SOCHI, Russia — Here’s what we ate at the Olympics: cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, mounds of spaghetti, stacks of Chinese cabbage mixed with lunch meat and mayonnaise, fried chicken, boiled fish, cold kidney beans, beets, beets and beets.
And that was just for breakfast.
Thousands of people floated in the Olympic bubble the past two weeks or so — volunteers, journalists, the staffers who kept everything going — and they needed to eat. The word went out to hotel kitchens and cafeterias all over Sochi:
More curd for the masses!
My Russian media comrade is having spaghetti and hot dogs for breakfast. Can't do it. Going with the gruel. pic.twitter.com/CTHudvEpQY— Mike Wise (@MikeWiseguy) February 10, 2014
Maybe that’s why the daily breakfast spread invariably included a big tray full of thick, white stuff labeled curd mass, sometimes prettied up, as in curd mass with spinach. Close inspection found it was tvorog, a much-loved cheese in Russia. One night, the translation police must have raided the place, giving the dish a new identity. Wouldn’t you know it got a lot more appetizing when it turned into cottage cheese?
Strange about breakfast. Is this how Russians eat? Not at home. On their own, they’ll fix a hearty bowl of kasha, a porridge made of buckwheat, or they’ll eat fragrant black bread with slices of cheese and salami. Surely they consume their share of eggs. Groceries sell eggs in packs that hold as many as 30, and shoppers pile them in carts.
Here in Sochi, eggs appeared as well. The fried ones disappeared quickly. Often there were blini — thin pancakes. One day, chakhragina appeared — a flat pie with beet greens chopped up and sandwiched between thin layers of dough. It’s a dish often found in the mountains of the North Caucasus, and maybe it was far from home. It never returned.
Russian food is wonderful, and beets are high up on the epicurean list. No doubt you would agree if you’ve ever tried herring under a fur coat. That’s herring covered with chopped vegetables with a layer of beets on the top — the fur coat. Though something about it says “please don’t serve before noon.”
Breakfast had a pretty broad definition at the Olympics. It was served from 5 a.m. until noon and was meant to sustain people working all kinds of shifts. So diners returning to their hotel after working until dawn had few complaints about the stacks of olives and pickles, the potato salad and hot dogs.
Onto lunch. For those working at the Olympics, it was like being trapped in a giant convention center day after endless day, with time off at events for good behavior. The huge media center has been preparing for its future life as a shopping mall. It already has a food court.
Borscht was the crowd favorite there. Otherwise, the food was convention-center-bland and on the pricey side: Coke and a baked potato, $6.50. After a few days, vows to avoid fast food in search of better nutrition were guiltily forgotten. A new mantra was repeatedly overheard: I haven’t eaten this many McDonald’s meals over 20 years.
The Big Mac became a gourmet’s dream, fries an epicurean delight. And soon everyone stopped complaining about having to pay 85 cents for a small vial of ketchup.
There were glorious escapes, when Olympic denizens would fling themselves out of the fences and into the city, following enticing aromas to smoked Russian salmon and caviar pizza. They raved over Georgian khachapuri — describing it as cheese-filled bread offers little sense of its wonders. They marveled at grilled meat on skewers known as shashlik, and the pelmeni — meat-filled dumplings dressed up in sour cream.
So, who’s complaining?
And get this. With thousands on their way out — the Olympics end Sunday — the hotels are close to complete. Only the other day, one guest rejoiced at the appearance of a bedside lamp, complete with a light bulb. Then, shower curtains arrived. The plumbing is fixed. Some of the infamous double toilets have newly installed partitions.
If the Games had started in March instead of early February — no, don’t say that. Then what would we have had to laugh about once we got home?