Thursday, 5 August 2010

My Soviet Kitchen by Amy Spurling

“Let’s start from the fact... that beer isn’t alcohol.” An observation that suggests it is in fact a palette cleanser between shots of vodka. But then again, we are in the land of Homo sovieticus, the collection of countries that formerly made up the USSR.

Ivy Stone is a shy Ph.D. student, ostensibly in Russia for a few weeks to research The Colorado Potato Beetle Phenomenon and Reduction Consequences for the Ovcharskii Oblast post-Soviet Collectivization. That’s the plan at least, but pretty soon she runs into old friends and wakes up with a crashing hangover and proposal of marriage to someone she can’t remember. Still, this is the place for it:

But I’m now in the country of maximalism and white spirit suitable for human consumption (‘drinkable’ is written on the label with a sort of black and white Kwik-Save ‘No Frills’ stamp). It’s so strong, practically 100 percent, that you have to dilute it with water... Once drunk, this liquid refreshes parts of your personality that other spirits cannot reach.

Of course, the sensible thing to do when faced with a mystery fiancé is to get involved with someone else, so neglecting her studies, Ivy starts a whirlwind romance with K.K., physicist and shady businessman, who takes her off to Tashkent and Tallinn where she encounters the local firewater:

I took a sip from my shot glass of Vana Original and my mouth immediately felt fiery. The next sip burned and soothed the back of my throat in equal measure... A wonderful warming sensation was emanating from my cheeks to my neck glands. After a few glasses of this stuff I wouldn’t mind betting you’re ready to start a really good family row.

The problem with whirlwind romances though is that they have a habit of going awry and Ivy finds herself alone with a bottle of vodka in her Moscow flat on New Year’s Eve when she’d expected to spend it with a now incommunicado K.K. These are the moments that you need your friends and an impromptu party is convened on the first day of the New Year. It’s quite a hooley. Eighteen seems-like-eighty guests turn up with drink, snacks and a starting pistol:

It appears that during a drunken argument or bet – something drunken anyway – Sportsman fired his pistol... “Give me that,” I say. It is the vodka that grabs a shiny weapon off a pumped-up male. To keep it out of sight I temporarily put it in the fridge.

There’s an acknowledged debt to Bridget Jones, but Fielding’s book doesn’t come with a companion guide of recipes and anecdotes. And neither does she produce little gems like the following:

“In a survey which asked, ‘How much can you drink?’ 40 percent of the nation said, ‘Can’t remember, the evening began early’; 40 percent said, ‘Don’t know, the evening finished late’; 15 percent said, ‘Can’t say, we’re still drinking’. And the rest didn’t understand the question.”

All you ever needed to know, really...

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