This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

The Seasonal Diet: A Memoir

Image by Maggie Smith

I was having lunch yesterday in a quaint restaurant and noticed an unusual cookbook on a shelf by my table. As I perused it, I discovered that all the recipes in it were arranged by month and consisted of ingredients that would have been available during the season before modern agricultural techniques and improved transportation options made most foods available to consumers all year round. “These days, Americans do not appreciate the beauty and simplicity of eating seasonally,” wrote the editor in her foreword. The book was published in 1973.

Well, I am an American, and I do have a first-hand experience with eating seasonally. This is not because I am very old, but because I grew up in Russia, which did not begin to see Western-style abundance on its store shelves until well after end of the Soviet rule (and with that, Soviet-style production) in the 1990’s. Below is an account of what it was like to live on a seasonal diet.

One of the most vivid food-related memories I have of my childhood is of the day when my father brought home the season’s first tomato. I was about seven. It was mid-April. My father bought only one tomato, and it was quite small. My mother sliced it in half, and let me eat one half with salt. The other half she wrapped in tin foil and put in the refrigerator, to save until the next day. I took over an hour to eat my treat. I had not tasted a raw tomato since October.

We lived in a small suburb of Moscow that had about five food stores within walking distance of our house. The closest was “Universal”, where you could get a milk shake made with Milk of Mozhajsk, butter, canned fish and pasta which in all aspects — taste, texture, appearance and response to cooking in hot water — resembled cardboard.

Further down the town’s main avenue, Moscow Street, was a store called “Myaso-Ryba” or “Meat & Fish”, where you could get eggs, sour cream, pickled herring, and ham that consisted almost entirely of giant globs of fat bound in aspic. Occasionally, it also offered beef roasts which shrank by about three fourths when cooked. I loved “Meat & Fish”. It always smelled of smoked fish, although I never saw any on sale there.

Another quarter mile or so down the street, on the edge of the old town with its yellow stucco’ed 19th century buildings, was a small shop whose main attraction was that it sold bottled Milk of Mozhajsk. This is a type of milk that’s pasteurized a little longer than strictly necessary. The extra heating breaks down some of the sugars in the milk, giving it a faintly sweet, almost vanilla-scented flavor. I could drink it by the gallon. The shop also sold sour cream that we never bought, because (my mother said) it looked and tasted as if it had been diluted with piss instead of water. I have to add that almost everything in the Soviet Union was sold by weight, not pre-packaged, and sales people stole copiously. That was simply accepted as a fact of life. Nevertheless, the honorable way to make up for the volume of the sour cream you’ve stolen would have been to adulterate the batch with water. Adding any other liquid — well, that would have been just mean.

There was a bakery on Moscow Street, the only place in town to buy bread. There, you could also get a glass of tomato juice (the cashier kept a dish of salt and a dipping spoon on the counter), a cup of weak coffee, and a pastry with a filling of poppy seeds and raisins (that is, until the late 1980’s war on drugs took poppy seeds out of circulation).

If you wanted to buy regular milk, you had to go to a special stand by the railroad tracks, which sold it in cartons for about three hours per day, Monday through Friday.

There was also a “Vegetable Store” in the vicinity, but it rarely had anything to sell except giant, dusty mason jars of discolored pickles.

For almost everything else — fresh produce, meat, mushrooms — you had to go to the Rynok or Market, an old and venerable institution comprised of open-air stalls where private vendors sold foodstuffs at a substantial markup. Or else you had to “hunt”, periodically scouring various stores with a history of limited offers of “deficit foods” from time to time.

Every year, the “hunt” would begin in earnest around September, when my parents brought home cases of Hungarian canned peas and Bulgarian ketchup, stacked under the Big Bed in the Bedroom. Women would flood their local rynki, buying tomatoes, cucumbers, mushrooms and fruits and berries of all kinds to convert them into pickles, preserves and sauces for the coming winter, which typically lasted from late October through mid-April.

In October, my parents would bring home a big pile of cabbages and carrots, which were then shredded and salted in an enormous, industrial-size drum that had a capacity for 75kg of sauerkraut. Like most Russian apartments, ours had a tiny terrace where we would hang our laundry to dry, and which doubled as a freezer during the long Russian winter. (People who lived on the ground floor attached cages to their windows for extra storage.) This is where the giant drum of sauerkraut was kept. By early December, it would freeze into a solid block. My parents would break off pieces with an ice pick, thaw the sauerkraut, and serve it with boiled potatoes dressed with sunflower oil or use it for soup. By the time the first long thaws came, in late March, it would have been almost completely consumed.

Most people would also keep a joint of meat on the terrace through the winter, and that meat was usually a ham. For New Year’s Eve, my mother would stud it with slivers of garlic and bake it in a coating of spicy mustard.

Another staple was salo, a slab of fatback seasoned with garlic and cured with salt and pepper. It was kept at subzero temperatures and served by shaving it over rye, although my father would also sometimes add bits of it to omelets. (I occasionally did that as well, until my mother caught me and told me it was “unladylike” to eat pan-fried salo.)

Throughout the winter, stands would appear from time to time by the railroad tracks, selling pel’meni — small dumplings filled with pork. We always had a sack of these on the terrace as well. If I came home from school before my parents, I would boil myself a dozen of pel’meni and eat them with vinegar and sour cream.

By early spring, we would have been sick of pickles, and our supplies would have been almost completely exhausted, anyway. Potatoes were available pretty much year-round, but my mother, who kept a strict diet, subsisted on nothing but sauerkraut and fresh home-made cheese for at least two months a year.

Around the beginning of May, the first fruits and vegetables appeared at the Rynok, and they were outrageously expensive. Farmers who sold them traveled to the Moscow area from far-flung places like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and their ornate skullcaps and smiling sun-burnt faces were full of spring promises. Produce would get cheaper and more abundant through the summer, but taper off again at the end of September. Strangely enough, oranges, bananas and tangerines could be found in winter, although not without some effort.

Heady, yeasty kvass was sold by volume out of huge drums in the summer. Across the street, a similar drum dispensed raw milk. Apple stands replaced pel’meni stands.

So what were these winters like? First of all, there was nothing “simple” about trying to compensate for the shortages brought on by the change of season. Second, our winter diet consisted of lots of potatoes and other tubers, grains, legumes and salty foods, but very little in the way of fruits and no fresh vegetables — none. It was common knowledge that people gained weight over the winter, and heart attacks picked up. It’s true, all this made me appreciate that first April tomato, but the privation that preceded it is not something that I would want to experience again.

So, Americans who yearn for the simplicity of eating seasonally, all I can say is — be thankful for the “plastic” tomatoes that you can buy in your local supermarket in January.

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