Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Happy New Year!

This is a time when Christmas trees are hitting the curb and holiday celebrations are winding down for most Americans. For Russians, however, the party starts on December 31. In the Soviet times, New Year's Eve became the big winter holiday, complete with the many trappings of Christmas, but with none of the religious connotations. (Think New Year trees and "Father Frost" bearing gifts; more on this below.) I'm off to celebrate with friends and traditional Russian New Year's Eve food (recipes below). Have a wonderful New Year's, everyone. Thanks for reading all year long.

From the archives:
More on New Year's, and a recipe for "herring in a fur coat."
The New York Times on New Year's in the Soviet times.
More on Russian New Year's history.

New Year's Recipes:
Mushroom deviled eggs
Oliver salad

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Mushrooming Forth

I'm back to my old tricks--pickling and marinating vegetables. This time, I'm trying a recipe for pickled mushrooms from Anne Volokh's The Art of Russian Cuisine. I've been looking for a good recipe for Russian-style pickled mushrooms for ages, but I've never found one that was really satisfying (this attempt is the closest I've gotten).

Volokh's recipe is different from my past attempts because it doesn't call for any liquid or vinegar--just mushrooms, aromatics (garlic, dill) and salt. You weigh down the mushrooms with something heavy (like my big bottle, above). The mushrooms release liquid, which becomes the brine. They're properly pickled in 10 to 14 days. Stay tuned for an update.

From the archives: A recipe for marinated mushrooms from Anya von Bremzen's Please to the Table

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Some Notes on Russian Cookbooks

Move over, Please to the Table; I’ve got a new Russian cookbook to play with. It's Anne Volokh’s 600-page The Art of Russian Cuisine, published in 1983. (Anya Von Bremzen’s 1990 Please to the Table, by the way, has been my main inspiration for this blog.)

I haven’t had a chance to try any of Volokh’s recipes, but I’m impressed by the scope of her book. All the usual Russian foods (borsch, pelmeni) are well-represented, but so are lesser-known dishes such as seledka pod shuboi (herring in a fur coat) and Napoleon (tricky but popular layered cream cake). The chapters on making your own rye bread and pickling and preserving fruits and vegetables are extensive. Volokh’s recipes are more detailed than Von Bremzen’s, and she included handy diagrams for work-intensive dishes such as vareneki (dumplings) and multi-layered pies.

If there’s a downside to the book, it’s that Volokh spends a bit too much time on 19th-century Russian haute cuisine. (The amusing author photo in my edition shows Volokh wearing what looks like a 19th-century hat and gown.) Has anyone in Russia cooked dishes like poached sturgeon with cream sauce and Veal Prince Orlov between, say, 1920 and 1995? There’s little from the former Soviet republics with the exception of the most well-known dishes like plov, the Uzbek lamb and rice stew.

Von Bremzen, too, includes grouse and such in her book, but she also extensively covers the foods of every USSR satellite nation from Estonia to Tajikistan. I like that she notes Soviet-era food shortages and adaptations 20th-century home cooks have had to make. Unfortunately, Von Bremzen's recipes often need some tweaking and her ingredient proportions tend to be off.

I've heard from blog readers that Volokh's recipes are more precise, so I'm looking forward to perusing her book and trying some of her recipes, starting with pickled mushrooms.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thanksgiving in a Bowl Soup

Sorry for the long silence, guys. Oh, I’ve been cooking, but I haven’t made anything exciting in weeks. Nothing that’s inspired me to write a post that’s longer than 140 characters. (See my Twitter feed, at right, for the latest in Yulinka Cooks non-news.)

This soup is a rare exception. I thought of it while driving home from a post-Thanksgiving shopping trip, knowing I had various soup-friendly ingredients to use up. The ingredients were chicken stock, a bunch of spinach, butternut squash puree originally made for ravioli, the aforementioned ravioli, and leftover turkey.

