Yesterday, I had lunch with an old friend from London who’s been living in Moscow on and off for the last couple of years. She’s Russian by birth and heritage, and has always had a sense of Russian pride — just a pre-emptive warning on her sympathies. After complaining mightily about the food in Moscow, she told me a phenomenal horror story. One fine day, she was having people over for dinner, so she went to a nice, expensive, reputable supermarket and bought a nice little beef filet. Then she cooked up, nice and seared, and everyone sat down to eat. And that’s when they discovered that it wasn’t beef at all. It was pork. It was pork that had been dyed with beetroot to look like beef. She spent the next few hours throwing up.
Turns out, she’s not the only one in Moscow who treats a trip to the supermarket like a trip to a Chinese restaurant: sure, the package says lamb, but what’s actually in there? And how long — and at what temperature — has it been sitting there? Is that sell-by date fake? And, believe me, once you hear a few Russians of all ages — not just paranoid grandmothers — go on about the poison on the shelves, you will enter a supermarket so cockeyed, you’re not going to want to buy anything.
Apparently, it’s a huge problem here and one that, again, gets back to the old Russian problem of optics versus reality: we are shiny and modern, with supermarkets! But inside them is the same old rot and deception and corruption! Take honey. For millennia, it has been a major Russian export, yet Russians will gladly offer you their hypotheses on what’s actually in the bottle: wax, syrup, sugar water.
Even bread is suspect. Yesterday, I saw an expose — or as much of one as state-controlled TV can muster — on a bread workshop in some earthen-floored basement full of tires and sawdust and unregistered migrants (but that, children, that is a story for another time). Herring, that silvery fish that swims down your throat so smoothly after vodka was stored in giant open bins, allowed to thaw and rot, and then rinsed in a vat of what can only described as Black Plague Water.
Part of this is a problem of regulation and oversight and corruption, and part of it is a problem of Russian paranoia finding second, third, fourth bottoms in every situation, but to someone who liked her New York City WholeFoods just fine, it’s mostly a problem of…shit.