21 November 2007

A Thanksgiving Excerpt: In Search of Turkey

This entry is not perfect - for one thing, it's really long - but I'm leaving tomorrow for a vacation in ESTONIA (woo!) and I wanted to post it before I left. Enjoy, and have a great Thanksgiving, everyone!

Turkey is not, to me, the most important part of the Thanksgiving meal, and I would have happily just left it off my party menu. But in all of my classes, the first thing my students said when I asked what they knew about Thanksgiving was, "You eat a big turkey!" I figured I would be in trouble if I didn't produce the bird, so I scouted out the market.

The place at the market where you go to buy meat is charmingly called the "meat pavilion." Here I should mention that I am sort of living a vegetarian lifestyle (without being a "vegetarian" in the moral sense – I eat meat if someone serves it to me), so I hadn't been in the meat pavilion yet, and looking at raw meat isn't something I'm really used to. When I got there, I found that it smelled overwhelmingly like raw meat, there were stray dogs roaming the aisles, and it was full of rows and rows of men hawking meat laid right out on tables in the open air. They all seemed to be selling the same two things, too:
a) cat-sized mammals, completely skinned except for one black paw that was left on so that you could tell they weren't cats; and
b) chickens, uniformly displayed in such a way that you got a nice view down their necks and could admire how great their internal organs looked.

Eww. I later found out that those mammals are nutrias. Nutrias? Yes. Nutrias. Anyway, I also found several turkeys, but since I don't know how to cook a whole bird, my oven is about the size of a standard microwave, and there's no room in my fridge for a whole turkey, I decided that wasn't going to work. I picked a nice, easy stovetop recipe for turkey breast tenderloins with caramelized onions instead. Unfortunately, I only found one turkey breast tenderloin in the whole of the glorious meat pavilion, sitting unwrapped and rather freezer-burned in a freezer case that was otherwise full of poultry organs. This was on my Wednesday scouting mission. I returned to the same freezer case on Friday and asked the attendant if she had any turkey breast.

"Oh, sure," she says, reaching in deep past the piles of chicken hearts and excising from some hidden crevice the same breast I saw on Wednesday.
I wrinkle my nose. "Is that the only one you have?"
"Yes, it's the last one. But it's fresh. Extremely fresh, even. We just got it in, actually. See, it doesn't smell at all. And look how high-quality it is, nice and fatty."
Just the fact that she was saying this about such a sad-looking hunk of meat was, I felt, an insult to my intelligence; add in the fact that as she said it, she was brushing off all the bits of freezery gunk stuck to it, and the nutria-induced queasiness I was already feeling, and I just couldn't buy.
"It's OLD," I said, and stalked away.

The next day – the day of the party – I returned to the meat pavilion, hoping one of the other freezers would have some turkey. Alas, it was not so, and I returned defeated to the same freezer. As luck would have it, the same woman was working, and believe me, she just exuded glee as she informed me that their turkey breast had sold yesterday, and wasn't I sorry now that I had called it old and refused to buy it? I sighed and told her she was right (even though she wasn't), and asked if they had any other turkey. "Just wings," she said, showing me one. They looked acceptable. Wings, breast – what's the difference? I bought two, anxious to get home and get cooking. It was only as I was walking away and she said, "I know you'll be happy with them. They make great soup," that I realized my mistake. In all of my Thanksgiving dinners (and I've had a lot, because my family eats two every year), I don't think I've ever eaten, or even seen, a turkey wing. And if they're used for soup, that probably means they're not all that meaty or the meat's not all that good. I peeked into the bag. My suspicions appeared to be confirmed.

This mistake on my part just galvanized me: I was going to make a good turkey dish if it killed me. I returned to the scary nutria-filled, non-freezer half of the pavilion and, without even trying to haggle, plunked down 600 rubles (24 dollars!) for the smallest turkey I could find (5.5 kilos, or 12 pounds).

