Eclectic Foods: reviewing T-Bone Whacks and Caviar Snacks by Sharon Hudgins6 min read
When T-Bone Whacks and Caviar Snacks: Cooking with Two Texans in Siberia and the Russia Far East was first published, it called out to me. Was this the diary of my life? While living in Siberia, I clung to my Austin cult-favorite breakfast taco like it was the last bastion of home. I introduced my university students to Mexican hot chocolate and horchata. I attended a barbeque with both Americans and Nigerian exchange students in Kyzyl, eating carnitas and al pastor folded between Tuvan flatbreads.
While reading this book, I felt like my weirdo corner of the Texas-Russian universe had expanded. The narratives throughout the book take place before the fall of the Soviet Union, though I still found that it really eloquently (and academically) describes much of the culinary phenomena I had observed firsthand.
The story behind the eccentric title
This textbook-sized volume is a collection of anecdotes and colorful characters about food in Siberia and the Russian Far East, written by Sharon Hudgins, a former Russian professor at the University of Maryland and National Geographic Expert on Trans-Siberian Railroad tours. Her husband Tom is in many of the stories that line the pages, hence the title of Two Texans. Both Hudgins and her husband first lived in Russia in the early ’90s and saw firsthand the rocky transition to a new market economy. These rapid changes were manifested in power outages, lines at the grocery store, rising consumer prices, and varied availability of ingredients.
Hudgins describes meat markets in Soviet Russia, filled with nostalgia for the elemental, rather than sanitized displays of plastic-packaged meat in American grocery stores. “Behind the meat counters or beside the cars sat massive chopping blocks made from tree trunks, where butchers chopped the carcasses into pieces with an axe. The result was not so much of a ‘cut’ of meat as a ‘whack’. Our favorite ‘whacks’ were T-bone ‘roasts,’ at least 2 inches thick (with an axe, thinner steaks were out of the question). These prime whacks of beef cost only about a dollar a pound in the autumn of 1993, and when roasted properly they always turned out to be more tender and flavorful than their method of slaughter and sale would ever suggest.”
Appetizers and more
The first chapter focuses on zakuski, or appetizers. Hudgins writes that the highlight of every Russian feast is the abundant array of appetizers. They’re supposed to set the stage for the soup, main course, and dessert – but they often end up stealing the show. Both Rurik, a Scandinavian Viking in Novgorod, and Tsar Peter the Great are credited as introducing zakuski to Russia. Buterbrody (open-faced sandwiches), vinegret (beet, potato, and sauerkraut salad), and assorted salads and pies are part of the typical Russian fare introduced in the book.
But not all the recipes within T-Bone Whacks and Caviar Snacks are Russian. Hudgins has a recipe for Macedonian Salmon-Trout Soup, something she ate at Lake Ohrid and was able to recreate in Russia, garnished with chili powder that she had brought from Texas. A recipe for Gingerbread Squares from the remote part of the Scottish Highlands is also in the book, an easily transportable recipe as it was inexpensive, and required no butter, milk, or eggs, which were all scarce ingredients in the late ’90s. Balkan Pork-and-Pepper Stew was discovered during her travels in Yugoslavia in the 1970s, and she recalls that it made a great dish to create on cold winter evenings in Siberia. Even a recipe for Aunt Beulah’s Cinnamon Rolls can be found in the book. Aunt Beulah was the author’s aunt in Oklahoma and it ended up being a treat she made many times for parties. As promised, there are tons of Tex-Mex and Mexican recipes as well. Truthfully, the cookbook was a mere collection of the author’s uncategorized recipes. Scattered between the Russian recipes are meals she made during her tenure abroad.
Interesting tidbits gleaned from years of experience
What I enjoyed most about this book is the abundance of lesser-known culinary facts that Hudgins learned after hours of conversations and experience cooking in Russia. She writes that root vegetables and their green leaves were often sold separately in Russian markets, where vendors could make money off both parts of the plants.
Hudgins also wrote that “Russians used goose feathers (still sold in urban stores in the early ’90s) for brushing melted butter or egg washes onto pastries. Some cooks had a wooden whisk honed from a small tree branch with smaller, short branches sticking out from it on one end.” There are countless other well-researched facts about the way ingredients were sold and cooking methods from Siberia that reading those anecdotes alone are enjoyable enough for any Slavophile foodie or budding food historian. As a cook, I eagerly tried a few of the dishes Hudgins mentions.
Mushroom recipes to try
Hudgins’s short aside about mushroom dust was worth a shot. Mushroom powder can be made by pulverizing dried mushrooms in a blender. Using this dust gives an umami flavor to sauces, soups, stews, and casseroles. The first time I tried this, I used dried cordyceps and lion’s mane and embellished french fries with it. It’s hard to create a sizable amount of mushroom powder, and despite the few ounces I gathered for this experiment, it only yielded a few teaspoons. Just a small vial of truffle powder at high-end organic stores go for about $30, so this probably won’t be something I’ll recreate again unless I find a reliable source of foraged mushrooms.
Another mushroom dish I tried was mushroom risotto. While risotto is an Italian dish, Hudgins writes that the abundance of mushrooms present at the markets where she lived in Irkutsk made it a popular dish to recreate in her own home, especially when entertaining guests. Most of the recipe is butter and oil, mixed with rice, onion, garlic, and wine. Following that recipe was simple, and her suggestion of stirring constantly was sound advice.
Instead of being recipe-centric, this book instead focuses more on Hudgins’ experiences abroad. Unlike Beyond the North Wind by Darra Goldstein, the narratives are not topically arranged. They follow a loose chronological order, with the middle of the book about holiday and New Year’s food, concluding with Easter and other summertime favorites. The recipes also do not always relate directly to her opening story.
Despite the organizational liberty, I loved the stream-of-consciousness approach and found the lack of food photographs reminiscent of a low-budget passion project. There are color photographs only in the middle of the volume and they feature cooks and food vendors Hudgins met along the way. However, the large print and mono-color accents that dominate the book all said one thing: the recipes in this book are accessible and meant to be tasted by many.
Book details: Hudgins, Sharon, and Hudgins, Tom. T-Bone Whacks and Caviar Snacks: Cooking with Two Texans in Siberia and the Russian Far East, 2018. University of North Texas Press. It is available to buy here.