If you’re back at the office and feeling a little rough after the long Jubilee weekend, take consolation from the Dabbler archives, as editor Gaw recalls a strange night of vodka-fuelled Russian hospitality…
A Russian doctor takes the connoisseur’s approach to combining vodka and food:
Russian men drink vodka shots. They drink vodka with gusto while making loud breathing noises. They drink vodka as if their manhood depended on how loud those noises are. After these shots, Russians eat. They eat small morsels of food, chewing pensively, their gaze directed inward like that of a woman in late stages of pregnancy. In fact a good prix-fixe Russian dinner is a twenty-course affair, seventeen courses of which are hors d’oeuvres in small portions. During such dinner a Russian may down seventeen shots followed by seventeen different hors d’oeuvres while giving seventeen toasts…
The social purpose of rapid-fire vodka shots is to get as much alcohol in you as quickly as possible to get the party going. The gastronomical purpose of drinking vodka at dinners is to enhance the flavor of the food. Vodka is 40% ethyl alcohol, which is an ideal solvent for the small-molecule chemicals that give food its taste. Most of the taste is sensed not by the tongue but by the nose, and alcohol dissolves the flavor components and vapors and delivers them to their destination, making the food taste stronger.
Personally, I would say this is not the most common approach. More typically, the role of food when consumed alongside vodka is the wholly functional one of alcohol sponge: without it, the evening is shorter and less memorable (I mean this literally). But then this particular Russian doctor lives in California and has probably acquired the American penchant for playing the connoisseur.
I’ve been impressed most recently by the American foodies’ approach to oysters: tasting notes that make Oz Clarke sound like Andy from Little Britain and an approach to provenance that adapts wholesale the French concept of terroir: oysters, it seems, are now talked about with reference to merroir.
My own experience of eating whilst necking vodka shots does take in the odd multi-course banquet of delicacies. But more commonly it’s been along the lines of an evening I enjoyed during one of my first trips to Russia. I was staying with a family that were providing bed and board whilst I learnt the language at a school in Moscow. The young man of the family, Andrei, and I got on pretty well so he started taking me with him when he visited friends.
One weekday evening we travelled across the city to the flat of his friend Misha for what I assumed would be dinner and a few drinks. We settled down in the sitting room whilst Misha busied himself in the kitchen. Presently a bowl of pasta was placed in the centre of the coffee table alongside three or four bottles of vodka (Stolichnayas from the Kristal distillery – back then you could get hold of these through a lucky purchase at the local kiosk rather than paying a premium for their supposed greater purity).
The pasta – naked of butter, oil or any sort of sauce – steamed fairly furiously whilst the first bottle was cracked open. Everyone settled themselves comfortably on the cheap wooden-armed sofas. My glances towards the kitchen, from which direction I imagined sauce, plates and cutlery arriving, found no response. A shot having been deposited in every glass, my Russian pals – there were three of them – gingerly picked out a few pasta shapes by hand before dropping them into mouths which rolled them around a little whilst they cooled. Then bottoms up.
This went on at regular intervals, a second bowl of similarly bland pasta being cooked up later in the evening. Midnight approached and I began to wonder how close we’d cut it to catch the last Metro train. This didn’t seem to be a question that was concerning anyone else though. Anyway, the clock meandered on and as one of the Russians passed out where he was sitting, quietly and without fuss, the general plan became apparent. Eventually, I found I’d lost control of my mouth even as far as executing the fairly straightforward actions involved in smoking a cigarette; I thought better of setting myself on fire and also fell into a stupor. Someone must have turned the light out.
I slept peacefully except for one incident when I felt the need for the bathroom but had forgotten where its door was situated. Or rather I felt absolutely sure the piece of wall I was repeatedly walking into was where the door was situated if only I could walk into it in the right way. Andrei, presumably familiar with this sort of portal ambiguity and demonstrating a remarkable level of alertness, got up and deftly turned me 90 degrees. Like a clockwork toy, I promptly toddled into the loo.
The next morning had a similarly informal character to the evening. As people came round – daylight flooding into the room – they stood up, brushed themselves down and headed off to work or their studies, conveniently finding themselves already fully dressed in the appropriate clothes.
On the way back to our side of the city I checked with Andrei. Yes, just a regular quiet night in.