Katherine Verdery

University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Dear Sidney,

As we celebrate your 80th year, my thoughts necessarily turn to food. Although any anthropologist knows that commensality and celebration go together, you're the person who has most made this association a reality in my life. Food and its community-making effects have been your special contribution to collegiality for as long as I've known you—though it did help that we had a dinner-party-sized department and that you're such a marvelous chef. In my twenty years as your colleague, I amassed a veritable treasure trove of memories involving food. From these recollections I will draw out two of my favorites, hoping you too recall them with the same pleasure and amusement as I.

The first one is about caviar: your giving me an order to bring some back from the Soviet Union when you sent me on my first trip there in 1987, as AAA representative to whatever commission that was for US-SU exchanges in ethnology. The order wasn't just to bring back some caviar but to bring back a kilo of fresh caviar. I knew how to buy small cans of the stuff from the beryozka but I had no clue how to get that much caviar fresh. Or how much it would cost! You told me to ask Valentine, at Bromley's Ethnography institute, and he'd take care of getting it. But when I approached Valentine, as he picked me up from the airport, he replied in great consternation that we were leaving the next day for Armenia and he wouldn't have time to set the wheels in motion, nor would there be time when we returned. Given the circumstances, he didn't seem to think I should be upset not to be able to bring you this caviar, but I knew better.

That night, our delegation went to the Hotel Rossiya for a little snack, and what did we have? Vodka and fresh caviar. The proverbial light bulb went off in my head, and I asked our waiter if I could get a kilo from him, fresh, upon my return. He tried to say something that must have been his work schedule but I at least understood that it was possible; he told me to ask for "Nikalai" (sic). As I left, he told me it would cost me 110 rubles (the exchange rate at that time was parity, so this was a good few bucks). We had all been given 250 rubles as a per diem, so from then on I spent as little as possible, bought almost no presents for my family, and managed to hold onto 110 rubles. It would prove to be worth the sacrifice of a little shopping.

Meanwhile, by a stroke of good fortune, that very day I fell on some steps and badly bruised my shin. Having nearly lost my leg to a similar episode a year before, I knew I had to get ice for it. In desperation, after all I asked for ice had laughed in my face, I took a taxi to the US Embassy, where the nurse gave me an ice pack. It was one of those reusable things you can put in the freezer and then in your picnic basket, and as soon as I saw it, I knew something important had just happened.

We left for Armenia and returned a week later, with one final day in Moscow before our departure. The Ethnography institute provided us with "guides" to escort us on a shopping tour. It turned out that there were two groups: I, wanting caviar (and Leith Mullings, who wanted to see what would happen), and all the others, who wanted to go buy Russian dolls and Lenin coins. Valentine went with the others; the person assigned to me was Galina Starovoitova, who would later become Yeltsin's special assistant on nationalities and would then be assassinated; but in 1987 she was just a lowly researcher, one of those many hangers-on Bromley had saved from oblivion. When I told her what I wanted, she gasped and replied that it was illegal, and she didn't know how to do it. I said I did, so we headed for the Rossiya, Leith in tow.

Once arrived, Galia refused to come inside, as did Leith, and so I went on my own. To the maître-d's question I replied in my best (nonexistent) German, the only language we seemed to "share," that I was looking for Nikalai. He showed me six young men named Nikalai, but not one of them was mine. Fearing the worst, I told him my mission. At first he said it couldn't be done because they had only two-kilo cans and those cost 220 rubles; but when I pointed out that if he scooped out half of one of those I'd have one kilo and that was all I could afford, he agreed. He sat me down and poured me something to drink, disappeared. After about five minutes, he whistled from behind a curtain and motioned me in. The can went into my purse, the rubles into his pocket, and I exited with appropriate dispatch.

Out on the sidewalk, Galia asked excitedly whether I had succeeded and when I said yes, she asked how I know how to do this. I replied, "When in Russia, do as in Romania." Although she winced at the comparison, she got the point.

