A Russian barbecue is not your average cookout. It is a microcosm of Russia as a concept, where food, nature, and ages-old traditions come together. Plus, it’s just obscene amounts of fun.
And if you think that vodka might be to credit – or to blame – for this all this fun, well, you would be at least partially correct.
If right now you are eager to dismiss vodka drinking as a boring Russian cliché, which just happens all the time #BecauseRussia, I won’t blame you – thought I will blame Hollywood. In reality, proper vodka drinking is a rite and a ritual with all the appropriate accoutrements – none of which includes yelling “Na zdorovye!”
First of all, it doesn’t matter what is your usual drink of choice – beer, wine, whiskey, juice, soda – you toast with vodka. Second, the toast itself is paramount. Some Russians will compose an epic poem by the way of a toast. Others will keep it to two words: “To ___.” But what you need to remember is that you cannot drink vodka without a toast, and you cannot NOT drink vodka after one had been pronounced.
Sample toasts include (and here I will stick to the short ones – my personal preference): to Motherland, Friendship, Nature, Family, Peace, Justice, Women, Motherland, Mother Russia, Russia, Victory, Peace, Friendship, Beauty, Motherland.
General Mikhalych: Well… To our meeting!
Other guy: What I like about you, Mikhalych, is that your toasts are succinct but meaningful.
General Mikhalych: A toast, when you’re out at a hunt, has to be short – like a command, or a gunshot. Otherwise you will have no time left for leisure.
Third essential component of a good vodka drinking experience is the zakuska. While typically translated as appetizers or hors d’oeuvres, the world actually means “something to bite after” – the “after” being, after you have a drink of vodka. At a normal Russian dinner zakuski can include everything from mayo-heavy salads to cold cuts to black bread to fresh and pickled vegetables to smoked fish and caviar. At a Russian barbecue it can be anything.
Which brings me to my most recent Russian barbecue. Incidentally, it was thrown by my Czech friend Eva, celebrating her birthday, and her American boyfriend, both of whom have clearly absorbed all the essentials of the Russian experience in their time here.
First of all, that amazing day started with a champagne and raspberry smoothie breakfast #BecauseWeekend. Then I somehow made my way to Eva’s Russian birthday barbecue in Reutov – a Moscow suburb that wasn’t on my radar of places that existed before then (thank God for that champagne breakfast or I never would have made it there). Then vodka started happening, while we were grilling the shashlik and making flatbread on open fire (the dough wasn’t particularly cooperative until I adopted a grilling technique I picked up from a blog about – I kid you not – Kate Middleton the Duchess of Cambridge – and wrapped the dough around the skewers). YUMMMMM.
Meanwhile – this being a public park and one of the first warm weekends of the year – some people decided it would be a swell idea to jump into the radioactive pond for a swim, cigarettes still lit (can you feel the vodka?). One dude nearly had a heart attack and a rescue mission was mounted. By that time the ladies in our party desperately needed, well… a ladies’ room, but with this nice weather and all, every tree and bush had been occupied by a barbecuing group. Thankfully we discovered a restaurant nearby, and in the lobby of that restaurant there was….
A tank. Made of a PINEAPPLE. Wrapped in tinfoil. SITTING ATOP A HOOKAH!!!
At that moment, the Pineapple Tank was literally THE BEST THING EVER.
It was the month of May and my Victory Day spirits were running high (some other spirits were having an effect as well). I decided that this obviously Soviet tank had to be liberated from the enemy clutches. I grabbed it and ran for dear life back to our barbecue site. During our daring escape we suffered casualties – namely, the tank lost its tinfoil cannon, and I had to replace it with a tree branch because of course I did. It’s not a tank without a cannon!
Oh, and then my expat friend was nearly seduced by a Russian gang leader, we all toasted to Eva and to Friendship countless times, and of course a fight broke out with our barbecue neighbors over American-Russian-something-vodka, but everyone hugged it out (I think?) in the end and made it home safe and happy.
The moral of this story is: if you are every in Russia, figure out a way to go to a Russian barbecue. Make friends and get invited to one. Make acquaintances and invite yourself. Throw one yourself and invite perfect strangers, if you have to. I promise, it will be worth it.