I then spent a good hour or so bent over the illustrated how-to guide in my Betty Crocker cookbook, hacking away at this poor turkey with the only sharpish knife I have, trying desperately to extract some nice breast tenderloins (how can something be both a breast and a tenderloin? I'm still not clear on that). Since this is an instance in which saying that I totally butchered it might imply that I did the job well, I will be specific: I butchered it in the figurative sense. It was like, I don't know, a turkey horror film or something. I gave up on Betty around step four, when she instructs you to cut through all the rib joints on either side of the spine (Betty, you say that like it's even possible to FIND the rib joints) and started bushwhacking, with surprising success. But if there's some entry-level FSB hack in charge of spying on me, he or she definitely got a good laugh that day.

So in the end (sorry, I'm tired and this is getting long, so it is not going to have an exciting conclusion) the recipe turned out fine, or at least my guests said it did (I didn't eat any of it), but I was left with the rest of the turkey which did not fit in my fridge. Being a cheapskate by nature, I cringe to admit this, but I coarsely hacked apart the rest of that $24 turkey and fed it to the cats that live outside my apartment building. As for the wings, they were taking up my entire freezer, so last night I made them into turkey broth, which is now taking up less than my entire freezer. All's well that ends well, I guess. But if there suddenly appears a holiday that requires roasting a nutria, I am putting my foot down.

20 November 2007

Happy Anniversary!

Remember that time I got hit by a car?

Well, I sure do. And it was one year ago today!

Waiting for the ambulance at the neighborhood triage point, Utkinskaya Street, Vladivostok.

I'm surprisingly excited about that. On the one hand, the ensuing broken leg fiasco was pretty miserable in many ways. But on the other hand, it was definitely an adventure all the way – from flying through the air at the intersection of Okeanskii and Fokina, to two nights in a Russian hospital and a brief moment in the sun as the focus of an embassy panic, to my "medical evacuation" on three first-class flights that got me out of Russia and across the Pacific in time for Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma's, to readapting to life in America from the vantage point of my mom's chair in the family room, to getting packages and visits from caring friends, to surgery and physical therapy and finally to my triumphal return to Russia, a whirlwind winter tour of Pskov, Petersburg and Moscow on a crutch.

It was boring at times, and there were a few low points where all I could feel was soul-crushingly sorry for myself (never a good way to feel), but so many people were so, so nice to me. Especially my friends in Vladivostok, who went to the hospital with me, brought me food and things to do, railed against the crappy driver who hit me, tried to talk some sense into me when I said I wasn't going to go home, and ultimately packed up my stuff for me and sent me off with tears and homemade blini. Those three days would have been a total nightmare without them. And my parents, who not only put up with their cranky, immobile daughter reinvading their house, but basically did everything for me for two whole months without complaining even once. Thanks, guys! I really appreciate how great you are.

So anyway, I look back on it now without any real sense of regret or sadness. It made my year just a little more bizarre, I guess, and now it's a good story, capable of shocking and horrifying pretty much anyone. I'm not a very shocking/horrifying person on the whole, so it's good to have in my arsenal.

And because I believe that you can never be too dorky (well, maybe you can, but I haven't hit my ceiling yet), I got out an eyeliner pencil and decided to show you how my knee is feeling:

17 November 2007


I didn't disappear! I've been really busy because I decided on Wednesday to throw a Thanksgiving dinner today (Saturday). (I'll be out of town on Thanksgiving proper.) I sort of made that decision on a whim, and while I don't regret it, I definitely didn't find out until about a day after I made it just what I had gotten myself into. I've spent all of my free time the last three days cooking and cleaning, staying up past 1 am two nights in a row to get stuff done (long past my usual granny-bedtime).

But it was worth it, because it went really well!! (Except for the squash casserole, which no one ate. I think they were afraid of it.)Anyway, the last of my twelve guests just left, and now it's time to do the most pressing cleaning up, like reassembling my couch-bed and putting away leftovers. Then do nothing for awhile. That sounds like a great idea.

Anyway, this holiday involved many amusing and blog-worthy adventures, which I'll share in a while.

11 November 2007

Veterans Day

Since most of you know me in real life, you probably already know that I have a brother who is serving in Iraq. I'd like to share something he wrote in his latest email update:

Before I tuck myself under my cadet green blanket for the night, I would like to ask a favor of you all. As Veteran's Day approaches, most of America will celebrate with a day off or perhaps the purchase of a new car. As Americans, we enjoy the truly rare luxury of an all-volunteer military force. While it means that those who wish to do other things with their lives are free to do so, it also means that much of America is totally disconnected from her own military. There was a time when everyone knew a veteran. Now, the veterans are harder to find. Without putting too fine a point on it, for all the sturm and drang over the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, most Americans are untouched by the harshest realities of the conflict. While it's comforting to know that our country is not embroiled in daily misery over the war, it does highlight the disconnect between the country and the military.

