Thanksgiving is America's biggest party of the year. Millions of people sit at millions of tables, enjoying millions of turkeys, tons of cranberry sauce and stuffing. For some, this is also associated with millions of irritations of the many annoying cousins and uncles, but all in all, good time is had by all.
So as a nod to the big American party, here is an excerpt from A Child In Translation about how we did it in the former Soviet Union. Please feel free to take notes! And a very happy Thanksgiving to you all.
The 3rd quarter of the academic year was by far the most hated one. The 1st quarter was sort of a “warm up” after the long summer break and only lasted a month and a half. The 2nd quarter ended in the New Year’s break, which was definitely worth looking forward to. The 4th quarter was also pretty short – it went from mid-April till the end of May and flew by quickly because all of us were bracing for the year end exams with the summer break to look forward to as a worthy reward for our efforts. The 3rd quarter started in mid-January and went through all of February and all of March with no state holidays to dilute things at least a little bit.
For me personally that portion of the year wasn’t too bad at all, because half of my family and friends had a birthday in February, which made it my family’s official party month. It’s not that we didn’t find reasons for celebration during other times of the year, and we did have a few stragglers who managed to not have a birthday in February, although most of us did have the decency to at least have a winter birthday (with the exception of a few outright renegades such as my parents and both grandfathers, who dared to have birthdays at other times of the year). But February was truly a culmination – parties galore! I am still not sure how I managed to get any school work done that month.
The grand party parade opened with Grandma Lora’s birthday on February 1st. She was followed by one of my mom’s best friends on February 3rd and her daughter on February 6th. After a week-long break to catch our breaths, we would dive back into partying for Grandma Lala’s and Kostya’s combined birthday on February 13th. I picked up the baton on February 24th, followed by Aunt Tanya on the 26th. Grandma Lora’s brother Vadim closed the party cycle in a way – he was born during a leap year and had a birthday on February 29th.
People in general and my family in particular took parties very seriously. Preparations usually began months in advance, as all of us would start hunting for and stashing away various imperishable goods: tiny cans of sardines and even tinier cans of caviar, good wine, champagne and cognac, chocolates, smoked meats and marinated mushrooms. Grandma Lora, of course, was our best resource for scouring out various delicacies, but the rest of us pitched in whenever we could. Dad scheduled certain airplanes for technical service ahead of others, in exchange for good coffee from the pilots’ rations. Aunt Tanya brought cans of home-made preserves when she came to visit during summer and Grandma Lala held off to use these preserves in cakes and pastries for our winter parties. In senior grades at school and during my first two years of college I tutored or did homework for well-to-do slackers in exchange for good champagne and chocolate-covered cherries. We all knew that anything could be obtained, as long as one knew where to look, who to ask and how to bargain.
The cooking began up to a week prior to the party, although there was always the invariable last-minute rush just as the guests came knocking on the door dressed in their best, carrying gifts and flowers (it was customary to give people flowers for their birthdays along with presents). The table was always set with the best tablecloth, the good china, crystal and silver with the required number of knives and forks and a row of glasses of various shapes and sizes lined up in front of every plate. Yes, it was true that many products in the former Soviet Union were scarce. Nevertheless, when we partied, we ate and drank ourselves into oblivion. Food was varied and abundant. Refusals to try this or that were considered extremely poor tone. Getting drunk was not mandatory, but drinking was a must – even for us, children (I believe I had my first glass of champagne when I was seven years old and my first hangover – after my own 16th birthday party). With drinking came the requisite ability to pronounce toasts (because every well-bred individual knew that only alcoholics would drink without toasting.) Any conversation (other than, “Please pass me that…”) was prohibited until at least after the first course – anything short of that was considered rude with respect to the hostess (the guests were expected to show their appreciation by eating what she cooked – not talking).
We had, of course, our own funny and endearing family party traditions. When Grandma Lala made her famous pie called kulebyaka (ground beef, sour kraut and chopped eggs between two layers of crust), she always baked a ten-kopeck coin wrapped in a piece of buttered tissue paper into the pie. Whoever picked a slice with the coin in it was expected to acquire great wealth. When Grandma Lora served her marinated tomatoes, those who dared to try them were always warned to have a glass of water ready. Grandma was notorious for over-peppering everything and her tomatoes were so spicy they made one cry. (Incidentally, Grandma Lora had the same attitude toward salt – she constantly over-salted her soups. According to a Russian superstition, a girl who over-salted her cooking was in love, because she was obviously distracted. We used to joke that Grandma Lora must have been very much in love with Grandpa Vasya, because she continued over-salting things even after she married him.) My mom always made fantastic coffee, and Grandma Lala or Aunt Tanya always volunteered to read everyone’s fortune in the coffee grounds. There were always lots of leftovers, so we all showed up with grocery bags full of little capped jars, plastic bags and boxes to take some of the goodies home. When someone forgot to bring their own containers, both my parents and my grandmothers always kept a stock of them at home to make sure no guest goes away empty-handed.
