Alexander Nazaryan, a Russian expat English teacher in Brooklyn who has written for the Village Voice, New Criterion and other publications, and is working on his first novel, “Golden Youth,” about Russian organized crime in Brooklyn, had the following op-ed in the New York Times last week (click through to read a number of comments the piece attracted). In it he observes: “But perhaps because our foods are less sensuous or readily appealing than Mediterranean cuisine ― sour cream is not so sexy, it turns out ― only the [vodka] bottle lingers in the imagination.” He might not have limited the comparison to Mediterranean cuisine, since Russian food suffers by comparison to virtually any other cuisine you can name. It’s an observation we made long ago, that Russian cuisine is a perfect microcosm of Russia itself, gross and unreformed, because the people of Russia simply can’t be bothered.
There are few bars in my native city of St. Petersburg, and none at all, as far as I can tell, in Brighton Beach, the Russian enclave of Brooklyn to which I return whenever the memory of stuffed cabbage dumplings and accordion music begins to beckon. Not that sobriety has too much traction in either: when I returned to St. Petersburg in 2003 for the first time in 20 years, it was much more common to find open beers in the morning crowd than cups of coffee. And in the extravagant cabarets of Brighton Beach ― those gilded mafiya haunts now frequented by well-heeled families from Montclair and Stamford ― each dinner table is marked by an endless cavalcade of Smirnoff and Courvoisier.