The People’s Caviar

On the threshold of a happy occasion, the publication of my very first novel, I devoted a sweltering summer day to a sweltering summer pursuit: canning. (Jarring, to be more precise.) I’d come into possession of two overgrown and enormous zucchinis that nobody else seemed to want, and that I decided to use for a Russian favourite called squash caviar. Yes, caviar. In a perfect example of Russian humour, the word used for fish eggs, ikra, came to denote this commoner’s delight made of the cheapest ingredients. White marrows (a type of squash) were the usual foundational ingredient of this dish; a more refined version used eggplant. During my childhood and youth, when actual fish roe was both elusive and impossibly expensive, this all-accessible vegetable caviar had taken its place in Soviet households and hearts. People lovingly poked fun of it at the time, and now it’s sought out, often in vain, by fellow Russian immigrants in the lands where we’ve settled. Using kitchen devices that didn’t exist in Soviet households, and ingredients that have come to replace the original ones, we’re making attempts to recreate the taste of our childhood.

    When I set out to write my novel, I was well aware of the rarified atmosphere of mystery and danger that surrounds all things Russian in the Western mind. Russian characters in bestsellers and movies tend to be gangsters, or spies, or gangsters turned spies, or unfortunate women turned kept women, or kept women turned spies, or exalted personages like the alleged princess Anastasia. Their sophistication and/or villainy are way larger than the kind of life most people live. The immigrants in my novel are “ordinary” Canadian Russians, people of middling means and sober aspirations. Their outlook reflects a sort of middle class of the spirit, somewhere between the downtrodden’s dejection without recourse and the insouciant arrogance of the powerful. The main character, Alexandra (Sasha), is a level-headed woman who has no use for melodrama or pathos. She likes “her potato nose for defying Mama’s aristocratic pretensions,” and can’t understand why so many modern-day Russians are nostalgic for a monarchy and entire way of life that had been rotten to the core. Even Mama, for all her prejudices and contempts, is capable of genuine simplicity. If it seems strange that so many intellectuals and aristocrats had supported the Great October Socialist Revolution, one has to remember that there was a tradition among Russian nobility of humbling themselves in the service of common people. Long before there was a rock band named The Decemberists, there was the Decembrist revolt of 1825, staged by Russian officers and noblemen who wanted to abolish serfdom and improve the lives of peasants. Several of the organizers were executed; the rest were exiled to Siberia where many settled for life even after their exile officially ended. The nobleman Sergei Volkonsky grew a long beard and wore peasant clothes as he worked the land of his Siberian farm together with his peasant associates. What he ate besides potatoes we don’t know; perhaps some early prototype of our beloved dish. 

    Now it’s time to prepare this plebeian gem of a snack. It’s usually eaten cold, as a spread or a dip, but can just as easily be warmed up and served hot. I’ve imagined a scene where Alexandra, who lives on the West coast in Vancouver, visits her parents in Thunder Bay at just that time in summer when squash are ready to harvest. At the end is the recipe I use. In reality there are as many actual recipes as there are housewives making the dish, and the same person will make it slightly differently every time.

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ALEXANDRA AND MAMA MAKE SQUASH CAVIAR

    “The jars and lids are sterilized, Sasha? You only gave them fifteen minutes, did you? That’s not enough. Put them back in.”

     “It is enough, Mama. With this method, it’s been proven to be enough. Any longer makes no difference.”

     “Oh, you and your science. As if our grandmothers didn’t know what they were doing. Please just do as I ask, for your stupid mother’s peace of mind. At home you can do what you want. And then enjoy your preserves with mold on top.”

    “Okay, Mama.” This is not a hill Alexandra cares to climb, never mind die on. She puts the jars and lids back in the water bath and restarts the process of exorcising the demons of food contamination. Mama, meanwhile, starts peeling the onions.

    “Wait, Mama! I have ski goggles somewhere in the attic.”

    “What on earth for?”

    “To protect our eyes from the onions, of course. And why do you use these plain old angry ones when you can use sweet ones? These burn your eyes like hell, and they turn out bitter  once you’ve cooked them.”

    “There’s more flavour in them,” Mama declares. “The sweet ones have no soul. And what is this wimpy nonsense of protecting your eyes? Don’t you know it’s good for your eyes to wash them out with tears?”

    “Then we should all just pour weak sulfuric acid in our eyes, Mama. Because that’s what you get when onion fumes hit your eyes.”

    “Again with the science.”

    “Please just do as I ask, for your stupid daughter’s peace of mind.”

    Mama lets out a tortured sigh and drops her arms: Look, good people, I’m not allowed to do anything in my own house…

    Alexandra returns with two pairs of ski goggles, gets a roll of duct tape, and tapes the vents shut. Mama looks on with protective pity, as one might look at a tiny kitten or puppy struggling to its feet.

