If anyone ever invites you over to a Russian dinner, birthday, or New Year’s celebration—go. Without question, go. Actually if a Russian family ever invites you over, go.
Russian hospitality has been one of the main things that has helped me stave off homesickness. The outpouring of warmth and hospitality you will receive will make even the most lonesome foreigner feel welcome.
You’ll arrive and be greeted at the door with a hug or a hearty handshake (but never over the doorstep itself; that is supposed to bring you very bad luck). Inside, you can probably smell meat or potatoes cooking, and then walking in the first thing you’ll notice is the big table.
I feel like a Russian celebration dinner looks like Thanksgiving. There’s every kind of salad you can imagine—carrot with croutons, vinaigrette, Olivier, Vitamin, selyodka pod shuboy (Herring under the Coat), and every other type you can think of. Then there’s usually several plates of different meats. Shashlik is very popular (a sausage kebab with paprika and raw onion). Pickled herring with onion is also popular or a chicken cutlet. And of course there’s the obligatory plate of brown bread. On New Year’s there’ll be a whole pot of pelmeni or vareniki (dumplings). Dessert can include blini (pancakes), pirogi (Russian pie), or tort (cake).
And drinks? You can expect wine (a hearty red Georgian wine seems to be a popular favorite), vodka (of course), or maybe champagne (depending on the holiday). And on the non alcoholic variety, usually lots and lots of tea and homemade sok (juice) or compote. Plain water is hard to find usually (mainly because its largely undrinkable especially where I’m based in St Petersburg).
In my opinion, I think Russian food can be categorized by its heartiness. This is food that will get you through the winter or last you through the hunger. And expect your plate to be heaped up. It will seem as though your plate is never allowed to be empty and every last corner will be filled with food. Here I’m convinced that “I’m full, thank you” is actually code for “three more helpings.” And here, the number one rule is that you really do have to finish the plate, as it’s viewed as extremely rude if you don’t.
As one of my good friends says, if your belly hurts and you think you can go no more, keep eating—just slower.
Which brings me to my next thought which is a big Russian dinner can last forever (think in the 4 hour or sometimes longer range), and will be full of toasts. Toasts can be long (in the never-ending sense) or very short (like mine which are usually like some variety of for friendship). Afterwards, everyone clicks glasses with everyone on the table and downs their drink. You have to be careful sometimes at this stage and pace yourself here so you can handle all the toasting.
Another thing that was pointed out to me by the head teacher at the ESL class where I help out, is that the Russian people still sit behind the table for dinner. This teacher had noticed that in America, it seems like everyone was snacking on hors d’oeuvres and standing during most of the large dinner parties she’d been to. And I actually realize how much I really like to have everyone sitting at the table. I think it’s very conducive to a community atmosphere instead of having random small groups or pairs of conversations with occasional loners sitting in the corner with their plates.
Everyone talks to everyone. Everyone makes everyone feel welcome and wanted and interesting and important.
I think as a study abroad student this has been so wonderful to have been felt welcomed into family dinners and celebrations as if I, too, am a family member. For one, all the listening and conversing is wonderful for my language skills and for another it’s nice to not feel isolated and alone but rather welcomed, appreciated, and wanted.