In a cryptic response to the previous post recounting my quest for the Biophar lavender honey, someone left the address of the Three Sisters Delicatessen on my facebook wall. So last weekend, my cabinets worrisomely low on honey and the weather perfectly warm and sunny, I decided to make a trip to Little Russia on Devon Ave. Mind you, the perfectly warm and sunny weather did not lure me out of the house as much as it motivated me to find extreme distraction. I don’t even like perfectly warm and sunny weather in June, but in November it is positively unbearable. Between the pressure to “get out and take advantage of it” and the thought of starving, drowning polar bears with no icecaps on which to rest … no I really cannot stand a perfectly warm and sunny November day. Thus I set out to take my mind off the fact.
Naturally, they didn’t carry the honey, but that’s really neither here nor there…
It’s not really called “Little Russia.” I just made that up. It’s called West Rogers Park, and more specifically, Devon Avenue, which I wrote about here. That was a long time ago, spurred on by the by the Israel/Lebanon war. But it could just as easily have been about the August ’08 war. For whatever reason, along this stretch of asphalt on Chicago’s far north side, Jews and Arabs, Indians and Pakistanis, Russians and Georgians are all living side by side, with no nukes or tanks to be found. Left to their own devices they all seem to get along as well as anyone, actually. Intellectually we all know this is possible. But the teevees and interwebs try their damnedest to assure us that these civilizations are just incompatible, because at their roots those terrifying Islamic or Russian or vagelymiddleeasternlookingdarkskinnedpeople are products of cultures based on ethnic or religious chauvinism. They hate our way of life and everything we stand for. Well, I’m here to tell you the fine people of Devon Avenue are living proof that talk radio hosts and the French are wrong.
Three Sisters Delicatessen.
The magical deliciousness that is шоколадные картофель:
photo c/o Chicago Reader.
You may be wondering why I have never been to this Russian establishment located just minutes from my apartment. So am I. I’ve settled upon a few explanations. First, in Chicago-ese “Devon” is synonymous for “Indian food that will assure such digestive agony you’ll be begging someone to gut you like a catfish before the night is through.” So I normally decline offers to go to Devon. Secondly, while it’s actually possible that 3 sisters do run the joint, I hate the name. Not because it is cliche, but because I hate the play. Well, “hate” is a strong word. I don’t like it. I’m really not a huge fan of Chekhov. Thirdly, I think I never thought to go to the Russian deli because I never thought about what they might have. When I lived in Russia, there weren’t very many such establishments, and those I came upon were usually -oh, really, it’s too stereotypical- rather empty. If you wanted to buy stuff, you could get almost anything on the street, though it was mostly from the West. The Russian “stores” were basically the same, but under a roof, warehouse-like. Most food was something you made at home from whatever you brought back from the dacha or could obtain through various connections. Or maybe my family were just purists or something…
What does a Russian deli carry? In this case the entire Russian diet crammed into a space about half the size of the old Meyer’s. Tea, kvas, mineral water, jam, honey, bread, cookies, boxed chocolates, anything you could conceivably pickle and put into a jar, kasha, meat, fish, caviar, cheese, those crazy zillion-layer cream cakes, boiled potatoes, blini… the only Russian food groups missing were alcohol and cigarettes. The clientele was just as quintessential: a babyshka with a walker, munching toothlessly on salami and buying pickled mushrooms, an older fellow getting some fish, and separately, 3 young women, each of whom bought chocolates. Behind the meat counter were 3 -yes, 3- middle-aged or older women. Like the ladies behind the meat counter at Meyer, they were stout and clad those white lady-like old world deli uniforms. Unlike the ladies behind the meat counter at Meyer, their Russian counterparts were sporting garish turquoise eyeliner and crazy dye-jobs, and were incredibly friendly. I bought a loaf of locally baked black bread and some jam from Nizhny-Novgorod, and ordered “chocolate potatoes.” And that’s how I ordered them. “Chocolate potatoes.” The older woman behind the counter screwed up her face at me. I panicked. “Shokoladny kartofel. Dva. Pozhalsta. Spasiba,” I managed to eek out, bewildered since, though I read Russian on a regular basis, I only ever speak it, oh, well, pretty much never. The lady smiled with a twinkle in her eye, looked me up and down for a moment, and shouted to someone to get this devushka 2 chocolate potatoes, ASAP. They all began looking at me mischeivoulsy like they knew something I didn’t and weren’t going to tell me. Maybe they just found my terrible broken Russian charming, but I secretly wondered if they weren’t conspiring to take me home and turn me into tomorrow’s lunch special, Baba Yaga-like…
Chocolate potatoes? DIVINE. AT first I regretted that I’ve lived 30-something years without them. Though that may not be entirely true. My mother used to make Christmas cookies called “Russian tea cakes.” They looked like “Mexican wedding cakes” but had a very different texture and taste. They were very dense and moist with a nutty, liqueur-like flavor … just like these “chocolate potatoes.” The only difference is that the potatoes are dusted in chocolate rather than powdered sugar, and are about 5 times larger.
Argo Georgian Bakery.
Hello, my little hachypury. I am going to eat you!
