For many a year I have praised the virtue of the seeming ubiquitous Russian markets here in my San Francisco neighborhood of The Richmond. These corner shops stock all sorts of Eastern European goodies: Russian spirits, Polish sweets, German mustards, and Hungarian paprikas. They also usually carry a fairly decent selection of basic corner store necessities like milk, butter, fruits, vegetables, bread, and meat. My favorite, Royal Market on Geary Avenue, has the entertaining addition of four flat-screen televisions blaring Russian variety shows and music programs at all times. And though it's loud and I understand nary a word of what is being said or sung, I feel strangely at peace wandering the aisles and fondling the strange objects on the shelves. I suppose it's something in my traveler's soul that doesn't ever feel quite at home unless I'm surrounded by the unfamiliar. Needless to say, Royal Market abounds with a certain charm. It's bright and shiny, yet strangely mysterious at the same time. The black leather jacketed proprietor stands heavily behind the register, either yelling into his cellphone or thumbing his way through last week's Moscow Times. Little Russian ladies squeeze past each other in the narrow produce aisle, poking at the leeks, potatoes, and onions. And of course there's the young people of the neighborhood, brought out here by the cheap (for San Francisco) rents, perusing the incredible variety of jams, cookies, and naturally, liquors. Each Russian market is different in its own small ways, which just adds to the unique allure of them all.
So for years I have been a happy advocate of these small markets, gleefully parading around my tiny culinary discoveries. Most of my friends and roommates over the years respond with indulgent smile and mild pats on the back, as if to say, " Yes, yes Kitty, it's very wonderful. Can we please go to Whole Foods now?" So imagine my slightly confused delight when my boyfriend Chris burst through the door late one evening with a huge paper bag of groceries and a beaming smile, fresh from his first solo adventure at Royal Market. As it was past nine PM and he was rather late for the dinner I'd planned to make, I thrust my hands on my hips and greeted him with my best withering stare.
"Hi honey, I know I'm late, I'm sorry. But look, I was down at that Russian market you love and I got you a surprise! It's awesome! The guys at the store were so friendly and cool, and they said that this was the best dinner ever!"
Relaxing my stance a bit, I moved towards the kitchen to see what he was unpacking. Salami, brie, a Spring Hill pepper jack, and a bottle of cabernet came tumbling out of the paper bag. This was my surprise? We had four different cheeses and two kinds of salami in the fridge already -- though one can never have too much of either, it still seemed a bit anti-climactic, as far as surprises go. I returned my hands to my hips.
"No Kitty wait! When I was chatting with the owner, I mentioned our trip to Eastern Europe, and he said I just had to try this before we went, so I know what I'm getting myself into. And then he made me buy this awesome stuff to go with it. So this, Baby, this is going to be great!"
With a triumphant flourish, Chris reached into the bag and produced his surprise. Of all the I'm Sorry For Being Late presents he's come up with, this one was truly a unique surprise. No flowers or chocolates here, no way. Chris likes to push the envelope on creativity and he certainly succeeded this time.I looked into his eyes, then looked at his proud purchases sitting on the counter, then back to his face again (I can never look into those hazel-y green eyes without swooning just a little.) I couldn't possibly restrain the laughter that burst out of me. Strong and stalwart they stood: a jar of pickled herring and a bottle of Russian Standard vodka.
Seeing that my laugh was one of enjoyment and not one of ridicule, Chris set about making us a grand smargasboard of cheese, salami, and herring. With the bottle and some shot glasses in in one hand and the heaping platter of of goodies in the other, Chris' grand entrance just made me laugh even harder. I felt the need to warm him just a bit, however.
" You know, this is a very Eastern European snack. Herring is beloved in Germany, Russian, even places like Sweden and Norway. You know I've grown up with it, due to my German mother and all, but I'm interested to see how you take to it. It's kind of an acquired taste for most people. " Though I didn't want to dampen his spirits, I also didn't want him to be disappointed if he didn't care for the briny, fishy, vinegared flesh. Undeterred, he replied,
" Well, I'm German and Polish, so it's gotta be in my blood or something!"
And with that, Chris took his first bite of traditional pickled herring. After a few seconds of thoughtful chewing, my fears had been laid to rest as he smiled broadly and exclaimed,
"Wow. That's exceptional! It's slippery and briny. Really interesting flavor all-around. Hey, I bet it's awesome with the vodka!"
Never one to shy away from a bit of high quality vodka, I heartily agreed. "Na zdorovye!" And so we ate and drank our way through a blissful Russian evening. Which, I might add, would not have happened if Chris hadn't have stumbled upon my beloved market and let himself be taken in. For perhaps that's the reasonwhy I hold these markets so dear to my heart-- going into one for a while to do a bit of shopping isn't the end of the adventure. When you have a real conversation with an owner or an employee, when you let yourself try something unusual, something authentically different, you are actually experienceing the thrill of the new that we usually only experience while travelling. The whole experience throbs with adventure.
As both of our family histories are tangled up throughout Germany, Austria, Poland, and the rest of Eastern Europe, Chris and I feel a sense of kinship with our Russian neighbors in the fogged-in avenues of San Francisco. After all, the taste for herring is in our blood.