Most people would be surprised to learn (as I was) that the number of veterans of both conflicts numbers over 1.5 million. It's well known that almost 4,000 servicemembers have been killed in Iraq. However, the advances in medical care on the battlefield have meant that those who would have died of wounds even ten years ago now survive. But they survive to face the loss of limbs, eyesight, and even cognitive function. In the past four years over 9,000 servicemembers have been evacuated from Iraq with traumatic injuries. Many of you often ask what to send us to support the troops, which is always appreciated. But my request of you this Veteran's Day is to take the time and money you would spend to send a care package and use it to support those warriors who are back on American shores. The Wounded Warriors Project is a group which provides support, care, and comfort to wounded veterans and their families. They assist family members in the months following a traumatic injury, allowing them the financial wherewithal to travel across the country to their loved one and stay by his/her side at Walter Reed or Brooke Army Medical Center, not to mention the support and comfort they give to the wounded. Please consider making a small donation to their efforts. There are many, many families of soldiers who have been through terrible pain as a result of their loved one's service. So in lieu of a care package, please take some time this Veteran's Day to support our recovering veterans.

I felt a little hesitant about posting this; having family in the military and having gone to a pretty liberal university, I've felt the heat of the dialectic of this war more than many civilians, and it's not something I enjoy or seek out. Is supporting veterans a political act? I can't answer that question for anyone else, but from my point of view, it's first and foremost an act of kindness.


"You think you have it bad? You should see how bad things are for X!" During my time in Russia, I've been tempted to say this over and over again (about pollution, race relations, women's rights, and a slew of other problems that Russia faces at ten times the scale of America), but by now I've realized that if it's ever a healthy attitude, it's only healthy in very small doses. Nonetheless, I'd still like to share a little bit of what I know of the Russian army. As my brother mentions, we do live with the luxury of an all-volunteer military force. Luxury or basic human right; no matter what it ought to be in an ideal world, I never had much perspective on what a luxury it really is in our world until I came to Russia, where people often react with shock and disbelief when I tell them that no one in America is forced to serve.

The Russian military still works by conscription, and many young men do whatever they can to get out of service. That may sound cowardly, but after all the horror stories I've heard about the army here, I can't judge them. Hazing of new conscripts is rampant in the army, and it sometimes results in death. Anna Politkovskaya collected plenty of accounts, but I can provide examples even without resorting to the writings of a journalist many in Russia are ready to automatically discredit as blinded by bias. (If you're interested in her accounts, you can find them in A Russian Diary.) My friend Sasha, who grew up in a village not far from here, had a schoolmate who voluntarily enlisted after graduating. Sasha says he talked enthusiastically about serving in the army, but after only a few months, "he returned in a coffin." According to Sasha, it was a case of suicide after excessive hazing; Politkovskaya maintained that many such "suicides" are cover-ups of cases of accidental death during hazing. Either way, it's horrific.

Furthermore, Russia's messy, drawn-out wars in Chechnya have been the stage for unspeakable atrocities (on both sides, as the Russians I meet who are even willing to speak about Chechnya are quick to point out). Again, Politkovskaya devoted a lot of ink to this topic, especially to the fates of those who return from service in Chechnya, and again, her version matches what ordinary Russians I know have to say. In short, those who return from Chechnya return psychologically broken – stereotypically, they become alcoholics, drug abusers and criminals, and it's not long before many of them end up in prison. They receive a little help from the government – about 40 bucks a month and special privileges like free bus passes and stamps – but that's all. No one wants to associate with a veteran, much less hire one, since it's considered likely that he's unbalanced. Armless or legless veterans slumped on the street or wheeling themselves onto metro cars to beg for change are a common sight. Russia still lacks a tradition of large-scale social movements, and those who want to help these young men (and women, but mostly men) really struggle to do so.

