Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Canned Peas & Nostalgia

Are canned peas the madeleines of people who lived in or visited Eastern Europe before and right after the collapse of the iron curtain?

I think of myself as not liking peas much at all unless I eat them right out of the pod, but I probably ate every canned pea garnish on my plates when I lived in Russia. Canned peas were vegetable filler, mushy and flavorless, so far removed from the essence of “pea” that they couldn’t offend me like cooked fresh or frozen peas.

And they were omnipresent, so it’s no wonder Hungarian Globus peas, a classic East bloc import, were linked with nostalgia in “Good bye Lenin!” I’m partial to Russian salad Olivier, also known as столичный салат (capital salad), a classic based on diced potatoes and meat that must include canned peas. Mayonnaise holds everything together. Sometimes the salad is mounded on a small plate and garnished with a spoonful of diluted mayonnaise that one of my students likened to snow decorating an Alp.

According to today’s New York Times, Russian émigré writer Lara Vapnyar and I have salad Olivier in common: “There are high versions and low versions,” Ms. Vapnyar said. “I like them all.”

I admire Vapnyar’s willingness to admit her affection for canned peas – the Times article even begins with the words “canned peas.” I’ve also read and enjoyed several of her stories in The New Yorker, particularly “Luda and Milena.” The story features food and appears in Vapnyar’s new collection, Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love.

The Times article also mentions Darra Goldstein, whose cookbook A la Russe has, literally, served me well for two decades. The book falls open to a recipe for cabbage soup (щи) that I have made dozens of times, though always without leeks. The apple cake with chocolate glaze is perfect with tea. Unfortunately, though, the recipe for the ubiquitous Olivier salad doesn’t resemble any Olivier I’ve ever seen. I ate the stuff all over Russia but never ever came across a version that contained orange.

In case you’re curious, my favorite Russian meal is chicken cutlets (an adaptation of the Pozharskie cutlets in the Please to the Table cookbook) with fried potatoes and a cucumber-tomato salad with dill. These are foods that taste best when made fresh at home, even if I don’t have a Globus pea garnish. Or a flower carved from a carrot.

Some among you may think I torture my palate with these foods. Even if I love them, taste isn’t always the point. I rarely indulge in bare nostalgia, but Russian food brings me back to the ‘80s, when I was just beginning to learn the language, and the ‘90s, when I could hold real conversations, often over meals, speaking only Russian. Cutlets and fried potatoes conjure up the discoveries I made about Russian, myself, and the world during those years, and they remind me there is always more to learn.

P.S. On another food note: the June 9 & 16, 2008, issue of The New Yorker includes a translation of “Natasha,” a story by Vladimir Nabokov. I haven’t read it yet, but I know there’s a character named Khrenov. Хрен (khren) means horseradish in Russian, and it is also a euphemism for penis, sort of like “dick.” It can, in various forms, refer to lack of worth, and, when combined with old, it means roughly “old goat.”


  1. Orange in a столичный салат? Never seen that before! столичный салат (as it is generally known here) is a dish that always appears on any Armenian festive table and I have grown quite fond of it!

    Like you, I have grown equally fond of just plain fried potatoes, or жарит as they call it here, during my time in Armenia. Fried potatoes just hold so many memories of meals and conversations!

    It sounds a bit weird, but I am glad to find out I am not the only one! ;-)

  2. Myrthe,

    Thanks for your comment! You're definitely not alone. I know exactly what you mean about fried potatoes and conversations -- I associate a lot of memories with plates of plain fried potatoes, too. I sometimes stayed with a friend in northern Russia during the time when lots of food was по талонам (rationed). There weren't many food choices, so we often ate and loved big plates of fried potatoes.

    I love столичный салат, too, which is funny because I didn't even like mayonnaise before I lived in Russia.

    Приятного аппетита!