We usually had a break between the bulk of the party dinner and the dessert with coffee. During that break I was usually asked to sing – at the piano if we were at our apartment or a capella if we were somewhere else. During the children’s birthdays our parents used that time for games and home theatricals they usually carefully prepared themselves. My mom was an incomparable director and producer of such presentations. As we grew older and became teenagers, we would turn on a record or a cassette player and dance, while our parents talked about the usual grownup stuff. Grandpa Vasya and Uncle Zhenya sometimes joined the dancing, which was hilarious. A few minutes later they would emerge from the crowd of jumping teenagers, sweating, clutching their hearts and complaining that, “Those young girls completely wore me out!”
My parents and friends of our family rotated the annual party duties between households as they decided who would host the New Year’s party or the March 8th party (International Women’s Day) or the September 1st party (yes, our parents actually thought that the start of a new academic year for their children was a good excuse to have a party). Whenever we had gatherings at our house, my dad always made his signature dishes from the recipes he picked up during his trip to Uzbekistan: shishkobab (using a special shishkobab-making contraption with skewers that could be placed into the oven), fried rice with lamb and dimlama – a dish consisting of layers of beef and various vegetables, cooked in a very tall pan and served in long multi-layered slices using two large spatulas.
Prior to hosting a New Year’s party at our place one year, my mom recruited me for an extra-special task. She wanted to create cards with personalized poems to go with every gift. So, she made time to pick me up from school, and we composed no fewer than a dozen poems while riding home in a trolleybus. I can’t remember any of the poems anymore, but I know that the one we wrote for my dad was in the style of an advertisement ditty to go with the new electrical razor my mom bought for him. It talked about how shaving with that particular brand of razor made one’s face as smooth as a pumpkin. We were laughing so hard, people must have thought we were crazy.
The friends’ overnight New Year’s party was usually followed by a dinner at Grandma Lora’s on January 1st. It never occurred to anyone to protest that they were tired and / or still full from the night before. You just didn’t say something like that to Grandma Lora. January 1st was when the family gathered at her place to sample the fiery marinated tomatoes, the signature beet and potato salads, the smoked herring and Grandma’s incomparable Napoleon cake – and that was the law.
Grandma Lala had us over for January 7th – the Russian Orthodox Christmas. While this holiday wasn’t widely celebrated until it became fashionable to be religious in the early 1990s, we came together on the 7th – not because we were religious, but because Grandma Lora had her New Year’s party, so Grandma Lala deserved one too. Oh, the never-ending war of the grandmothers! Can you imagine someone fighting over who gets to do more cooking and cleaning more times during the year? A word of advice: when your grandmothers are arguing over who gets to make your birthday cake, make them feel good – let them both do it. I had two birthday cakes every year, and I don’t recall anyone complaining.
As our Master of Religious Ceremonies, Grandma Lala also hosted the Easter party. Easter was another holiday that was not celebrated much, but we were happy to let Grandma Lala do her thing, because Easter came after a long stretch without any parties and the nearest birthday (which was my mom’s – May 15th) was still far away. While we didn’t fast like Grandma Lala did, we did find it agonizing to have to wait till the appearance of the first evening star before Grandma let us dig into the Easter goodies: the kulebyaka, fried chicken with Grandpa Volodya’s signature mashed potatoes, the tall Easter breads with white icing – kulich, and Grandma Lala’s crown jewel – paskha (which literally means “Easter” in Russian): cream cheese mixed with walnuts, raisins and honey eaten on crackers or simply with a spoon. Talk about being worth the wait! Grandma Lala would jokingly suggest that we all take an excursion to their bathroom scales to see who managed to eat the record amount this time. Grandpas ignored her, absorbed in their conversation about politics and economy. My dad, having had his n-th glass of sweet red wine would try to sing – his attempts quickly suppressed by my mom and both grandmothers, “Stop that! Not with your ears! Let Masha sing instead…” I would sing for them while Grandma Lala and Mom made coffee, and everyone would cheer and applaud while the delicious cake and other desserts waited in the wings to take center stage shortly after. I didn’t mind sharing the limelight. I miss our parties.