London!"

We had receptions at the London Embassy where the bankrupt Soviet government served up Beluga caviare by the kilo. Russian "champagne". Georgian brandy. No expense spared. But I also took her to a London fish and chop shop and we had some time in a pub..

During her trip she was paid a pretty good allowance, but her hotel room and all meals were all covered by the embassy, so she hadn't spent anything. On the last day, it was decided that perhaps she might like to buy a few gifts to take back. She lived in a tiny apartment in Moscow with her parents, brother and grandmother. One bedroom. Normal. Food was scarce and the people lived on rough bread (if you queued for hours), cabbage and if you were very lucky, some bits of pork gristle.

Of course the elite (including. me) could buy pretty much everything in special shops where you had to show your communist party ID or passport to the armed guards on the door. 

So her gift choice was mainly food related (the regulations on importing foodstuffs were looser then), so I took her to a supermarket. Safeways in Camden Town, if you happen to know it.

A few minutes into the shop, I heard this ghostly wail from behind me and turned to find Natasha sitting on the floor in hysterics, sobbing uncontrollably. Other shoppers were gathered around, some trying to help; most just staring. Ghouls.

I asked her what was wrong and I will never forget her answer.

"They have food here!"

She had never been in a supermarket which had anything more than pickled cabbage before.

That night we had a farewell dinner for the visiting delegation and Natasha. We bought shed loads of fruit which of course didn't get eaten. In the morning, we departed to the airport, but what Natasha didn't know was that all the uneaten fruit was going with her. - the Russian diplomats pulled strings. As she left, she hugged me and whispered "thank you" - in Russian. In her emotion, her English had abandoned her.


I only heard much later that when she landed in Moscow, she went home and found a delivery truck at the door with enough fruit to feed the entire neighbourhood for days. More tears

Which brings me to the on-topic point of my long tale. She wrote and thanked me for everything, including the fruit, but said that when she got home all she really wanted was her grandmother's cabbage and gristle stew. She wasn't being rude or ungrateful at all. Just needed that back home, feel good factor after an welcome but overwhelming experience.

About two months later the Soviet Union collapsed, but Natasha was OK. She continued to work for the Russian government in Moscow. The next time I saw her was on the BBC news - standing behind Boris Yeltsin talking into his ear. A step up from me. She is now married with two teenage sons and we keep in touch to exchange Christmas cards etc.

But I never met her again.

 

I'm reading this at 6:30 in the morning after getting my husband out the door to go hunting.  Laying next to me are two soggy kleenexes from all the crying I just did.  You are an amazing writer and your life experiences are just....I have no words.  I kind of think you and Natasha should have gotten married......oh my I think this would make quite the movie.  You should write a book.  Seriously.

 

I know how hard it is to take pictures and write when you're visiting but I do hope that you are able to post some when you get back to China.  I know your mom is probably beside herself with excitement.  And your son and daughter, too.  

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I like words. I like beautiful words. I like beautiful words that make interesting stories. I like beautiful words that makes interesting stories which make me think. I like how you have a way with words, LZ.

 

otakqcx.jpg

Edited by BonVivant (log)
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Thank you everyone for your kind remarks. I just told the story like it happened. But I agree, I have had a very lucky life, full of strangeness and adventure. and have met such lovely people.

 

1 hour ago, Shelby said:

I kind of think you and Natasha should have gotten married

 

I thought about it but my then wife objected!

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...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.

 

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Beautifully written, @liuzhou. You have the ability to take people with you into your stories.

 

Growing up in the rural South, pizza was not a big part of our world. There were the Chef BoyArDee kits in a box, with the dough mix, the tiny can of red sauce, the tiny envelope of "parmesan" cheese. Frozen pizzas had not yet debuted, or had not made it to our part of the world, and there were no pizza parlors. 