This was not, of course, the end of the story, for I now had to get the kilo home without its spoiling, and that was going to be well over 24 hours later. Here my providential ice pack played a crucial part. I had schlepped it all around Armenia, and at our return to Moscow I put it—shaped into a 90 degree angle— in the freezer in my floor's refrigerator at the Academy "hotel." It was onto this frozen "seat" that I placed my can once I got back from the Rossiya. As we boarded our flight the next day, I went directly to the stewardess and asked if they would mind refrigerating my caviar until we got back to the US, and in this manner I was able to bring you a kilo of fresh caviar.

But then came the best part of all: you and I sat down and ate almost all of it at one sitting. I can't recall where we were—in my mind, I vaguely see a low white table, but I don't recall at whose house—and we spooned it out, putting it on toast points, or with a bit of dill or some sour cream or a bit of red onion. There are damned few moments in my gustatory history that matched the pleasure of that one.

My second favorite memory of you and food is, of course, the story about the lamb. Stories, actually. If I recall aright, the first time with the lamb was the wonderful dinner you put together for visiting Russians Arutyunov and your friend whose name I'm not sure I have: Serov? You served Mintz's special lamb with coriander etc. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. It was cooked à point, and it was succulent and absolutely delicious. I couldn't stop eating it. Neither could our two guests. As we got into our fifth helping apiece, I could see a shadow of dismay cross your face, which I interpreted to mean, "I'm not going to have ANYTHING left over for lunch tomorrow!" I think we even chewed the bone. From that point on, any time you asked me what I wanted for a meal, that was it.

The story doesn't end there, for on some other occasion several years later, you had a dinner party involving a number of people I couldn't recall, and also Talal. I had told him in advance what we were going to eat and warned him about the possibility of his wanting five helpings; he had scoffed at the idea. Near the end of the meal, however, as he took his fifth helping, he humbly capitulated. Once again, there were no leftovers from that meal. Over the years I lucky enough to have it several times, each more delicious than the last. Once you made it for me in Berkeley, and even gave me a little doggy bag that said, "Katherine had a little lamb." Then I tried to make it myself, using the recipe you had finally agreed to make public via the NY Times Magazine, and suddenly I appreciated the dish even more! What a labor of love.

In a long series of wonderful food at your house or in your company, these two recollections stand out, but there are plenty more. Caviar crèpes, perfectly cooked shad, those special bananas, that extremely expensive (and delicious) dinner you treated me to in Chicago, paying off a lost bet. Of the many things I've learned from you, this one is particularly valuable: pay attention to food, both its flavors and its socialities. And if there's anything to that adage, "You are what you eat," then you must be pretty damned good!


Pork Paprika Stew
(Sertés Pörkölt)

Pörkölt can be made with any kind of meat but always seems to come out best with pork. It should be served with galuski (tiny flour-and-egg dumplings, sort of like spætzle); packaged noodles are a poor substitute. A salad of cucumbers or lettuce makes a good accompaniment, as well as a sweet dessert, like palacsinta (sweet crèpes) or noodle pudding. Serve the stew with a chilled bottle of Badacsonyi Kéknyel, a white wine from Lake Balaton (can be found at specialty stores in the US).

1 large onion, finely chopped
3 Tbs cooking oil
2 lbs pork shoulder [this is what the recipe says, but I myself use a mix of pork tenderloin and
spare ribs, to get some fat in there]
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp GOOD paprika [I think this is a mistake; I use around 2 Tbs]
1/4 tsp caraway seeds, crushed
1 medium green pepper, seeded and cut into 1/2" strips
3 small tomatoes, preferably canned

Sauté onion in flameproof 3-qt. casserole; remove to side dish. Pat meat dry and start browning a handful at a time in the same pot. Remove to side dish. When all is browned, pour 1/2 c water into the pot and scrape up the juices, stirrung in the salt, paprika, and caraway. Now put meat and onions back into casserole and add enough water to cover the meat, barely. Simmer, covered, 30 min, THEN add green peppers and tomatoes, simmer covered one hour more, adding water if necessary to keep the meat barely covered. Let cool a bit, skim off as much fat as possible. Correct the seasoning and reheat if necessary.

For those who really want to die of cholesterol, I add one more thing that's not in the book: I put some sour cream in a small dish and press some garlic into it, stir, and then put on the table for people to spoon some onto the top before eating. One other thing not in the cookbook that might be a good idea is that the sauce in this recipe always comes out thin: dredging the meat in flour or something like that would probably improve it.