My next stop was the Georgian bakery one block down. Argo Bakery made Three Sisters look like a bustling cornucopia in contrast to its spare interior. A few very small tables. A few awkwardly placed refrigerated display cases. A giant stone slab/oven thing in the middle of it all where the little khachapuri lived their short lives between creation and consumption. I ordered some of the patient khachapuri and a hazelnut churchkhela. Like the ladies at the Russian deli, the proprietor of the Georgian bakery was very friendly. Unlike them, he spoke English. The menus were in Russian, so it should not have felt presumptuous to speak to him Russian, but I’ve watched too much CNN and decided the most politically correct choice would be English. He reminded me of my Sicilian step-father, with a combination of relaxed gregariousness and theatrical humility. I asked it he knew where to buy wine, Georgian wine, and he told me he could only get it either by the barrel, or in 4-liter bottles. Because he was in the “restaurant business.” I looked around the room. Restaurant… I invented a story in my head about a man who opens a storefront hachypurry joint as a ruse so he can import Georgian wine by the barrel. Back in reality, this man asked if I’d like a 4-liter bottle? I declined. He laughed and dismissed my concern: “Four liter! For us Georgian, iz nothing, you know? Iz, just getting started!” Yes – I know. I’ve been to a few Georgian feasts and know how much wine they have to consume to keep up with all of the toasts they make. Considering you have to drink to every toast, yes, it’s probably best to buy wine by the barrel.
The khachapuri were alright. The dough was pretty tasty, but the cheese was a rubbery feta type cheese, not the gooey melty cheese I remember. I have no idea what cheese they were using in Russia, but it was spectacular. The churchkhela, however, were quite a treat. I was afraid they’d be too sweet or leathery, but the grape entrails-looking stuff had the subtlety of a Turkish delight. In fact, that’s pretty much what it is: Turkish delight only with grapes instead of rosewater, on a string, made up to look like intestines. Grape Turkish delight sausages. Too bad there is no way to describe them that does justice. I HIGHLY recommend getting your hands on some of this stuff. Oh, but keep in mind there is a string running through the center. Remember not to eat it.
Русский книжный магазин.
You will never be this cool. Sorry.
The last stop on my shopping trip was the Russian bookstore. Well, no it wasn’t. But it is the last one I will recount here. I have previously been to this place on several occasions, back in college. While I bought books there, it was less a bookstore than some kind of miniature Izmailovsky market crammed into a storefront, with piles of Soviet kitsch and Russian souvenirs everywhere you looked. The layout was more like an attic than a store, and the interior dimly lit, which made it rather disorienting. These days it is “under new management” and the kitsch is all but gone and it is bright and spacious. Perusing the books on display, I saw a few about Medvedev, but nothing Putin. Which only surprised me because the ratio of Putin:Medvedev books I see at work are about 30:1. Anyway, I was not there for books.
Almost all of my Akvarium/BG (and, er, there’s a lot) is on cassette tape and second or third generation at that. I don’t know why. It’s not like I couldn’t find or afford cd’s in Russia. They were hawked on every street corner for spare change. But I preferred to do my own bootlegging, thank you very much. Maybe it was out of some vestigial tradition of samizdat (or magnitizdat, whatever), or more likely it was simply that the cold winter days lent themselves to staying home and eating blini while making tapes. Well, this is how I and my girlfriends spent the time. Those tapes felt like gold at the time, but their value has since been reduced to that of cultural artifacts.
When I walked in, I was met with a “Zdra’stvuetye” from a woman and a “Nuzhna pomosch?” from a little moon-faced man who slipped out from a room in the back. More terrible broken Russian escaped from my mouth as I asked if they had any Akvarium or BG. Ok, buying a cd is not rocket science, but I have to admit I was surprised to find myself conversing in Russian, you know, without having to think about it. Maybe someone who has tried to learn a new language as an adult can appreciate this. I felt weightless. The little moon-faced man was incredibly genial and excitable as he went around picking out cd’s for me (confirming that, no, they were not displayed in any order; it wasn’t just me). Maybe I was the first customer he’d seen all day. Or maybe I reminded him of some daughter who moved to Seattle and whom he hasn’t seen in years. Who knows? He was terribly sweet. He had puppy dog eyes. I was sad to have to go. I left with a couple of cd’s and the intention of returning just to see him again. It was only when I got home, jumping around to “Nikita Riazanskii,” that I fully appreciated how empty my life had been without Navigator and the Russian Album. Or rather, with them on cassette tape wasting away in a cardboard box in a closet.
Since it is Thanksgiving and I am inclined to be reflective and thankful, I can’t do the tactful thing and say, “And thus ended my little shopping trip. Thanks for reading.” Except for the thanking you for reading part, of course. No, I need to make some profound observation about it all. So it’s helpful I have one to make. And that is this: I was impressed with Gene’s Sausage Shop. It looks fabulous, from the grand staircase to the aisles of attractively individually wrapped sweets to the infinite selections of meat. An embarrassment of riches. But I was disappointed when they did not have my honey, put off by the service, and generally ho-hum about the whole affair. The Three Sisters Deli, in contrast, was superficially unimpressive. Small, homely, old-school. No row after row of sparkly packaging, no carnivorous gluttony. Likewise, the Georgian bakery was not going for aesthetic appeal but no-frills homemade pastries. And the bookstore, again, not a scene, just a place to go to get what you want. Everyone was helpful and kind. The yuppie consumer/bitter wage slave dynamic was replaced with plain old human interaction. And while I didn’t find what I set out for, what I can home with was of such quality and nourishing to the soul, I totally forgot about the damned honey! I was out of honey and blissed out. Maybe it’s a commentary on the lack of authenticity in our society. Maybe it’s an illustration to all of you who don’t “get” why anyone would “like” Russia. Maybe it’s confirmation bias. I don’t know. I’ll probably go back to Gene’s, because it is right down the street. But I’ll certainly go back to Devon, because it rocks my world.