That, all that and much more, too, will make an honest side table of zakuski. Anything that follows is incidental, obviously…although at Eastertime, in Russian households all over the world and of whatever political hue, it is obligatory to stay upright, if not completely sober, for the main table of baked ham and ducks and suckling pigs, and the high koulitch and the cone-shaped pashka, and the painted eggs all nested in their grass and blossoms.
A man I know who was a boy in St. Petersburg has told me that never in his life, nowhere else in the world, has he seen such Gargantuan, near-insane gourmandizing as at his home, on Easter, when he was about twelve. He cannot forget it, nor how the still merry people fell back like walruses into their chairs, after the gentlemen had visited several other houses for a nibble of the special zakuski and a nip of vodka, and then had met with their women and children at his parents’ house for the rest of the traditional celebration. He shakes his head now, with a half-incredulous, half-envious look in his eyes that says, too recognizably—There were giants in those days.
I have never seen such a rite, raised as I was prosaically, if with less digestive danger, in a small California town, but I remember the first time I ever went to the Brasserie Universelle in Paris, which was notable then for its hors-d’oeuvre varies, a great favorite with provincials like me. I was young and hungry, with a commensurate capacity and sturdy bodily functions. I had never beheld so many tempting dishes in my life, and the waiters who came in a seemingly endless procession, bringing hot, cold, spiced, bland, scarlet, green, black things to set before me, apparently enjoyed my naive pleasure.
“Hold back,” one would advise tensely. “Wait! There will soon come a truffled pâté one must taste!”
Or another would say, “Now just a tiny little morsel of this, it is not too distinguished, to save place for the cèpes which are next!”
And so it went, I sitting back in happy helplessness, like a queen ant being nourished by her husbands, feeling myself grow great with sensuality.
As I remember, this happened several times, only by virtue of my youth and general good health, and at the end of each meal I toyed languidly with a coupe Jacques. I could face neither the hors-d’oeuvre nor the dessert today, but it is somehow pleasant and reassuring to feel that I was not always thus ascetic…and also that I have known more exciting things than the tray of canapés which is considered the American equivalent of zakuski, in whatever language it is said.
What emasculation they have undergone, these pretty and minuscular appetizers! What a far cry, no matter how artfully made and served, they are from the generous bowls and tubs and boats of a buffet russe, a smörgåsbord, a table of hors-d’oeuvre variés! And for that matter, how far from the straightforward and tonic thrust of vodka or aquavit is the genteel stimulation of no matter how fine a Sidecar or Manhattan, the vulgar wallop of even the best Martini!
I cannot ponder upon a Gargantuan Easter in St. Petersburg, but I can succor my hungry memory with thought of pâté and mushrooms and suchlike in an upstairs restaurant in Paris…and perhaps better than any of this with thoughts of the simplest zakuska ever eaten, when Boris Chaliapin are it too, and touched his tumbler to my little glass.…
What better way could there be, to begin a meal or end an alphabet?