This is how it all came together. I brought the chicken stock to simmer and added the butternut squash puree (roasted squash, a few tablespoons each of butter and whipped cream cheese, hint of sage and nutmeg--yum). In the meantime, in a skillet, I sautéed a diced onion in olive oil, and added a bunch of chopped spinach to the pan when the onion was almost cooked. The spinach was sautéed for a few minutes until it wilted. I added the vegetables to the chicken stock; then I added few handfuls of pre-frozen butternut squash ravioli to the soup pot.

I hesitate to share my ravioli recipe because a) it was something I created on a lark one Sunday night, b) I didn’t really follow a recipe and I didn’t use a pasta machine to roll out my dough, two steps usually recommended for fresh pasta-beginners, and c) I really overstuffed the ravioli and most of them didn’t seal properly. (I used this pasta dough recipe, but in the future I’ll follow this excellent, detailed guide to making fresh pasta.)

Anyway, when the ravioli were almost cooked—it only took about 2 minutes—I added some diced, roasted turkey to the soup pot. Some stirring, a bit of kosher salt, some black pepper, and the soup was done. It was creamy, slightly sweet, nourishing and filling. It was like a festive holiday meal with your family, assuming you like your family. It was Thanksgiving in a bowl, in short. I will be making this again and again.

Note: Keep in mind that you can substitute quite a lot of ingredients here—you don’t need butternut squash ravioli; just use a favorite pasta or diced, cooked potatoes (or forget the starch altogether). Instead of turkey, you could use leftover chicken, ham or diced sausage. But do make the butternut squash puree.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Apples From "R" Apples

Barthel Fruit Farm and Niemann Orchards may be the popular Milwaukee-area farms for apple picking, but my heart belongs to the little-known “R” Apples. This place does no advertising, has no Web site, and good luck trying to find its address on Google.

If you do find yourself driving past this place in rural Mequon, pop in and you could be in for some great deals on pick-your-own fruits and vegetables (see this old post about "R"Apples' tomatoes.)

In the fall, "R" Apples has 8 to 10 varieties of apples for picking. For the past two weeks they’ve had Suncrisp , Ida Red, Jonathan, Jonamac, Jonagold, Braeburn, Red Delicious and Spartan for the unbelievable price of 30 cents per pound. The Suncrisps and Ida Reds are some of the best apples I’ve had this year.

"R" Apples should be open for apple-picking through Thanksgiving on weekends, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call ahead, though—their hours can be flexible (they were closed when I showed up at 11 a.m. last Sunday, but opened by 12:30 p.m.)

"R" Apples
12246 N. Farmdale Rd., Mequon
Phone: (262) 242-0669

Tuesday, November 03, 2009


It's terrible social media etiquette to interrupt a long blogging silence just to say, "Hey, I'm in the news," but, hey, I'm in the news. Actually, I'm in Milwaukee Home and Fine Living Magazine, which published my savory mushroom pie recipe (and mistakenly called me a chef--I just play one in my kitchen).

Monday, October 19, 2009

Product Review: Suhariki

Suhariki are a simple little snack that I’ve eaten dozens of times without considering to highlight them here. Russian for crackers or little toasts, suhariki are sold in every Eastern European grocery I’ve been to, usually right next to sushki (bagel-shaped crackers). Basically these are lightly sweetened crackers or cookies that you eat plain as a snack, or topped with any combination of cheese, jam or what have you. I like them for breakfast with cream cheese and jam, washed down with a café au lait, or as a late-night snack with some milky tea.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Some Notes on a Week in Paris and Rome

-I spent the first week of October in Paris and Rome, and while I had a very nice time indeed, very little of it was about food. I love food and cooking, but when traveling I'm not the sort of foodie who goes out of her way for purportedly great food . Abroad, I'm all about walking, sightseeing, people-watching...adventurous eating goes on the (ahem) back burner. Sure, I had compiled a list of great bakeries and restaurants to visit in both cities, but when I was hungry, I'd pop into the nearest boulangerie or pizzeria for a baguette sandwich or a slice. I go to Europe for the culture, man. Oh, and my budget was really tight.