So on this Veterans Day, I'm feeling especially thankful that I come from a country where the military is professional and accountable, and a society that values social awareness, activism, and a free press. In my country, people don’t ignore wars they find unjust – they shout at each other about them. Any whiff of corruption or scandal is splashed across the front pages of the newspapers; and as my brother mentions, almost everyone knows how many Americans have died in Iraq. It can get overwhelming, and there are certainly those who long for those good old days when the world was black and white and wars were causes that uniformly united the nation. (Was that ever really the case?) And plenty of us wish we didn't have quite so much corruption splashing across those newspaper pages. But it's a lot better than silence, and my time in Russia has taught me that sadly, that's still an alternative in the world today.
While sitting here wondering why the call from Martha Stewart inviting me to co-author a cookbook hadn't come yet, it occurred to me that there's one thing most good food blogs have that mine doesn't have... Thanks to Julia for that second link!

If your first thought was, "a good cook," you are correct! But you're also a smart aleck. What I was thinking of is pictures!

It's actually pretty difficult to make food look appetizing, surprisingly enough. It seems like there are always splashes or splots or crumbs to deal with. But I did what I could with the not-so-abundant natural light we have around here (cloudy, cloudy, cloudy, every single day), and now my borscht post (scroll down) has some pictures.

Another post is coming later today, with actual content, so check back!

08 November 2007

Genderbending Wordplay, or One More Thing I Don’t Get about Russian

Russian past-tense verbs are marked for gender and number, but not person. That means there are four forms for every past tense verb, for example:

упасть/upast' – to fall.

упал/upal – fell-masc.
I fell (if the speaker is male), you fell (if 'you' refers to a male), he fell, it fell (for objects that are grammatically masculine).

упала/upala – fell-fem.
I fell (if the speaker is female), you fell (if 'you' refers to a female), she fell, it fell (for objects that are grammatically feminine).

упало/upalo – fell-neut.
it fell (for objects that are grammatically neuter), fell (in subjectless constructions).

упали/upali – fell-plur.
We fell, you (plural) fell, you (singular formal) fell, they fell.

Got it? Ok. Just two small observations:

1. This gender marking causes problems for little kids, like a boy I saw in the library who was running around shouting, "I'm leaving! I'm leaving!" (Past tense – to say "I'm leaving," you say, "I've set off.") Except he was using the feminine form. His grandma gently corrected him: Я пошёл, солнышко. Ты - мальчик. ("[correct masculine form], honey. You're a boy.") In a country where the task of raising children falls mostly to women, I have to wonder if a lot of Russian toddlers take longer to gain command of the masculine past tense form than the feminine. Hmm.
Edit: I realized this probably isn't that clear to most people. What I mean is that children who hear women say "I + [feminine verb]" all the time and rarely hear men say "I + [masculine verb]" could get confused about whether the past tense -a ending marks gender or person. But after thinking it over, I don't think that's all that likely.

2. Today I was sitting in the foreign languages department when one of the other teachers got up to leave. "Ok, I'm leaving," she said – except she used the masculine form! When she left, I asked the remaining teacher, a Russian language professor, why she had done that. She explained: "Everywhere we go, we have to speak properly. All day long, nothing but speaking properly. Sometimes you just want to let go and play around with the language a little. If you say something like that, and people know that you actually know how to speak correctly, it's funny. It's funny to say the wrong thing in moderation." I was dissatisfied with this explanation. I mean, I don't understand what exactly is funny about it. Maybe that's because we don't have an equivalent in English – something you can say that would be grammatical if you were someone else, but isn't if you're you. So I wonder: (a) if speakers of other morphologically rich languages do the same thing; and (b) if it's primarily gender marking, rather than, say, number marking or case marking, that gets played with. And if so, do men do it, too? HMM. I'm intrigued.

(You can tell by all the posts that I've had a lot of work to do/procrastinate on. Hope you're enjoying it!)

06 November 2007

And an Amusing Addendum

PS – I recently noticed that I apparently picked the right title for this blog. There was a mermaid in the Sea of Azov at some point (and by “a mermaid” I mean “a tabloid story about an alleged washed-up mermaid”), and now a few people a week find my blog by Googling «азовская русалка.» So it's a good thing I've clarified that I'm not a mermaid; wouldn't want to confuse anyone.

