Russian Gluttony 101

Once, in her interview with Boris Yeltsin, Barbara Walters asked the late Russian leader a pointed question: “Do you drink too much?”

“Nyet,” said Yeltsin.

Walters then wielded her biggest weapon: the silent stare. She knew silence makes people talk even if, in retrospect, they wish they hadn’t.

“Well, okay,” Yeltsin conceded. ”On holidays. Or with my college buddies. Don’t I look like a healthy man to you?” he pleaded.

My diet is like Yeltsin’s sobriety. It’s conditional.

That’s because, sometimes, I side with the old school notion of eating: do it if you have to. And sort out the consequences later.

Sure, there are vitamins, protein and whole grains in my meals. I go to the gym to lift things and I ride a bicycle – around the city, not the stationary sort.

But sometimes life throws a curveball, and fresh leafy greens just won’t do. A Russian-born woman once said at a swanky party in New York: “Lettuce? What am I, a cow?” The other girls stopped talking and looked at her, outraged by this insult at common decency. I, too, pretended to be angry. Yet, a traitor to the weight-obsessed and pseudo-nutrition-conscious American diet, I secretly agreed with the girl: we are not cows.

I’d like to share something called the emergency Russian binge diet, partly to unburden myself of the guilt for knowing what it is, and partly to send a message of hope to my sisters who sit on their beds at midnight clenching buckets of ice cream, or with chocolate bars bleeding on their fingers – and feeling hopelessly dishonorable. Because dishonor is the last thing a person needs when her foundation – be it a job promotion, relationship, or friendship – is already crumbling underneath her feet. Stuffing face without losing face is the answer.

Russian diet starts with the starches. The best way to enjoy a filling meal is to boil a couple of peeled potatoes.

Then chop or mash them, right in the bowl if necessary. Slather the potatoes with butter, add a glob of sour cream, and voila.

Hot and filling, with half a tablespoon butter and one tablespoon of sour cream, this meal comes in at under 400 calories, all of vitamin C you need for the day, and a whopping third of recommended daily fiber. Compare that with the same amount of calories from two servings of ice cream, plus twice as much saturated fat. The apple of the earth wins.

Back in the fields, workers and serfs would gobble up their boiled potatoes whole, taking salted bites from the vegetable. Russian travelers carried boiled potatoes wrapped in foil and newspaper. A potato is a legitimate meal, as proven by the consequences of Ireland’s potato famine.

Bread is another go-to starch for a full-bellied oblivion. Specifically, the sour, dense, slightly pungent German/Russian rye. Like any bread, rye can be enjoyed in slices or with chunks torn aggressively straight from the loaf.

You could also chop the bread and tomatoes…

…and mix with sour cream and salt for a hearty salad.

Granted, this ain’t Caprese, and this ain’t Salade Niçoise. But if you wanted something Mediterranean, exotic-looking and slim, you wouldn’t be hiding in your apartment in sweatpants and yesterday’s makeup, now, would you?

Then, the pickled goods. Gherkins in brine are an amazing mood booster, if only by comparison to how acerbic life could be inside the jar. Marinated herring, pickled tomatoes or even olives will do, right out of a jar. These also make a great chaser for a beverage. The pickle brine, furthermore, is an undisputed hangover cure, if the beverage happened to come first.

Another classic binge meal is pelmeni, or meat dumplings. The name sounds extravagant, but all it is protein wrapped in tender dough, looking all cute and rounded.

Image by Roboppy

An Italian acquaintance called it ravioli. A Korean friend refers to it as Russian pot stickers. Whatever the nomenclature or ethnic store of origin, the Russian way to enjoy meat dumplings is to remove the package from the freezer and throw the contents into a pot of salted boiling water for a few minutes. The last step to the perfect meal, for fear of redundancy, is sour cream (because everything tastes better with sour cream).

Finally, my favorite go-to Russian comfort dish, known as borscht, is a soup made of beets and other root vegetables. It is the most complex of Russian binge dishes but it lasts for a few days, leaving you plenty of time to watch Sex and the City reruns, delete old photos and emails, and discuss fatalistic topics with friends and family.

Image by Muffet

Those who don’t have a Russian grandmother or the patience to cook it themselves, can purchase this soup at a Russian or Polish deli. The sweetness of beets, the tickling steam, and the bright magenta of the broth – especially when dissolving into soft pink after colliding with sour cream in the center – brightens any ennui.

Done sparingly, the Russian culinary indulgence continues to stand the test of time. This is not your greasy delivery pizza or a box of synthetic Oreos. This is not your tub of ice cream concocted out of dozens of illegible ingredients. Not only is Russian binge food filling, but it has this wholesome, soothing grandmotherly integrity about it. You know where it’s going. You know where it’s been. And in the morning, the scale won’t even know what happened the night before. Nor will you remember it, frankly.

12 thoughts on “Russian Gluttony 101

  1. Milana K says:

    Excellent piece FlyingYenta. Amazing pictures. Goes right into the soul. And i am schlepping now into my kitchen to get some breakfast- the russian style.

    • Glad you enjoyed it. Curious what sort of Russian fare you had for breakfast. Was there sour cream? The pictures are all mine except for the last two (they are credited to the photographer on the bottom).

      • Milana K says:

        Had a piece of Borodinsky bread (dont know its American name:)), and a sour cream on top of it… rich layer of it! I repeated this exercise 2X. Dont know how many calories… but so fulfilling and heavy

  2. Chia says:

    Lovely article. I am lucky enough to have tryed some of the mentioned dishes at my Russian friends’ dinner table. And, at Brighton Beach deli, NY.
    In Italy “emergency food” may consist of remarkable amounts of pasta, cibatta bread, prosciutto, mozzarella di bufala, and tall large squares of tiramisu. Just to mention a few .
    Now I have to rush to Traders Joe.

  3. elizaroberts says:

    Flying Yenta: Can you please tell me why sour cream is so much better in Russia? When I am there, I find myself smearing it on everything, but here it just isn’t quite the same. I love this piece on the Russian binge diet. It is so accurate. It makes me want to make some Pelmeni…

    • Thanks, Eliza! Agreed, sour cream and other dairy products (mmm, ice cream…) taste different in Russia, for some reason! If there are Russian delis by where you live, their sour cream is pretty delicious too.

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