(Below: View from the second floor of the Louvre.)-Paris gave me some emotional ups and downs. I had been there twice before, and the pleasure of revisiting the city was great. I loved the people-watching: the man in the metro with a pet rat on his shoulder, stylish girls in scarves, skinny jeans and over-the-knee boots (all the rage right now).
-On the other hand: knowing that I was yet another tourist trekking from one attraction to the other. Knowing that I will never, ever, speak French without an accent. Plus, it’s hard to come up with a new perspective on Paris; it’s all been done before, mostly by Americans with bohemian bourgeoisie aspirations.

--Food: I was winging this trip on the cheap, so there were a lot of street crepes and baguette sandwiches, all acceptable. When I was craving a place to relax with a pot of tea, we went to the Creperie de Cluny in the Latin Quarter. Some think this place is a tourist trap, but I had perfectly good crepes here (in the evening, many patrons were locals, or at least French speakers). Below: Crepe with ham, cheese and potatoes, topped with an over-easy egg.
-I did go to the famous Laduree bakery to try the famous macaron cookies (below). The line stretched out the door and the five staffers made a big show of being busy but not doing much. My chocolate macaron, eaten on a park bench in the Tuileries and washed down with tea, was pretty good; the unnaturally green pistachio macaron was cloying. I think Laduree is all about the experience of sitting in its fancy dining room or eating the pastries somewhere in the heart of Paris. Back in my hotel in the 20th arrondissement, my third macaron tasted like a store-bought chocolate cookie. -Ice cream: I bypassed the famous, but, I think, overrated Berthillon ice cream for the excellent Amorino, a gelato chain with several locations.

-The gourmet market at Galeries Lafayette, the huge department store, was more fun to browse than most museums, not least for the exorbitant prices surely set to shock tourists.

-Rome: I liked the food here better. It seemed more colorful, fresher, brighter, like Rome itself. Two carabiniere recommended L'Insalata Ricca, a popular local chain, for lunch. Huge salads seem to be the most popular offering. The patio where we sat was packed with locals. The bread served here was the best I had on the trip. Below: Trevi Fountain.
-The weather was in the 80s and I spotted peaches blooming on trees. Score one for Rome. Below: The Spanish Steps at night.

-Gelato: It was all pretty good, but the best I had was San Crispino, a minute’s walk away from the Trevi Fountain. This is the thinking man’s gelato: muted colors, natural ingredients and sophisticated flavors like honey and Borolo wine.
-Street pizza: This was more like flatbread with toppings! I am surely a horrible gourmet for preferring American pizza.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

From the Archives: Early Fall Eats

I've been out and about, readers, but here are some favorite fall recipes to tide you over:

Rice-stuffed tomatoes. Great when you're tired of BLTs and Caprese salad. Yes, it can happen.

Eggplant and zucchini stacks. Towers of vegetables, sauce and cheese.

Butternut squash and mushroom salad. Butternut squash recipes on food blogs means fall is truly here.

Eggplant and pepper ragout. A sort of ratatouille.

And to wash it all down, see this piece from on favorite fall beers. (I prefer Lakefront Pumpkin Lager.)

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

From the Archives: Tea

"Dinner has ended long ago, but still we are sitting at the table, drinking our fifth or seventh cup of tea; and I am thinking that Russians can sit at a supper table while saying brilliant or ridiculous things longer than seems physically possible; further, this trait may explain Russia's famous susceptibility to unhealthy foreign ideas, with the post-mealtime tea-drinking providing the opportunity for contagion; and, further yet, I am wondering whether tea perhaps has been a more dangerous beverage to the Russian peace of mind, over all, than vodka."
-Ian Frazier, ""Travels in Siberia--I," New Yorker, Aug. 3, 2009

This blog, on tea.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Tomato Season

Tomato season in my kitchen began this week. It's a bit late, but we've had a cool summer here in Wisconsin and tomatoes are slow to ripen. Local farmers markets have been selling 'maters since July, but they're expensive. (I paid $1.75 for one large tomato a few weeks ago.)