 

By the time I was in high school, I think there were frozen pizzas, but still no pizza parlors. And a family moved to town and opened one. They called it Chicago style pizza, but it wasn't the deep dish, which is what I always think of as Chicago style pizza. It was a thin, crispy-chewy crust, a thin coat of a zesty sauce, and a glorious array of cheese, meat and vegetable toppings, cut in squares in the St. Louis style. It was a revelation.

 

I graduated from high school with the son of this family, so I'm sure the parents aren't around to make pizza any longer. But damn, I'd give a lot to sit down in front of a big, greasy box filled with a steaming hot Craig's pizza again.

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Thank you @kayb,

I'm now trying to think when was the first time I ate pizza. Certainly in my 20s. I remember not being impressed - it was just a bad cheese sandwich without a lid!

In my 30s, I spent a couple of years in Italy (mainly in Rome) and reappraised my pizza views.  I remember one particularly fine example in Desenzano del Garda. Thin crust, simple topping, cooked to perfection.

But pizza is still not my favourite.

Edited by liuzhou (log)
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...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.

 

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My husband was born in the small town where we now live.  He never had  tasted pizza until he joined the Navy and went to the Great Lakes Training Center.  Chicago was hop, skip and a jump away.  There he discovered a whole world of new tastes, pizza among them.  But as a place to return to, he would pick So. Cal hands down.  I introduced him to Mexican food, avocados, asparagus, artichokes, lobster to name just a few.  Kind of funny, the only fast food place we have here is a Pizza Hut and it sucks big time.

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@liuzhou Thank you for sharing your story.  I lived in CCCP (USSR) for 25 years, was lucky to leave n 1992 and make a new life for my son and myself in the US.  Bread lines were real.  Actually, you had to stand in line if you wanted to buy anything.  I do miss my Grandmother's cabbage and gristle stew but I probably just miss my Grandmother :x:sad: who was a wonderful lady, a great cook, and protected me a great deal from my crazy parents.  My name also happens to be Natasha :).  I did not whale in the supermarket but that was only because I went mute when I saw all the foods (and no lines) for the first time.  I still treat food with great respect and can not throw away anything that can be eaten or re-cooked into something new.

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When I first moved to Jerusalem (1980), it was almost impossible to get American food products. Now you can get anything, but back then it was a different story. There was a supermarket chain that would, twice a year, have something called "America Week." They imported all sorts of American foodstuffs. My favorite thing to get was Thomas's English Muffins (they came in a box, frozen) and Smucker's strawberry jam. Oh my, that was heaven. Now that I'm back in the States, I love finding Israeli-made treats. (I live in NYC, so they're not that hard to find.) M'kupelet and Pesek Zman (candy bars) are the best. 

 

After the fall of the Soviet Union many people came to Israel, and I remember the expressions on people's faces in the supermarkets (even when it wasn't America Week) or in Machane Yehuda, the outdoor produce market. "You have so much!" I remember one woman shouting. It wasn't an envious or angry cry, she was simply astounded by the quantity, never mind the quality, of what she was seeing. Goodness, the things I take for granted. (The other thing I remember is suddenly seeing people on line in the supermarket holding only a loaf of bread and a bottle of vodka!) :raz:

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On an aside, when I was in Moscow, I was for a while extremely popular!

 

Gorbachev had banned vodka in response to an alarming alcoholism problem. Every day people would be found dead from having overdone the vodka and collapsed on the way home only to freeze to death in Russia's harsh winter.

Of course, the elite (and me) could still get it from the so-called Friendship stores after brandishing suitable ID to the armed guards.

I used to feel so guilty. Some of the people I worked with would invite me to their homes for dinner. I knew how much trouble that caused them - queuing for hours for not very much at all, then having to cook nervously in case I didn't like it. Declining the invitation would have been inexcusably rude.

I remember one particular meal prepared by a lovely psychiatrist I met in Leningrad, a fascinating woman in her 60s with stories to tell. One day I may elaborate. Again, a tiny apartment with an extended family. Dinner was edible. At the end my friend, the psychiatrist disappeared into the kitchen and returned with an obviously very old, somewhat rusty, just opened can of pineapple rings from Cuba and carefully placed it in the centre of the table in triumph. I didn't know whether to weep or laugh. But then I just felt guilty.