And by the way, if you verb a proper noun like Google, do you end up with... a proper verb? If so, is that a relatively new animal, or are there older examples of such neologisms that I just can't think of at the moment? And is it still called a neologism if it's just a recategorization of an existing word into a different part of speech?

Ok, I'm done wasting time now. Over and out!

The Cold War(s) Continue, Or Pride Cometh Before a Fall (in Temperature)

This morning my landlady thoughtfully called me just as I was walking out the door (how does she do that?) to inform me that it was -2 degrees (28.4 degrees Fahrenheit) outside and that I should wear a hat to work. I rolled my eyes a little, but heeded her advice. Because actually, -2 degrees does feel pretty cold right now. Plus, I think it's safe to assume that I would have been in for a scolding at work if I had walked in with no hat on.

I would like to say to the weather: what is this?! This is supposed to be the south. I was expecting -2 degrees, yes, but not for another month or so. So I think the weather is mocking me – it must have heard me say that I’m not going to buy a warmer coat and decided to show me how cocky I was being about the local climate. Fine. Whatever. I was wrong, but I’m not going to break. (Southern) Russian winter, go ahead and hit me with everything you’ve got – I know how to knit, and I'm not afraid of you.

04 November 2007


Borscht! Comrades, we have missed our window of opportunity for to kill Doug!
-Svetlana Rootski, 'Neath the Elms (If you don't get the reference, don't worry... it's not worth explaining.)

Lately, my procrastination/relaxation method of choice has been cooking, and surprisingly, my recent experiments have mostly been in the realm of soup. (I've spent most of my life hating all soups except plain Campbell's tomato.) So far I've made a decent but too-thick split pea glop, a tragically overspiced pumpkin lentil soup, and some vegetable stock, and today I decided to try out borscht, a Ukrainian soup that's a standard of the Russian diet. It's delicious, and it contains two vegetables – beets and cabbage – that I think are underutilized in the U.S. (Note: I have no idea why the word "borscht" usually has a -t on the end, since the Russian word, борщ/borsch, doesn't. Maybe the word was borrowed through Yiddish.)

I've had a recipe for borscht for more than a year now, written out for me by a friend and sometime student in Vladivostok, but I've put off trying it because 1) like many Russian recipes, no amounts are given; and 2) it requires making beef stock, which I never really felt prepared to do (I don't even know how to buy red meat, much less cook it, and canned broth isn't available here). But now that I've become acquainted with the art of soup-making and have seen a few other borscht recipes that did give amounts, I decided I could try it out. I replaced the beef stock with vegetable stock, because I still don't know how to make beef stock, and I don't really do meat in general nowadays. That doesn't make it inauthentic – meaty borscht is much more common (and quite tasty), but some Russians do make it without meat.

Although I feel like borscht is usually identified by its beetiness, you actually only need one medium beet, julienned. Boil it in 3 cups of water with a quarter cup of vinegar, a tablespoon of sugar, and a teaspoon of salt until it's tender. I boiled it for about half an hour and it was still a little too firm for my taste. Drain.

While the beet is boiling, cook three medium-sized carrots, cubed, and two small onions, chopped, in a tablespoon of oil. Set all this aside.

Boil one third of a head of green cabbage, shredded, and three smallish potatoes, julienned, in 2 quarts of vegetable stock for 10-15 minutes; add the beet and sautéed vegetables and some spices and cook another 10 minutes or so. I used a spice blend called "spices for Ukrainian borscht," which contains dill, salt, pepper, paprika, parsley, celery seed and dried onion – I think the dill is the most important part for making it authentically borschty. I also added about 2 tablespoons of vinegar because I didn't think it tasted quite as sour as it should. Also, my vegetables-to-stock ratio was really high, and I would probably add another half liter (=1 pint) of liquid if I had a bigger pot.

Before serving, add chopped fresh garlic (I skipped this part because I don't like raw garlic), and top each bowl of soup with a dollop of sour cream and fresh chopped parsley and dill if you have them. Voila!

(After making this beautiful pot of more or less authentic borscht, I completely bastardized it by adding two cups of cooked kidney beans to make it more filling. Russians usually eat soup as the first part of a meal, but I eat it (with some bread) as a whole meal, so without the meat I felt like beans were a good addition. Plus I just really like the combination of cabbage and kidney beans.)

