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1940s Archive

An Alphabet For Gourmets

continued (page 7 of 8)

And I felt much too shy to go into the next room where everyone standing around the long table was speaking Russian, with a liveliness that to me still seems part of the zakuski ritual. I remember how thin most of the people looked, and how handsome; that was not long after Paris filled with refugees from the Revolution, and although I was innocent of the average American awe at having princes for taxi drivers, I could not help admiring the way most of the people in the cafe cellar held their heads.

I do not know quite how they paid for the things they nibbled so avidly and gaily, whether there was a flat fee for this little postchurchly spree, or whether some sharp-eyed waiter totted up their various mouthfuls. As I say, I was too timid and out of my lingual element to investigate and instead stayed in the bar, absorbing by a kind of gastronomical osmosis the high good spirits in the other room.

My time was far from wasted, though: I learned the lasting delight of pressed caviar, which I found to be best when it was most removed from freshness…when, in fact, the barman hacked it off the mother lump as if it were a piece of rubber, and it had to be chewed and mumbled over in the mouth. Then it went down in a kind of gush of pureness, caviar in essence.

One day I staggered into the bar, dizzy from the most beautiful a cappella singing I had ever heard in my life or in my dreams, and the barman, who by that time recognized me, put down before me on the counter a tough slab of the red and a little brimming glass, and for an instant I felt very lonely and wished that I might be in the other room, where people milled merrily after the strain of standing and kneeling and then standing all morning. But next me I suddenly saw a big man, drinking vodka from a water tumbler, and he, too, was eating red pressed caviar, holding it like a slice of bread in his hand, and joking with the barman…and something about the vibrations in his voice made me know that it was Boris Chaliapin who spoke, and that it had been he, no other in the world, who sang in church that morning with the other choristers.

I must have looked the way I felt, awestruck and flabbergasted and naive, for the barman said something and they both glanced at me and smiled, and then Chaliapin clicked his glass against mine and said, “Santé!”, and they went on talking in Russian.

It was a strange moment in my life, as strong and good as the taste of caviar on my tongue, and the bite of vodka in my throat. I walked straight out, past the door of the other room, where the gaiety and the countless zakuski no longer lured. Everything was in shadow beside the almost brutal glare of the voice that had so uplifted me in church, and then had said “Santé!” to me. Even now I blink a little, spiritually, thinking of it.

Caviar, of course, is only one zakuska. Personally, I think it is the best one and would willingly forego almost any other gastronomical delight for it…enough of it, which I have never had, even though once I slowly and happily ate a pound of it by myself, over a day or so in time and unlimited distances in voluptuous space. It has for many centuries been thought the most luxurious of all hors-d’oeuvre, too good for ordinary diners or dinners. Even Shakespeare used it as a simile; “Caviare to the general…” he wrote in Hamlet about a play which pleased not the million…and indeed it is reported that British soldiers stationed on the Caspian Sea after one of the last wars complained angrily about being fed too much of “this ‘ere fish jam.”

I moan at the thought and wonder if they would have liked any better the lowest form of it, a futile imitation called peasant caviar, made of baked eggplant and various seasonings. I myself think it utterly delicious, no matter how far removed from what it tries to imitate, and would gladly eat it, spread thick and cold upon black bread, every summer noontime of my life. It is another zakuska, seen more upon poor sideboards than rich ones, of course.

Then there are all the pickled mushrooms and tomatoes and eggplants, usually flavored with dill in one degree or another…and the pickled smelts and boned pickled anchovies, the smoked salmon and sturgeon, the little fried or poached cheese pats called tvorojniki, the pirojki stuffed with a dozen things like game, fish, cheese, cabbage, mushrooms…and bowls of mushrooms in sour cream…and of course the vodka, which with tequila is the most appetizing firewater in the world, I think—although I learned from one of Arnold Bennett’s books to find good dry gin a fortunate substitute for either of them.

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