As you enter, you are greeted by an obsequious type wearing a bowtie or a garish – possibly sequined – tie and vest combo. You are led to a room full of gilded baubles. Tables are piled high with colorful food whose names you know only if you grew up in a Russian household.
In Chicago, you’ve got a choice of at least a half a dozen of these Russian restaurants, some that even cater to other Eastern European communities, like Poles and Ukrainians— who seem to share with us a love of heavy food and stultifying 80s pop.
But what to do if your city doesn’t have a Russian restaurant?
My husband’s family live in Indianapolis, and the Russian-speaking community is simply too small to support even one restaurant. (For the record, some entrepreneurial types have tried – twice! My husband worked at one of these restaurants as a bus boy during his high school years.)
In the absence of a real Russian restaurant, the Indy Russians make do. They’ve found two alternatives: Chinese buffet and Italian chain.
I’ve stopped counting the number of birthdays and anniversaries I’ve celebrated by eating nothing but fruit – the only thing I can stand to consume at a Chinese buffet. (And yes, I’m aware that makes me sound pretentious, but as I don’t eat meat in most restaurants and seafood at all, fruit is my stuff of choice.) I was even forced to hold our non-rehearsal rehearsal dinner in a so-called “upscale” Chinese restaurant. While I stick with my fruit plate, my husband’s family and their friends indulge in plate after plate of food until they can barely get up from the table – a venerable Chinese buffet tradition.
But recently, Max and I have been insisting on skipping the Chinese fare and finding a better alternative to the grease-laden foods (especially since his mom recently had surgery and is trying to lose weight). So the family has come up with another alternative: the venerable Italian chains, Bucca di Beppo and Maggiano’s. The former for small events and the latter for big, blow-out celebrations.
In fact, we just did the Maggiano’s thing last weekend for my father-in-law’s 75th birthday. The scene was strangely similar to a Russian restaurant: the cheesy décor, the fairly obsequious staff, even the sequined outfits on most of the guests (excluding yours truly).
The lunch-hour celebration started with my mother-in-law trying to bring a touch of home – or the Russian restaurant – and pulling out the sprats. These are tiny anchovy-like fish canned in oil. They are an homage to the Soviet era, when the deficits meant that sprats and other “special” foods were hoarded until major celebrations for guests to wonder at the hosts’ ability to procure the “best foods.” So here’s my mother-in-law, presiding over a 25-person table in the middle of the main dining room at Maggiano’s, pulling cans of fish from her bag to augment the starter course. She made the waiter – who took it all in stride (I’m sure he’s seen worse) – open them and set them along our table in all their metal-can glory. Because of course people would starve on Maggiano-provided salads and appetizers without the added benefits of the sprats.
Once she started with the additional treats, there was no stopping her. To accompany the second course, she brought – wait for it! – cow tongue. Boiled and spiced with pepper, tongue is a Russian delicacy. I’m normally not averse to a small slice, which tastes like pâté, but I tend to reserve my tongue consumption for the home.
As I sat there, wedged between my husband and his elderly aunt, I resigned myself to the fact that my husband’s older relatives as well as my own won’t ever leave their Soviet-style outlook behind. It’s simply too late for them. While Max and I already have spent half of our lives living in the States and have assimilated certain attitudes, our relatives will forever remain not merely Russian or Russian-speaking, but Soviet. The country that birthed and reared them no longer exists. But the attitudes nurtured by years of deficits will forever remain with them.
Just know that I solemnly promise that when I invite you to celebrate a milestone with me, there won’t be a sprat in sight – unless, of course, you’re at my house.