03 November 2007

In from the Cold

It feels like ages since I've written! I guess that's partly because I've been writing fairly regularly for the last few months, and partly because this was emotionally a pretty long week. Bad news from home, continued gross weather, and a very stressful Halloween party combined to make me pretty miserable for several days, but things perked up immensely toward the end of the week, and I'm feeling not just not-bad-anymore, but actually really good now.

So. The windows in most Soviet apartment buildings, quite frankly, suck. They're old and made of wood, which means they're warped and usually don't shut all the way anymore. The paint on the casements is thick, uneven, chipping, and probably lead-based. Also, there was apparently a shortage of painter's tape in Soviet times, because the window glass is always streaked with paint and the locks have big spatters – sometimes so big that they prevent the lock from working properly – on them. The paint is mostly an aesthetic issue, but the warping is definitely structurally problematic, especially in windy seaside cities like Vladivostok and Taganrog.

So when cold weather comes, people deal with their leaky windows in one of two ways. The lucky ones can afford to renovate their apartment with "plastic windows." (When I first heard this term, I thought it meant the glass was plastic, but it actually refers to the casements.) Plastic windows are ALL the rage in Russia right now, often the first thing home renovators splurge on. They seal. They lock. They don't require paint. "Do you have plastic windows?" is one of the first questions that comes up when the conversation turns to apartments; an answer of yes, it is understood, translates to a warm, happy home, while an answer of no translates to freezing your butt off.

Or it would translate to freezing your butt off, if the crafty Russians hadn't come up with a draft-stopping solution. (Of course they came up with a draft-stopping solution. They believe that living in a drafty apartment is tantamount to suicide.) Starting in September, folks around here started making noises about taping their windows shut for the winter. At first I was confused, but never fear! I didn't have to wait long for them to start warning me to tape my own windows for the winter and explaining exactly how to do it. Some recommended regular clear tape; others swear by masking tape; still others advised getting my hands on some special insulated window-taping tape.

I missed all this last year because I spent the fall and winter in a nice, renovated dorm. But this year, I live in a real Soviet apartment, and my windows are the crappiest of the crappy. The ones in the kitchen have half-inch gaps even when you close them as tightly as you can, and the locks don't work. (Don't worry, I live on the ninth floor.) By last weekend, despite fairly warm outdoor temperatures, my apartment was unlivably cold. Too lazy/busy to tape, I tolerated it by wearing my hooded sweatshirt on top of a wool sweater, but when I had a student over for tea on Saturday and she nearly froze to death, I decided something had to be done.

This meant a trip to my favorite men's-only hardware store, where I got foam padding and two-inch wide masking tape (I made this difficult choice based on the fact that it was the first kind of tape I found). I cut the padding into strips, taped them into the cracks in my windows for heavy-duty draft blockage, got maybe a little overzealous and caulked the hinges of the leakiest window (the padding wouldn't go in), and presto! raised the temperature in my kitchen at least ten degrees Fahrenheit in thirty short minutes. My landlord came by the next day to empty the air out of my radiators (this is a continuing saga, because everyone else's air apparently rises into my radiators, preventing the hot water from reaching me and heating my apartment) and praised my work. Gold star for me!

The next day, to solve the non-functioning heater problem, I bought a little electric oil-filled radiator, and gave my advisor nervous fits by carrying it home by myself. (I still don't see what the problem with that is.) And now, finally, my apartment is toasty warm. Except that now that the door to my balcony, which was at least as leaky as the windows, is sealed off, the electric heater is shut in my bathroom with my wet laundry, making the bathroom toasty warm so the clothes dry faster. Not very energy-efficient, but then, the other option is waiting a week for my clothes to dry every time I do laundry.

Next cold-related task: convincing my advisor, who shamed me into switching my fall polarfleece jacket for my winter coat this past week, that said winter coat is thick enough to see me through the Taganrog winter alive. I've survived both Ohio and Connecticut winters in it, plus a very, very cold few days in Petersburg last January, so somehow I think it'll be ok. But she thinks I'm out of my mind. And so the battle of the cultural attitudes toward cold continues.