I prefer to buy tomatoes from pick-your-own farms in the Milwaukee suburbs of Mequon and Cedarburg. Last weekend I picked a few pounds of disappointingly green tomatoes at "R" Apples in Mequon for about 60 cents a pound.

The cashier reassured me that my pickings would ripen if I kept them for a few days in a brown paper bag. He was right. The tomatoes never quite developed that bright, farmers-market red, but they were still pretty tasty. I snapped the above photo a day after picking.

Later in the season, when tomatoes are more plentiful, I might make ratatouille or tomatoes stuffed with lamb and rice. For now, I'm satisfied with thinly sliced tomatoes generously topped with red onion rounds and a sprinkle of kosher salt.

"R" Apples
12246 N. Farmdale Rd., Mequon
Phone: (262) 242-0669

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Fast Food: Pelmeni

You might think that pelmeni--Russian dumplings with meat filling--are a special-occasion food. They're time-consuming to make--you have to mess around with pasta dough, for one. Plus you’ve got to make the stuffing, roll out the dough, fill the dumplings and in all likelihood freeze them, as pelmeni are usually made by the hundreds.

Despite all this effort, pelmeni are considered a quick and low-maintenance meal in many Russian households. Boil a pot of water, toss in some dumplings, and in about seven minutes dinner's ready. Of course, many Russians in the U.S. (and probably nowadays in Russia) simply buy ready-made pelmeni and keep them in the freezer for emergency meals.

Above is a shot of my recent pelmeni dinner (our pelmeni came by way of an aunt who buys them from some lady in what I call Milwaukee's "Little Brooklyn," i.e. Shorewood). I prettied up my pelmeni with some sautéed mushrooms and a handful of chopped dill, but that's optional. Sour cream, I feel, is not, but some like to top pelmeni with butter or a bit of white vinegar.

I think nearly every Russian grocery in the U.S. carries pelmeni in its freezer case. In the Milwaukee area, I recommend Spartak in Whitefish Bay. If you want to tackle homemade pelmeni, see this promising-looking recipe from the blog Tea and Cookies.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

From the Archives: Pickle Season

Last weekend I bought a big bag of pickling cucumbers for about $4 at the West Allis Farmer's Market. Above is a shot of pickle-making in progress (I used this recipe from my archives). Cucumber season is short--I recommend you make this in the next couple of weeks. Pickles make a great side to boiled fingerling potatoes.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Two Summer Recipes

The first summer I had a blog I liked making complicated recipes. Stuffed zucchini, stuffed tomatoes, stuffed this and that. These days I’m far more likely to toss zucchini slices on a grill or slice up tomatoes for a salad. I’m not really inspired to make multi-step dishes that have you chop, dice and sauté. My tastes have changed, for whatever reason. Every once in a while, though, I miss hands-on cooking and make something other than grilled veggies. Last week, I cooked up these two dishes:

Sauteed zucchini with onions and corn (grilled Polish sausage on the side). Dice and sauté an onion in butter in a skillet. When the onion’s golden and soft, add two thinly sliced zucchini, and keep sautéing until they’re soft. Add some crushed garlic; sauté 30 more seconds.

Add the kernels from one cob of corn—parboiled, grilled or even raw if your corn’s really good. Sauté a few more minutes. Take off the heat and let cool 5 minutes. Top with feta cheese and chopped scallions. Serve with protein of choice (also great with pasta).
Braised cabbage with Middle-Eastern spices: I have pretty standard cravings—chocolate, good bread and so on—but every once in a while I’ll crave cabbage. That’s right. In particular, I’ve been in the mood for braised cabbage like the kind served at the lunch buffet at Casablanca, a Middle-Eastern restaurant in Milwaukee. This was my attempt to recreate their recipe:

Clean a small head of cabbage and cut it up into chunks--about a dozen. Heat up some olive oil in a large sauté pan and cook the cabbage slices, flipping them over once in a while, for about 15 minutes. It's okay if they fall apart. You might have to cook them in batches. Put the browned cabbage in a foil-lined pan.