    “Happy now?” she asks her daughter.

    “Perfectly.”

    They look at each other and burst out laughing. Decked in their post-apocalyptic protective eyewear, the women go at the angry onions. These get chopped into tiny cubes. The carrots get grated up, and together with the onions they are browned in boiling oil.

    “Ah, now the whole house will reek of fried onions for days!” scolds Mama, but fondly.  “Just like an apartment staircase back in Leningrad.”

    Alexandra remembers the scent well. It was different back in Russia, because the oil was unrefined sunflower oil with a strong smell and flavour of its own. Fried onions, the spice of workers’ and peasants’ lives, a pervasive odour forced onto the world and inhaled second-hand by the intelligentsia. Many of whom secretly liked it even then.

    “Open the windows, Sasha. Make a cross breeze. I thought you’d already done that before we started cooking.”

    The onions and carrots browned and put aside, it’s now the other vegetables’ turn. The oversized geriatric zucchinis are cut open, gutted of seeds and cottony connective tissue, sliced up, peeled, and cubed. The sweet peppers are chopped up. The garlic is grated.

    “Mama, why don’t you have a Cuisinart? It would be so much easier to throw everything in there.”

    “Easier, yes. But it would never taste the same. When the vegetables are made to give up their juice before being cooked, the flavour is lost. They fall apart when they’re ready, so there’s no need for a blender at the end. If I need to, I just crush them with a potato masher.”

    This actually makes sense to Alexandra.

    “What about the tomatoes? she asks. “Where are those?”

    “Sasha, when is the last time you bought a tomato that was fit to eat? They’re nothing but water in the shape of a tomato. Here, open this can of diced ones, and one little can of tomato paste. You want the ikra to be rich, not watery. And if you’re lucky enough to stumble across edible tomatoes, they’re too good to waste in cooking. You should eat them fresh, with red onion and pepper and salt.” Mama nods emphatically.

    Everything is added together and stewed for a few minutes before Alexandra ventures a taste.

   “Mama, it’s bitter. I told you those onions would do that.”

    “It’s too early, it needs to cook for a lot longer. And what do you think sugar is for, Miss Professor? But don’t add a lot at once. A tablespoon at a time, then taste it. Keep adding until you get it right. And for salt, always use plain salt. None of that fancy flavoured stuff, or that sacred Himalayan rock they use to make pretty lamps.”

    Alexandra laughs and hugs Mama.

   “What’s this about, silly?” Mama melts in happy surprise at her daughter’s outburst. “Go on, add the sugar and salt.”

    At the end, the ikra tastes good to Alexandra. Not great. There’s still that echo of bitterness from the onions, not completely drowned out by the sugar. Mama has become homesick for details like plain old angry onions with their commonplace bite. And she would’ve surely cried rivers of tears while chopping the damn things if Alexandra hadn’t stepped in. Russians insist on suffering the smaller things. That’s how you bribe Fate into sparing you from more serious disasters.

RECIPE 

♦ 3 squash, or zucchinis, of regular size. If using very large ones, you can work with slices the size of smaller vegetables.
♦ 1 or 2  28-oz cans of diced tomatoes
♦ 1  5.5-oz can of tomato paste
♦ 2 sweet peppers
♦ 2 large onions. Mama’s nostalgia notwithstanding, I do prefer sweet ones
♦ 3 carrots
♦ 5-7 tablespoons of vegetable oil
♦ 3 cloves of garlic
♦ 1-2 tablespoons of sugar
♦ salt, ground black pepper–all to taste
♦2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar–optional (if canning and not eating right away).

    Grate the carrots, and chop the onions into small cubes. Brown the two together in about 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil.

    If the squash or zucchini are young and tender, don’t remove the skin or seeds. On more mature specimens the skin can be as tough as a shell and would have to go, and the seeds should be gutted out. Remove the seeds and spongy partitions from the sweet peppers. Chop the squash or zucchini into small pieces, and grate the sweet peppers. Brown all this in the rest of the oil.

    Combine all ingredients in a large pot, add the canned tomatoes with their juice, and stew without a lid at low heat for an hour (the stew should be bubbling lazily, but not sputtering). If more liquid is needed to keep the mixture from burning, I prefer to add another can of tomatoes, or tomato juice, instead of water. If one can of diced tomatoes was enough in terms of liquid, I add a small can of tomato paste to the stew. Add salt, black pepper, and sugar as you go.

    15 minutes before you finish cooking, add grated or chopped garlic, and the vinegar if the caviar is being preserved in jars. To give the caviar a smooth texture, you can go at it with a hand-held blender; I just use a potato masher.

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