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Vodka on the Zakuska Table

11 December, 2014

~ Darra Goldstein

Vodka is an essential part of the Russian zakuska table. When a liberal amount of the potent stuff is supplied to guests, the meal not only will be off to a fast start, but to a rollicking one as well. Russians love their vodka, a fact apparent in the word itself, for vodka is an affectionate diminutive of voda, "water," the most elemental substance of all.

[Excerpted from A Taste of Russia, published by Russian Life Books.]


Strong drink has always been important to the Russian people, even as far back as the tenth century A.D., when Grand Prince Vladimir, the first ruler of Russia, was searching for a religion under which to govern his still-heathen land. Vladimir called in representatives of the Islamic and Christian faiths for consultation and was all set to accept Islam as the new faith of Rus. when he learned that religious law forbade the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Vladimir was appalled. Hardly hesitating at all, he declared Christianity the new faith of his nation, proclaiming, "Drinking is the joy of Rus'!" Little has changed since those ancient days: drinking is still Russia's joy, as well as its bane. (At one point factories installed samovars to encourage the drinking of tea over vodka, but it did little good.) Once a Russian is drunk, his only recourse, by popular belief, is to cure himself with the hair of the dog that bit him, which leads only to more drinking.

But vodka should not be blamed. It is an excellent beverage and, taken in moderation, provides a perfect balance to the salty tidbits of the zakuska table. A proper zakuska course should offer at least several different varieties of well-chilled flavored vodkas. Many of these are easy to prepare at home by infusing a good-quality plain vodka with fresh herbs or citrus peel, or with golden strands of saffron or crushed cherry pits. Less common are such specialties as a dusky, mauve vodka made from litmus (a lichen extract), or garnet ryabinovka, infused with the autumnal berries of the mountain ash tree. Some connoisseurs prefer pale-blue cornflower vodka, others kedrovka, with its startling essence of cedar. In Gogol's food-heavy tale "Old-World Landowners," Pulkheria Ivanovna presents her own array of healthful vodkas at the zakuska table.

Pulkheria Ivanovna was most entertaining when she led her guests to the zakuska table. "Now this," she would say, removing the stopper from a flask, "is vodka infused with St. John's wort and sage. If the small of your back or your shoulder blade aches, it really hits the spot. This vodka over here is made with centaury. If you've got a ringing in your ears or shingles on your face, it's just the thing. And this one's distilled from peach pits here, take a glass, what a wonderful smell! If you've bumped your head against the corner of a cupboard or the table when getting out of bed, and a lump's sprung up on your forehead, then all you have to do is drink a glassful before dinner. The minute you take your hand away, the lump will disappear, as if it had never been there at all."

While not all vodkas are guaranteed to heal, it is true that they'll take the pain away. Of the clear vodkas, the best is pshenichnaya, distilled from grain rather than potatoes, with a taste as pure as liquid crystal. Unfortunately, this vodka is rarely found outside Russia, but the American market is filled with a remarkable number of clean-tasting vodkas from all over the globe. It is best to shun the cheaper American brands, as they taste overwhelmingly of alcohol and are impossible to drink straight. Russian vodka is drunk only straight, never mixed with other beverages. unless one is intent upon getting drunk fast and opts for the old Russian yorsh, a blending of vodka and beer designed to make one. s hair stand on end (in imitation, no doubt, of the fish of the same name with protruding spines on its fins).

Vodka should be kept in the freezer at all times, ready for the unexpected guest. Its high alcohol content keeps it from freezing, while the liquid turns delightfully viscous. (The sensation of thick, ice-cold vodka surging down one's throat is not soon forgotten.) Besides being drunk very cold, vodka is customarily gulped down in a single swallow, the liquid tossed far back into the mouth. The reason is a practical one: if vodka is sipped, one inhales the fumes, and the fumes are what cause drunkenness faster than the drink itself. Or so the Russians claim. In Chekhov's story "The Siren," the court stenographer explains the proper way to approach vodka:

...when you sit down you should immediately put a napkin around your neck and then, very slowly, reach for the carafe of vodka. Now you don't pour the dear stuff into any old glass ... oh no! You must pour it into an antediluvian glass made of silver, one which belonged to your grandfather, or into a pot-bellied glass bearing the inscription "Even Monks Imbibe!" And you don't drink the vodka down right away. No, sir. First you take a deep breath, wipe your hands, and glance up at the ceiling to demonstrate your indifference. Only then do you raise that vodka slowly to your lips and suddenly. sparks! They fly from your stomach to the furthest reaches of your body.

There are many rituals associated with the drinking of vodka. Traditionally, on the eve of his wedding, a Russian bridegroom was made to drink vodka from full glasses spelling out the name of his sweetheart. Woe to him if her name was Apollinaria! In Fyodor Sologub's novel The Petty Demon, guests of the wily host Skuchaev find themselves participating in a strange game called Pour and Drink Up, in which Skuchaev serves his unwitting guests vodka from glasses whose bases have been sharpened to a narrow point, so that it is impossible to set them down without their toppling over. As long as the guest holds an empty glass (as he inevitably does, since the vodka is downed in a single swig), hospitality demands that it be refilled, and so Skuchaev has come up with a sure way to get his guests drunk.

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