Finely dice two fat garlic cloves, and sauté them in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Sprinkle in a healthy shake of cumin, cinnamon and turmeric; sauté for about 30 seconds. Sprinkle the garlic and spices over the cabbage chunks. Evenly add 1.5 cups crushed tomatoes to the cabbage (or 1.5 cup tomato sauce). Top cabbage with 1 cup crumbled Feta cheese. Bake at 425 until the cabbage is soft and the Feta is melted and golden brown; about 25-30 minutes.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Summer Non-Recipes

Hello, readers. Did you miss me? No? I didn’t miss this place either. I haven’t been cooking much lately, you see. Instead, I’ve been having dinners of cut-up vegetables and salsa, raw sugar snap peas and dip, grilled zucchini with feta. Simple and summery. You don’t expect me to dig out my camera and spend my evenings blogging about that, right? Right.

Over the past couple of months, though, I did come up with a little arsenal of quick non-meals that might inspire you to give up cooking for a while, too. (For more on this phenomenon, see Mark Bittman’s 101 simple summer salads piece from last week’s New York Times.)

Here are some ideas:

Thinly sliced cucumber round sandwiches with cream cheese and turkey (above).

Grilled zucchini and summer squash slices, cut into chunks and eaten with some feta and cubed ham or turkey.

Grilled zucchini slices topped with cheese or bacon or thinly sliced ham, like open-faced sandwiches.

Cut-up carrot sticks with black bean and corn salsa.

Slightly sautéed sugar snap peas or green beans, topped with feta.

Hot, grilled onion rounds (especially red onions) topped with cheese.

Sliced radishes, sprinked with kosher salt and topped with cheese or turkey.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Thursday Linkage

*Do you have trouble making the perfect roast chicken? Breasts too dry, skin too chewy? Have I got a recipe for you! Helen Rennie of Beyond Salmon came up with an endlessly tested, multi-step recipe for the perfect bird. If brining or trussing isn't good enough for you, I urge to check out Helen's inventive and exhaustive--if not exhausting--write-up.

Now here's my caveat: I think foodies' quest for perfection can stem from too many options, too much food. Sure, it's fun to come up with the "perfect" recipe, but it's just as good to eat something, anything when you're truly hungry. Go on a long, strenuous hike and see how good that granola bar and instant coffee taste afterward.

*Do you keep leftovers till they grow mold or do you toss them ruthlessly? This amusing New York Times piece chronicles the wars over leftovers. I'm very much pro-leftovers--here's a recipe for a salad made of leftover grilled chicken, and a post on a potato-and-cheese pie made of leftover mashed potatoes.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Camping Food: S'mores vs. Rye Bread

Some kids like s'mores; I liked toasted rye bread. Growing up in Russia, I spent my summers in the country, in a small village not far from St. Petersburg. One of my best memories of those days is toasting bread over a campfire. I thought this was an absolutely delicious treat, especially when the bread was sprinked with salt and eaten with ripe plum tomatoes on the side.

These days, toasting rye bread (oh, and bagels) is still my favorite part of camping. I'm off for a camping/canoeing trip this weekend, and I hope to return with more stories about Russian campfire treats. Happy Fourth of July, everyone!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Summer Salad

Here's a beautiful little salad I made for dinner tonight. No long story about its origins this time. This is simple stuff--diced veggies, a bit of cheese, some ham, olive oil and vinegar. It was a hot summer day; the salad was cold and crunchy. I ate it outside on our little patio as the sun set.

