A Fishy Predicament

30 Dec

I ate herring yesterday, and it wasn’t disgusting. In fact, I was rather surprised at how much I enjoyed it, and how disappointed I was when there was nothing left on the plate but a pool of white wine and onion marinate.

“If this is what I have to look forward to in St. Petersburg,” I said, using a glob of bread to pick up the last bits of juice and fish flakes, “then I won’t have to worry at all.” I smiled. My mom thought I was weird. I was in a Pollack from Pittsburg’s home for a New Year’s shindig.

I suppose I should back up a bit.

When I asked myself if I wanted to study Russian or Arabic in college, my heart said Russia. But my stomach said Arabic.

Other than the French and the Italians, I can’t think of a single culture that gets food better than the Arabs. It might not be the prettiest, but my God, if it isn’t blanched in love and saturated in flavor. Hummus. Baba Gannuj. Za’atar. Falafel. Kabobs. Lamb. Olive Oil. Cumin. Cinnamon. Stuffed grape leaves. Dates. Oranges. Eggplant. Eggplant. Eggplant.

I don’t think I can stress enough how much I love eggplant. And how much I am willing to commit petty crimes for falafel.

I love food, is what I’m trying to say.

But on the other end of the spectrum, like always, is Russia.

Borsch.

Potatoes.

Beets.

Vodka.

No,” my stomach said in defiance, curling and making the same face of the rage face. “You will not pick this language, this culture, this land.”

“But I like beets,” I said, patting my stomach like the head of a wee dog. “And potatoes. Our ancestors practically survived on only potatoes, Anthropomorphized Stomach, that’s what they were known for.”

“While that may be true, our ancestors also used to pick cotton and made moonshine, and I don’t hear you scrambling to do those things.”

“We could wash everything down with vodka. Awesome water.” This was, of course, before I knew what vodka does to the body. Oh, I knew. But I did not understand.

“No. And my answer is final. No go turn on the Food Channel and lock the refrigerator as punishment for your thinking.”

Then I slunk to the TV and turned on Iron Chef. My refrigerator doesn’t have a lock on it because it’s not the 1930s, so I watched Chef Morimoto tear up the screen while eating a whole bag of Cheetos and a Slim Jim. And a 32 oz Sprite. And marshmallows and Skittles. Oh my God, I have to stop eating like this.

In the end, I picked Russian and every time food is mentioned, my stomach curls up and makes a face. During my first semester of class, we learned about general cuisine items, some of which sounded familiar and I’d known them to be quite delicious: stroganoff, blini, pirozhki.

Some of it, I didn’t want to touch with a ninety-nine-and-a-half foot pole: rassolnik (a cold, pickle soup), aspic (meat Jell-O—I can only imagine the look of horror on Bill Cosby’s face), salo (pig fat…like, bacon but…horrifyingly not).  Anthropomorphized Stomach smiled when Professor assured us that, if we didn’t like anything available, there was always McDonald’s, Starbucks and even KFC abundantly available in the Former Soviet Union.

“But I like beets,” I said, patting my stomach like the head of a wee dog. “And potatoes. Our ancestors practically survived on only potatoes, Anthropomorphized Stomach, that’s what they were known for.”

After a grueling twelve week program of Russian, Professor brought some real, traditional Russian food, some of which she made, some of which she bought. Most of it was palatable and quite good. But then, Professor brought out the smoked herring.

It stood in the center of the table, the six of us staring at it. The smell was rather obnoxious and put a whole damper on the meal. It was slimy, if a scent can slither and slink like and eel. Even writing about it makes my nose twitch. All but one (who had decided it was the most delicious thing he’d ever eaten, consuming half the flank before any of us could protest against the smell) had made an adamant claim that we weren’t going to try it.

I tried it in the end, because I like to eat everything, but even I had severe reservations to the fish. Professor kept reassuring us that it’s a staple of Russian cuisine and goes so much better with beer. I’m not a drinker by any stretch of the imagination; I’m downright completely sober, so I figured I’d cross herring off my list entirely. I was back to beets and potatoes.

Anthropomorphized Stomach smiled when Professor assured us that, if we didn’t like anything available, there was always McDonald’s, Starbucks and even KFC abundantly available in the Former Soviet Union.

This is why it took such coaxing from the host to try it. But, oh, was my first impression of this delectable fish mistaken. Meaty and tangy from the marinate and capers on the side, it was probably some of the best fish I’ve had east of the Mississippi River (though I live on the East Coast, my heart belongs to the West through and through). The bowl of herring was gone in about twenty minutes, leaving me and Anthropomorphic Stomach happy.

As I said at the start of this piece, that if this is the caliber of fish waiting for me in the Russian City by the Bay, then, give me a napkin to tie around my neck and a can of capers.

Bon appétit.

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