The smell of childhood: cabbage simmering on the stove. An idiot-proof dish, impossible to over- or under-cook. In a Slavic neighborhood, with a Polish father and an Irish mother, our house smelled like all the neighbors’. I know, it’s just the dimethyl sulfide, but that’s small comfort. On Saturday I took my middle son to the tailor’s to have his new suit pants hemmed. The Israeli-born tailor is a wizard with needle and thread, but his shop smelled powerfully of boiled cabbage. There’s a strict olfactory etiquette. To recoil from certain smells in certain settings is a grave insult, as is producing such smells one’s self. The tailor rescued me: “I must apologize for the smell: cabbage. It is nearly lunch.” My son winced and hurried through his fitting, and I remembered Aldo Buzzi’s essay “Chekhov in Sondrio” (Journey to the Land of the Flies and Other Travels, trans. Ann Goldstein, 1997):
“The word one encounters most often in the classics of Russian literature is `cabbage,’ followed by `cucumber.’ `Cabbage-eater’ is what the Russian is called in America, as the Frenchman is called `frog,’ short for `frog-eater’ [And let’s not forget the Krauts], frogs being something that Anglo-Saxons refuse to eat.”
Think of Tchalikov in Chekhov’s long story from 1894, “A Woman’s Kingdom”: “With a moan he ran to her, grunting inarticulately as though he were paralyzed—there was cabbage on his beard and he smelt of vodka—pressed his forehead to her muff, and seemed as though he were in a swoon.” And this, from “Sleepy” (1888): “It is stuffy. There is a smell of cabbage soup, and of the inside of a boot-shop.” Buzzi explains:
“For Russians, cabbage is the principal food. It is served at almost every meal, as a first course, second course, vegetable, salad, perhaps dessert: cabbage soup (shchi), borscht, cabbage-filled rolls (pirozhki), cabbage pie à la mode Muscovite (pirog), sauerkrauts with mushrooms, red cabbage, sauerkraut tart, etc. The smell of cabbage soup impregnates public offices. Cabbage in Russia is eternal. The muzhik says, `The worm eats the cabbage and dies before the cabbage.’”
One of my favorite meals in all of literature occurs in Chap. 5 of Gogol’s Dead Souls (trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 1996). The menu takes up nearly a full page. Here are the appetizers: “Whereupon, going up to the table where the hors d’oeuvres were, guest and host fittingly drank a glass of vodka each, and snacked as the whole of Russia snacks in town and villages—that is, on various pickled things and other savory blessings . . .” And on to the next course:
“`The cabbage soup is very good today, my sweet!’ said Sobakevich, having slurped up some soup and heaped on his plate an enormous piece of nyanya, a well-known dish served with cabbage soup, consisting of a sheep’s stomach stuffed with buckwheat groats, brains, and trotters. `Such nyanya you’ll never get in town,’ he went on, addressing Chichikov, `they’ll serve you the devil knows what there!’”
I’ll have the large bowl of shchi, please, and hold the nyanya.