Here's what you do: cut up some radishes, carrots and cauliflower florets. Or use whatever vegetables you have on hand. It's all good here. Add some chopped parsley, dill and scallions. Crumbled feta, diced ham or turkey and a hard-boiled egg, quartered, work nicely here, too. Dress with whatever you like. Crunch away.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Roasted Cauliflower with Stuff

Here’s a really delicious and simple way to cook cauliflower. Cut it up, roast it in the oven with cheese, onions and some spices, and add whatever protein you have on hand. It’s a low-maintenance meal-in-a-dish that can be as light or rich as you like.

Preheat the oven to 425. Cut up a large head of cauliflower. Place in a foil-lined pan. Add about 2 tbs. olive oil, a good shake of paprika, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir so the vegetable chunks are evenly coated.

Cut up a medium red onion into slices; dice ¼ pound bacon into 1-inch pieces. Add the onion and bacon to the pan. Roast for about 20-25 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes or so.

Remove from the oven and add cheese—practically any kind and any amount will work here. I added about ½ cup each shredded cheddar and diced havarti. Roast 10 more minutes, or until the cauliflower is tender but not overcooked. Add 1 cup frozen peas, and stick the pan in the oven for another minute or so, until the peas are defrosted.

Serve with good, toasted bread. This is also great over rice, especially when topped with a poached egg.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Russia/Estonia Postscript: Food

[Last week I blogged my July 2008 trip to Estonia and Russia. Go here for an intro and previous posts. This is the last part of my travelogue.]I wish I could write more about food in Estonia and Russia, but I tried very few foods that were new to me. We also didn't eat out much because restaurants are so expensive in the major Russian cities. That said, I did sample a few local specialties.

In Tallinn, I really liked a restaurant called Kuldse Notsu Kõrts. I blogged about its delicious potato-mushroom casserole here. The restaurant manager kindly shared the recipe.

In St. Petersburg we stayed with a friend of my mom’s and usually ate at home. We picked up groceries at some of the local stores—Netto is a reasonably-priced supermarket chain that I remember. The stores have come a long, long way from the scarce Soviet times. You can get everything that’s available in the U.S., plus local convenience foods like frozen pelmeni and manti (meat and lamb dumplings, respectively).

I have to note that produce and dairy products tasted better than what you get at U.S. supermarkets. The cucumbers were fresh and sweet; the tomatoes tasted like tomatoes. I’m still impressed by all the different dairy and cheese goodies you can get in Russia—dozens of varieties of farmer’s cheese, different kinds of kefir, rhiazenka and sour cream.In St. Petersburg we went to the famous indoor markets (Sitni Rinok and Senney Rinok), and I wanted a taste of everything. These places sell beautiful (and pricy) fruit, vegetables, pickes and preserves, cheese, fish, meat, spices, dried fruit, sweets, you name it. I didn’t take any photos because the vendors start hawking their goods as soon as you make eye contact, but here’s a sample pic. This photo and the one at the top of the post are by Shannon Rae.

As for restaurants, I’ve become a huge fan of Teremok, which I wrote about here. This fast food chain makes traditional Russian dishes like blini and borsch. The food is good and fresh, and the service is quick and reasonably good by Russian standards. I loved Teremok’s kvass (rye bread beer, below) and mors (a cranberry drink).

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Yulinka Cooks Travelogue: 24 Hours in Moscow. Part 6 of 6.

[This week I'm blogging my July 2008 trip to Estonia and Russia. Go here for an intro and previous posts. In this entry: Moscow.]

Before this trip, I had been to Moscow once, when I was 8. My parents, grandparents and I came here for an interview with officials at the American embassy a few months before we immigrated to the U.S. It was January, bitterly cold and snowing. My parents took me to see the Kremlin, pointing this way and that to the famous landmarks. My dad carried me through the Red Square. I closed my eyes to shield them from the blowing snow.

This time, my dad and I head to Moscow on our own. My parents hate this city the way some Americans hate New York. It’s loud, rude, expensive and dirty. Muscovites and St. Petersburg natives have always been rivals, I learn. Still, we’re unlikely to visit this part of the world any time in the near future, and Moscow is on my to-do list. My dad, the native St. Petersburg resident, pulls the short straw on this one.