This was obviously something they had been saving for the right occasion and had decided I was that occasion. We ate the pineapple. How could I refuse?

Then I pulled two bottles of vodka from my bag and handed them over. The pineapple was forgotten and I was (lightly) berated for not handing them over earlier so that they could be put outside on the window ledge to get as close to frozen as possible (I still keep vodka in the freezer). But I could still see the delight in their eyes. Despite not being optimum temperature, one bottle was consumed. Thereafter, I always took vodka to dinner invitations and presented it on arrival.

@chefmd will correct me if I misremember. In 1980s Moscow slang, or maybe just Russian slang, maybe still, a standard 750cl bottle of vodka was known as a troika (тройка) because it was just enough for three people to share.

Edited by liuzhou (log)
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...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.

 

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@liuzhou. It was actually 500 ml bottle divided among three people "на троих".  It came to about one ruble per person, the usual mid day meal (in Russia mid day meal is called dinner, обед) allowance that wives would give their husbands.  Vodka bottle could not be re-capped!

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  • 3 months later...
On 17/09/2016 at 9:35 PM, liuzhou said:

Thanks @chefmd. I wasn't sure about the size. At least I got some of it right. I remember the bottles which couldn't be re-capped.

...because you know, of course, that it'll never taste right if you cap it and put it away. At least that's the explanation I've been given by many hard drinkers over the years (ie, the portion of my Newfoundland family that dies in its 50s). 

 

When my kids were little, we used to do a specific theme every year for Christmas: As we were taking down one year's decorations, we'd decide on the next year's theme. One year my kids chose "traditional Russian Christmas" as the upcoming motif, despite having no recent connections to Russia (my ex-wife's family were Mennonites, and had come to Canada from Russia and modern-day Belarus, but were culturally German). 

 

As it happened, that autumn I was dabbling in conversational ESL, and was paired up with a Russian family. The wife was doing graduate work at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography (Canada's equivalent of Woods Hole, I suppose you could say), while the husband stayed home with the two kids (boy 6, girl 6 months). As Christmas got closer I asked the husband if he could give us some guidance on the whole Russian-Christmas thing, which appealed to him greatly. Rather than helping us plan something at home, he suggested instead that we should come over to their apartment and experience it first-hand. Of course, we agreed. 

 

The meal was excellent (especially the pelmieny), but the first thing that struck me when we sat down to the table was the large bottle of Absolut vodka. Igor twisted the cap off and threw it over his shoulder theatrically, explaining in sheepish tones, "I usually am not much to drink...a glass or two of white wine, maybe..but is Russian tradition." As the evening wore on and hilarity advanced apace, "is Russian tradition" became a catchphrase. When he stumbled over a kid's toy and did a faceplant, he rolled over laughing and proclaimed it to be "Russian tradition." He strummed his guitar and sang Cossack songs loudly and well (his wife was an ethnic Cossack), assuring us that it was "Russian tradition." 

 

He eventually gave us a florid goodnight before passing out, and I helped his wife drag him off to bed. I left while she shucked him down and tucked him in, and set about gathering up my kids and all their winter clothing. As she came out of the bedroom, his wife gave us a look of dry humor, jerked a thumb toward her unconscious husband, and said, "is Russian tradition."

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I had to look up Wood's Hole, then wondered why you were drinking Swedish vodka for a traditional Russian dinner!

 

But hey, what the heck?

 

Here in China, I've also come across the notion that spirits bottles have to be consumed immediately after opening or they "go off". It isn't usually an excuse for overindulgence (overindulgence is not seen as abnormal) but rather they genuinely believe it will go off.

More worrying is when they take a bottle of malt whisky, pour it into a jug and top it up with the same amount of 7-Up or Lilt.  A Chinese tradition!

I've seen that so often and as a Scot, it fills me with despair.

But yes, I've played the "It's a ________ tradition" game, too.

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...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.

 

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