Kazakhstan to a Nittany Lion

My thoughts and perspective on Kazakhstani culture. (These are my thoughts and opinions alone and do not reflect the policies or opinions of the Peace Corps or the United States Government)

Monday, September 24, 2007

A Russian Birthday

On the 14 of September we celebrated Babushka’s birthday here in Shu. Maria Vacilevna turned 70 and we had a dozen or so family members and friends over to celebrate the jubilee. It is tradition for friends and family to come and visit the person who’s birthday it is, so the table must be prepared with food and tea for all of the guests.
While Babushka worked in the summer kitchen outside preparing the entrees, her daughter Olga and I were busy chopping pickles, cucumbers, and sausage and boiled carrots, potatoes, and eggs to make salads. One salad we made is called Olivier, a very popular salad in the former Soviet Union. It has all of the ingredients that Olga and I chopped, plus a healthy serving of mayonnaise to bind everything together. Another salad we made has pickles, cucumbers, corn, peas, and cornflakes all segregated into colorful sections on the serving plate with a space reserved in the center for a dollop of mayonnaise. Once the meal has begun one of the guests is given the task of mixing all of the ingredients together before serving the salad.
Shortly after I had brought our salads upstairs to the two long tables in the living room the guests began to arrive. They were mostly family, but also a neighbor from across the street who is a close friend of Babushka’s. Though four of her six other sisters and her one brother still live here in Shu, I had only met a couple of them before. Her other daughter Natatsha and her three children all around my age also came, bringing with them a new oven as a gift for their grandmother. We all stood around outside underneath the grape arbor for a few minutes while Babushka finished the entrees then headed inside to the living room filled with late afternoon sun and took our seats.
With everyone in their places, Babushka and her daughters brought in two or three large pots off the stove outside. The first course was lapsha, a light soup with long egg noodles and some potatoes, onions, and carrots. Everyone was given a full bowl. The second course of farsheroveny piretts was placed on the table in a couple of large bowls. Farsheroveny piretts are bell peppers stuffed with a mixture of ground beef or lamb and rice, then boiled. They are quite fun to cut with your fork, the soft skin easily parting to create precise cross-sections of the stuffed peppers. Cold, baked chicken was also placed at intervals along the tables.
Now that everyone had their food we were only missing one part of the meal; drinks. I was only shortly into my lapsha when the call was given for the first toast. Since I am a guy and I was seated in a chair with easy exit access, I was nominated to be in charge of pouring drinks. A sommelier might have to recommend what to drink but at least gets to easily pour wine into tall, wide-mouthed wine glasses. I however had to pour vodka and cognac into shot glasses one-handed while leaning over peoples’ shoulders, remembering all the while who was drinking what, and without the benefit of those “built-in pourers” advertised on bottles of cheap vodka back in the States. By the time I made it back to my seat I had just enough time to raise my glass and catch the last few wishes of the toast, “…on this jubilee, I wish you health, many successes, and most of all happiness.” Then everyone rose, clinked glasses with everyone within reach, and threw back their drink.
As people slowed with their eating, Anton, one of Babushka’s grandsons, fired up the DVD player with some video karaoke of older Russian songs. I don’t think the video was needed because everyone already knew the words, but it was helpful for me so I didn’t just have to hum the melody. Singing these songs reminded Babushka’s 80 year old neighbor of some other songs, so the karaoke was paused and everyone tuned in to Valentina Pavlovna and the songs she remembered from working in a restaurant here in Shu, including one about the city of Shu and its trains and train station.
Following more karaoke and shots, and eventually some dancing in the open half of the living room, plates were cleared to make way for the cake. The rectangular cake composed of seven or eight thin layers with brown frosting was placed on the table without any fanfare and then I cut everyone slices. People in Kazakhstan do not do much baking on their own, so whereas everything prior in the meal was prepared from scratch, the cake was bought. Along with everything else at the meal, it was delicious. Cups of chai washed down the cake and fresh grapes cleansed the guests’ palates finishing the meal and the celebrations.
Like how I imagined Babushka to be feeling when I saw her smiling out from the head of the table at her family and friends at many points during the meal, I felt extremely thankful be part of such a joyous celebration with family and friends. I thought this celebration was only fitting for such a generous, industrious, and thoughtful woman like Babushka.


Anonymous Nariman said...

Dear Anson! with your great help I want to congratulate your hostgrandmother Maria Vacilevna with her great event as jubilee! I wish her all of the best, best health, success and rich happiness!Regards Nariman.
P.S.: Thank you for your articles at this blog that introduces us native Kazakhstan's citizens with our own lifestyle from foreign viewpoint!

6:11 AM  

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