We take the overnight train to Moscow and get in at 5 a.m. Just past 6 a.m., we’re at the Kremlin. The Red Square is nearly deserted, besides the occasional office worker and packs of stray, sad-eyed dogs.
Everything's closed and we walk around aimlessly. On our third lap, two cops flag us down. They’re young and they’re drunk. They ask to see our passports. They study our train ticket stubs to and from St. Petersburg. They look at that vitally important "registration" document it took hours to get in St. Petersburg.

Our papers are in the order, they finally admit, but walking around this early in the morning is unusual for tourists, they say. It's downright suspicious! They are, to their credit, surprisingly jovial. I’m guessing it’s the end of their shift. Now they want to chat.

Where are we from in the U.S.?

Near Chicago, my dad says.

Chicago? The hell you say. One of them whistles. Chicago is impressively far away.

Now it’s our turn to ask questions. Could they recommend a bus tour of the city?

Oh, you don’t want to take the bus in Moscow, they say. The traffic jams are awful! You'll be stuck in traffic for hours.

Traffic jams are pretty bad in St. Petersburg, my father says.

Ours are much worse! they reassure us proudly.

We wish each other well and go on our way. The sun has risen, and the Red Square is slowly filling with tourists.
We go on a tour of the Kremlin (overpriced and underwhelming).

We take that bus tour of the city, and don’t get stuck in traffic.
We go to Arbat, the famous pedestrian shopping street. These days, everything is under construction here; you have to shout over jackhammers to be heard. My dad points to the nearby American embassy. He sneaked in there sometime in 1989 to grab an application for asylum in the U.S. You had to wait for the Soviet guard to turn away, he says. If you were spotted, you could get arrested and lose your job.

The good old days! Now, it seems like no one’s excited about America anymore. The U.S. hasn’t lived up to its promise here. People are hungry for Euros, not dollars. (I have to note that a few months ago George Soros claimed that America’s economic collapse is comparable to that of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.)
There's a lot to think about. It’s hot, and we’re tired of talking over the din. We go to Teremok (Russian fast food chain) on Arbat to eat blini and drink kvass--rye bread beer (photo below). It's cheap, cold and delicious. We head back to the station to catch our train back to St. Petersburg. A few days later, we'll head back home.
Next: A few notes on food.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Yulinka Cooks Travelogue: A Blast From the Past. Part 5 of 6.

[This week I'm blogging my July 2008 trip to Estonia and Russia. Go here for an intro and previous posts. In this entry: down memory lane in St. Petersburg.]

One day, we go on a walk down memory lane.

We see the communal apartment where my parents lived in the early 1980s. I spent the first year of my life here.
We walk past the building where my dad grew up. He stops at the front door, considers ringing the doorbell, but thinks better of it.

There was a store on this corner, a public bathhouse across the street, he says. They’re gone now. Later, without us, he goes back to his old primary school, and gets kicked out by the custodian.

He had lived in this city for more than 30 years. Now, he has a whole different life in the U.S. His life is split in two.

-Does that make him sad, wistful?

-No. He’s firm on this. I can’t imagine what I’d be doing if we had stayed here.

Neither can I. It seems inevitable that we should immigrate to the U.S. How would my life have turned out had we stayed? I don’t know. I rarely even wonder about this alternative universe.

We go to Kupchino, a suburb on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. This is where we moved when I was a year old. Kupchino is home to ‘70s and ‘80s-era high-rise apartments, gray, multi-story blocks. These days, it's also filled with strip malls and big-box stores. They’re even building churches, unimaginable in the atheist Soviet times.

I may not remember the palaces and museums of downtown St. Petersburg, but I do remember Kupchino. I grew up here, I went to school here, I played on the playground in the courtyard of our apartment building. Today, everything looks decrepit, unkempt. Some apartments are boarded up.

This is where we’d be living if we hadn’t left Russia, says my dad. This place leaves a bad taste in his mouth.

