More Restaurant Shantytowns


One of the joys of driving across Russia is coming upon side-of-the-road food salesmen. In north Russia, we devoured smoked eel and blueberries. As we head south, the items change from swampy eats to root vegetables. Potatoes, onions, and carrots appear, in bags big enough to feed a family of four for a month. The problem is, we don’t have a stove, and Mims lost his utility tool a few days ago.

This morning, we come upon some enterprising individuals who have set up freestanding shelves. The shelves are filled with rows of bottles of various sizes and shapes. They contain substances ranging in color from opaque to wheat to brown leather.

Two men are working on a broken-down bus, and beside them, an old man with a thick gray mustache waves at our car. We stop. He opens one golden jar and dips in a wooden stick.

It’s some of the sweetest, pure-gold honey I’ve ever tasted. He repeats the stick trick with another one. Its notes are richer and earthier.

“You want?” the man says, holding a jar the size of a beagle.

We demur, for we are driving a Subaru, not a minivan. But we do opt for a pickle-jar-size container’s worth.

Another peculiarity of Russian roadside culture is these restaurant shantytowns. They’re like interstate stop-offs in the United States. Sort of.

Today, we pull into one particularly grubby version. The restaurants are closed; instead, old women wearing aprons are standing in front of steaming wooden boxes. They sell instant coffee and brown, deep-fried, doughy blobs called pirozhki.

I want to try one, but I’m unsure which lady sells the finest. So I turn to an authoritative source: a trucker. I point at his deep-fried breakfast, then at the ladies. I shrug my shoulders, as if to say, “Which one is the best?”

He points at a zaftig, red-haired woman wearing a blue apron. I walk up to her and point at her wooden box. Inside there are two piles of the brown blobs. I order one of each. She drops them in a thin plastic bag and charges me 20 rubles, about 80 cents. I hustle back to the car with my bounty.

“Look what I have!” I tell Mims.

“What do you have?” he asks.

I bite into the first blob and am met with mashed potatoes. I rip open the second to find minced white-yellow bits. “That’s caviar or fish,” Mims guesses.

It’s actually egg. And it’s good.

I order two more and devour them for lunch and dinner.

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