LIVE TO EAT (AND DRINK): “Three Days of Vodka With Gary Shteyngart.”


I’ve been researching vodka for a future free-lance article, and was thinking back to the unexpectedly tasty way straight firewater accompanies little nibbles. In the case of Russia, these are called zakuski, which I recalled in this installment of the Euro ’87 travelogue.

Soviet restaurants certainly had menus, though they tended to be approximations, particularly in the case of foreigners who spoke no Russian. Even if the restaurant was able to serve a dozen main courses, the selection likely would be narrowed to simpler options, like either beef or fish.

Probably everyone involved understood the nature of the exercise, and you’d take what you were served, beginning with drinks and zakuski. In Russia, zakuski are appetizers both hot and cold, though often featuring pickled and smoked vegetables, cheese and fish.

The practice of zakuski apparently originated among the landowning classes as a reflection of Russia’s vastness and a mutually beneficial obligation to provide hospitality to travelers. In short, snacks and vodka were kept at the ready. These would sustain tired visitors until the kitchen could be animated to produce a full meal.

As meant to be taken with vodka, zakuski often proved to be the high point of restaurant meals in the Soviet Union.

Diners were given ample time to graze the zakuski and empty their bottles before the indifferent entree would appear, usually only after diners were sufficiently well lubricated to be grateful for belly mortar irrespective of quality. There’d usually be dessert, often ice cream.

Bopping around in search of information, I happened upon this old article at Slate — and it’s a hoot. I’ve read Shteyngart’s books The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan, and he’s a fine writer. So is Troy Patterson.

Read this and know what a Russian vodka session is like. These days, it isn’t likely I could keep up, though never say нет.

Three Days of Vodka With Gary Shteyngart
, by Troy Patterson

A boozy trip down memory lane—and through Russian history—with the author of Little Failure.

 … Gary Shteyngart picks up a menu printed with the Russian Vodka Room’s logo, in which the savage hammer and sickle garnish a cocktail served up at the center of a Soviet star. Across the room, a fat man limbers his fingers and eyes a black piano. Gary Shteyngart receives his brief: The job tonight is to help me explain to myself and everyone exactly what vodka is.

Of course, everyone knows what vodka is. Defined by law to be a neutral spirit “as tasteless and odorless as possible,” it is the best-selling liquor in the U.S.—“the backbone of the spirits industry.” You don’t need Gary Shteyngart to tell you why such a bland booze should be so successful, but he’s here, so why not? “It’s utility. Vodkas mix well because they have so little personality.”

Around the world, vodka is an icon and emblem of Russia, where it is variously lyricized and decried, both a poem and a problem. There could have been vodka without Russia; both Poland and Ukraine have staked plausible claims of historical precedence. But there could not have been the grandeur of the Grand Duchy of Moscow, nor the evil of the USSR, nor the mystery of the steppes, nor the mystique of the onion dome, without vodka. “It’s the curse and liberation of Russia,” as the British writer Colin Thubron once put it. Gary thinks of Russia’s relationship with vodka in parallel terms: “It’s very Homer-Simpsonian: The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”

The Russian Vodka Room lists 44 commercial vodkas on its menu, including Smirnoff (the pioneer licensed for U.S. consumption in the 1930s), Tito’s (distilled in Texas), and Ciroc (from Diddy, because every third celebrity has a vodka these days; recent weeks have brought news of labels launched by a retired Piston, a former Patriot, and New Hampshire’s Old Man in the Mountain). “The difference among vodkas is not that great,” Gary says, “but Russian Standard is the best. It doesn’t have a story about how it’s been triple-filtered through a diamond in a rhinoceros’s asshole, but it gets the job done.”

We, however, are here to drink the house-infused stuff. You may have gotten the idea—what with recent atrocities regarding vodkas flavored to taste of whipped cream and peanut butter and shopping-mall cinnamon buns—that infused vodkas are relatively new and very often gross, but distillers have been at it since the 1400s, and there is nobility in the tradition. Ordering in Russian, Shteyngart gets us a 7-ounce carafe of the horseradish and a few bites to eat.

The vodka arrives. He pours it but does not drink. “We’re gonna wait for some toasts.” The booze cannot go into his mouth until a proper salute has flowed from his heart—and the drinks cannot go down the hatch until the barman puts out our food, our zakuski: “that which you follow the vodka with.” The most important part of Russian drinking is Russian eating. A zakuska is a sine qua non, with an exception allowed for very tough economic times, when it’s acceptable to chase the vodka with a sniff of your own overcoat …