SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
And this weekend, while many Americans gather with friends to watch the Winter Olympics, Russians will do the same. Americans might favor beer and chips; in Sochi it might likely be zakuski and vodka. Reporter Deena Prichep explains the history and culture of Russia's traditional snacks.
DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Zakuski are often described as Russia's answer to tapas - a little bite to have with your drink. They can be as simple as salted herring or as rich as blini and caviar. Slava and Luba Frumkin grew up in Belarus, where having an assortment of zakuski on hand was a practical matter.
SLAVA FRUMKIN: Nobody have phones. So, people would come to you unexpectedly.
LUBA FRUMKIN: Suddenly open the door, and our cousins came. Come on to the table. It's not a problem. We always have something to everybody.
PRICHEP: Having a little zakuski is a perfect way to welcome your guest in from the cold. And it's a perfect match for that first warming shot of vodka.
ANYA VON BREMZEN: A Russian rule is that you never drink alone, and you never drink without eating.
PRICHEP: Anya von Bremzen is the author of" Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking." And she says that the dishes that make up the zakuski table, in a sense, tell the story of Russia.
BREMZEN: First of all, there's pickles. Pickles is something very archaic, very Russian. You know, this is what sustained you through the winter.
PRICHEP: The Soviet era brought new zakuski - some of them delicious.
BREMZEN: You would have Georgian, Armenian flavors. Chicken tsatsivi, chicken in walnut sauce. We had also beans with lots of spices.
PRICHEP: And some of them not so delicious.
BREMZEN: A lot of stuff with mayonnaise. It's an industrial product that the Soviet state was really pushing. And, you know, you'd have like two, three different salads under a thick blanket of mayonnaise.
PRICHEP: And von Bremzen says deciding which zakuski to serve shows who you are as a host, especially during Soviet times.
BREMZEN: We had no housing to speak of, we had no cars to speak of, we all wore the same clothes. So, the way you could actually show status, power, hospitality, you know, a whole host of emotions was through food. Through making this lavish zakuski table.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)
BONNIE MORALES: Every single time, it's like we're not going to fit all this on here.
PRICHEP: That's Bonnie Morales, the daughter of Slava and Luba Frumkin. And she's got the Tetris-like task of trying to make everything fit on their zakuski table.
MORALES: It's kind of embarrassing if there's tablecloth visible.
PRICHEP: There are pickled apples, Georgian eggplant rolls, and about a dozen other little dishes. But while the zakuski are delicious, they're almost just an excuse to fill your glass. Which, for Russians like Slava Frumkin, is an excuse for toasting, toasting family.
FRUMKIN: My sister Asya is visiting here, and this is the closest soul in the whole universe. So, I'm drinking to this.
PRICHEP: For toasting the act of toasting - Slava's son-in-law Israel.
ISRAEL MORALES: One of my favorite sayings is that the space between the first and the second shot should be very small. So, here's to making the space small.
PRICHEP: And toasting Kachka, the zakuski restaurant Israel and Bonnie are getting ready to open here in Portland, Oregon, which Slava Frumkin hopes will bring their family zakuski tradition to a whole new table.
FRUMKIN: It's the whole family history. It's my mama. I'm getting too sentimental to continue. So, let's drink to your Kachka. Good luck.
PRICHEP: And by the time the hot zakuski come out, so does the accordion.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing in foreign language)
PRICHEP: For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.
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