What a Country!

Where can a good comrade go to find caviar in a one-pound tub?

"People come here to buy Russian salami and cheese," Kouljinski tells me "because the quality is so much better, and it's so much cheaper than at Cub Foods"—"Cub" comes out as "Cahb"—"and you see on TV how American cows live? They live in little boxes all their lives and never see the sun and never taste grass."

I'm also here for great deals on dried and brined wild mushrooms, and for jam and juice flavors that Americans would love if we just gave them a chance (like elderberry and black currant) and others that I know really wouldn't make it in Cub and Rainbow (like birch juice and green walnut preserves).

If I were Russian, however, I'd be filling my basket with other things: jars of pickled vegetables—everything from tomatoes and peppers to eggplant and squash—and dairy products that are just different enough from their American equivalents to taste like home to a homesick Russian. I'd probably also grab some kvass, a soft drink made from fermented rye bread. It's sweet and lightly sour and only mildly carbonated. To me it tastes and smells like a hot, smog-filled city and melting asphalt, because in Russia it is sold from mini tanker trucks parked on urban corners in the warm months, and that is my only association with it. But I know that for most Russians it is the flavor of summer refreshment itself.

The food may be delicious, but don't accept change in rubles
Bill Kelley
The food may be delicious, but don't accept change in rubles

I did pick up one very Russian thing: a small plastic jar of spiced dried fish, meant to be a good drinking snack. I couldn't resist the illustration on the front, which looked just like a happy sea monkey. I left it on the kitchen counter at home and my husband absentmindedly moved it over by the cat food.

At European Foods, a more modest store down the street by the Humane Society, the fare is largely the same. A tow-headed family is picking out candies with fairy-tale wrappers. It looks like the fun end to a long Saturday morning of shopping.

Sveta Kirkova, the young Ukrainian woman behind the counter, says the store gets a lot of Polish customers, along with plenty of people who aren't from Eastern Europe at all, but are looking for alternatives to heavily processed foods.

"What I like [about Ukrainian food] is that it's so natural," she says. "So much food here is not. And [American food] has so much fat," she says. She admits to liking American candy, though, and appreciates that "you can cook food so fast here."

The crowd is heavier at Minsk Market in nearby Eagan. A line snakes through the low-ceilinged store. A middle-aged couple are discussing whether a one-pound tub of red caviar is worth buying. They're not talking about the outsized wonder that is a one-pound plastic tub of caviar, or whether $30 is too much or too little for such an oddity—just whether the quality will be sufficient for their guests. Their basket is full of sliced cheeses and sausages wrapped in butcher paper, ready to be made into the open-faced finger sandwiches that are the centerpiece of a typical party spread.

When they get to the register (they do buy the caviar), the man hands a rented DVD on the life of the poet Sergei Yesenin to the shopkeeper. She asks when he borrowed it "more or less," then licks her thumb and pages through a loose-leaf binder. Finding the right entry, she crosses his name out with a ball-point pen.

A hearty man with a tanned face and denim shirt tucked in over his stately gut greets most of the others standing in line by name and introduces them to each other. Everybody advises the young couple searching for an appropriate box of chocolates for a hostess gift to look for the heaviest one (for a better ratio of chocolate to packaging, of course).

The pastry case at Minsk Market is packed with the elaborate cakes that are equivalent with social celebrations in Russia, all of them precise configurations of very thin layers: sponge cakes, puff pastry, waffles, cream, and icing. A young, dark-haired woman stands behind the combined pastry and deli counter, wearing a ruffled turquoise apron that wouldn't look out of place in 1980s Moscow. She chats with customers about their favorite salamis and where to find Russian-speaking child care as she slices meats and cheeses.

And, just as I am starting to feel out of place among all this old-country camaraderie, she inquires after my heavily accented Russian and says warmly, "Prikhodite!"—"Come again!"

And I will, next time I'm homesick for Mother Russia.

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