Everyone wanted an apartment here once, my mom sighs. There was a 20-year waiting list for one these!
Across the street from our old apartment building, there’s a children’s hospital. It was under construction from the early ‘80s to the mid-'90s. Now it’s open for business, but like everything else, it looks empty and abandoned. We visit my old school (below); it’s closed for renovations. So is the neighborhood library where my mom once worked. There's nothing here for us. We head back to the city. The nextday, we’re off to Moscow (where we almost get arrested).

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Yulinka Cooks Travelogue. St. Petersburg: The Good, the Bad... Part 3 of 6

[This week I'm blogging my July 2008 trip to Estonia and Russia. Previous entries begin here.]

My parents are debating whether Russia has changed since the fall of communism. Their consensus is this: Superficially, the country has changed. You can buy everything that’s available in the West. People are driving cars and traveling. Nearly everyone has a cell phone. What hasn’t changed? The Soviet mindset, the bureaucracy, the stone-faced apathy and rudeness of the clerks and cashiers.

When we arrive, our host, an old friend of my mom’s, says we may need to “register” our visa. What this means, we later find out, is that if you come to Russia on a homestay visa (issued to you personally by a Russian citizen)*, you need to check in and get special paperwork from the city where you’re staying. Fail to do this and you face heavy fines and other unspecified misfortunes.

So on a Monday morning, we head to a nearly police station to register. We’re told you can register here only on Wednesdays, 1:30-2:30 p.m., but other stations might be open. We traipse around two more police precincts before we’re directed to the city’s visa registration office.

Naturally, there’s a line. Registration is held from noon to 1 p.m. only, we’re told. People have been waiting since 5 a.m. Put your name on a list, someone adds, but you probably won’t get in. We sign a piece of scrap paper and wait. Someone else advises us to register at the post office. It's faster, they say.

Okay. Anyone know where the nearest post office is?

No one does. We go outside and ask strangers for directions. People shrug. The hell with it; we head back and wait some more.

Did you fill out the paperwork? we're asked as it gets closer to noon.

There’s paperwork?

Everyone laughs. If you don’t have the paperwork, you’ll be waiting here all week!

We race to fill out paperwork. We need multiple photocopies of our passports and visas. There’s no copy machine in the office. We go in search of one at a travel agency across the street.

Can we use your copier? We ask the young staffers.

They give us a deer-in-the-headlights look that's a customer service trademark here, but nod.

We make copies and run back to the registration office.

It turns out we need yet more copies of something or other. I keep our place in line; my parents race to the travel agency. It’s now closed for lunch, but they sneak into a nearby office complex and sweet talk the security guard into letting them use a copy machine.

It’s almost 1 p.m. now. Surprisingly, the line moves fast. At 12:55 p.m., we get called in. But it’s not us they need, it’s my mom’s friend, who invited us. She goes in; paperwork is issued; she’s out in two minutes. We get a little paper document that says we can stay in St. Petersburg. Lose it, and there will be hell to pay. (After we leave the country, our host must come back here and complete more paperwork testifying that we’re gone.)

We fly out of the registration office into the afternoon sunlight. We’re elated, we feel free. This is what it was like in the Soviet times, says my dad. You would bang your head against the wall trying to get something done. But when finally got it, you felt so happy! It’s different in the U.S. Everything’s easy!

*(I understand that if you travel to Russia with a tour group, or stay in a hotel instead of a private home, the travel agency or hotel staff can take care of the registration. Don't quote me on this, though; ask your travel agent.)

We spend the next several days seeing the city, which is beautiful and majestic and sometimes reminds me of Paris, but with grander architecture and a sadder history.

We take a few day trips, too...

Pushkin/Tsarskoe Selo (Czar's village). Pushkin, the famous 19th century Russian poet, went to school in these parts. This was also a summer residence of the Russian czars: Pushkin

Peterhof (palace, fountains and gardens)

Pavlovsk (park in the country; former summer home of the Russian imperial family)
Next: Down memory lane in St. Petersburg
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