Russian women must be among the best cooks in the world, considering what they have to work with. Their borscht is wonderful. Their bread is more substantive and tastier than the pre-sliced, air-filled plastic-wrapped product found in American homes. These women can take a scrawny chicken, salted cabbage and a few five-month-old potatoes and carrots and make a soup that is healthier than the soup found in any can. My only complaint is that they use so much grease. Two days ago, after three months of eating like a Russian, my stomach finally rebelled.
The day of the rebellion started off peacefully enough: I had fried eggs and sausage for breakfast. (I eat fried eggs and sausage every morning.) Then I went to a banya, a public sauna. My friend Sergey, a 26-year-old unemployed helicopter mechanic, had invited me.
It was a dry sauna: The thermometer at the ceiling measured 132 degrees Celsius, (250 degrees Fahrenheit). “It’s for your health,” Sergey explained as we pushed open the heavy wooden door and stepped into hell.
The benches were stacked like bleachers. Two potbellied, naked men sat on the top bench. I sat on the bench closest to the floor. Then I spread sweat over my body, as if basting a turkey. After 10 minutes, Sergey announced it was time to leave. We took a shower, draped white sheets over our shoulders and sat in the cooling-off room. Then Sergey announced it was time to return to the sauna. We repeated this process five times over a two-hour period, staying in the sauna a bit longer each time.
During our final visit, we sat on the top bench. And in the Russian tradition, Sergey hit me repeatedly with leaf-covered oak branches. The branches drive heat into the body, he said. By this time Sergey began to resemble Satan himself.
By the time we left the banya, my legs were wobbly. I wanted to sleep, but Sergey said we had to drink hot tea and eat fried potatoes at his apartment. After the tea and potatoes, he placed a jar of salted cabbage on the table. He poured sunflower seed oil over the cabbage. Then he poured the oil on a spoon and began shoveling it into his mouth.
“Eat some oil,” he said. “It has vitamins.”
“Please,” I said. “I want water. Just give me a glass of cold water.”
The water in Khabarovsk has to be boiled before drinking, and Sergey had no boiled water available. He never does. Like most Russians, he doesn’t drink much pure water, just tea, vodka and Chinese wine. Even in villages where the water is delicious, people eat huge meals without drinking anything. A professor at the teachers’ college once explained to me, “We were always told that too much water makes your heart work too hard.” Another woman told me that cold water combined with hot food is bad for one’s teeth.
I escaped from Sergey’s apartment without drinking oil. I went home, and after taking a nap, I prepared dinner: spaghetti and chicken. This wasn’t a skinny chicken from the state store. This was a plump, juicy chicken from the private bazaar downtown. The state stores sell bread, eggs, milk, sugar, low-quality meat and sometimes butter. But if you’re a rich Russian or a foreigner, you go to the bazaar, where dark-skinned Central Asians and Gypsies sell apples, dried apricots, oranges, and even bananas for 1,500 rubles per kilogram (about four days’ pay for a Russian school teacher); Russian women hawk onions, garlic, pastries, Italian spaghetti; and Koreans sell the only green vegetable available in Khabarovsk this winter — a wet, stringy fern. I can’t afford to buy too much food at the bazaar. I usually just get the dried apricots and stringy fern. The chicken was a treat. But the last time I had brought home bazaar chicken and spaghetti, Tina, the wife in the Russian family I live with, fried the chicken and flavored the spaghetti with chicken fat.
I was determined to make this second chicken into a healthy American-style meal. I had planned to bake it, but Tina, unfortunately, tossed it on the frying pan while I was in the bathroom. Not all was lost; she had yet to touch the spaghetti.
“I will cook the spaghetti separately,” I said. She argued with me and then allowed me to boil the spaghetti in its own pot. Then, after the spaghetti was done, she tossed it into the frying pan.
I took the spaghetti out of the frying pan. I put the spaghetti on a plate. I sat down, and while I began to eat it, she picked up the frying pan and poured the chicken fat over my spaghetti. Then she and her husband sat down to eat their own meal: pickled cucumber and cold, salted pig fat.
I spent that night tossing in bed with a fever. I kept thinking of Sergey gulping down that oil. Each time that particular image came to mind, I ran to the bathroom to lean over the toilet. And I had diarrhea — a reoccurring problem ever since I’d arrived in Russia. In my half-conscious imagination, my body was a giant grease ball.
Everyone in the household knew I was sick. The next morning, Tina came into my room to check on me.
“Water,” I pleaded. “Cold water.”
“No, cold water is bad for you,” she said. She gave me a bowl of dumplings covered in butter.
I didn’t touch the dumplings. I didn’t eat anything all day, until late last night when I reached for my supply of granola bars my mother had sent me for Christmas. There was one only left.