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To Russia With Love

Texas author Sharon Hudgins talks about living—and cooking a Tex-Mex meal—in Russia.

By August 2003Comments

texasmonthly.com: The biographical summary in your book, The Other Side of Russia: A Slice of Life in Siberia and the Russian Far East (Texas A&M University Press, 2003), says you lived abroad for twenty years, but your address is listed as McKinney. When did you return to Texas?

Sharon Hudgins: Between 1970 and 1995, my husband, Tom, and I spent twenty years working outside the U.S.—in Germany, Spain, Greece, Japan, Korea, and Russia. Most of that time we were teaching for the University of Maryland’s overseas programs at U.S. military bases abroad. I also worked as the food writer for the Stars and Stripes newspaper and several magazines in Europe.

After teaching for three semesters in Russia, during the early post-Soviet period, we returned to the United States at the beginning of 1995. We decided it was a good time for us to reenter the American job market, after having been away from the U.S. for so many years. We came back to Texas because both of us were born here, we knew the state well, and there were good job opportunities.

texasmonthly.com: What drew you to Siberia?

SH: I’ve been interested in Russia ever since I was a child in Texas in the fifties. When I went to the University of Texas at Austin in 1964, I majored in government with a specialization in Soviet and East European studies. And when I earned my first master’s degree, from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, it was in the field of political science, with a specialization in U.S.-Soviet strategic relations. Even though my career subsequently took a turn away from Russia (I became a photographer, filmmaker, film professor, and culinary writer), I always maintained an interest in Russia. So I jumped at the chance to teach in Siberia during the early years after the collapse of the Soviet regime.

texasmonthly.com: Siberia is a land about which few of us have extensive knowledge, but about which most of us have preconceptions. Were you surprised by what you found?

SH: My academic background in Soviet studies prepared me well for life in Siberia. Since I had already studied Russian language, history, and politics, I didn’t go there with necessarily stereotyped views about that country. Also, I had traveled extensively in several Eastern European countries, from Poland to Yugoslavia, during the eighties and early nineties. So I had a pretty good idea about what to expect in Russia. Still, many things caught me by surprise. In The Other Side of Russia, I describe some of the things I never expected to see in Siberia: hot-air balloons, hydrofoils, Buddhist temples, tennis courts, French poodles, cowboys on horseback, and even air conditioners!

texasmonthly.com: What was the biggest challenge you faced?

SH: The biggest challenge every day was living in huge, high-rise apartment buildings that often lacked dependable water, electricity, and heat. Imagine living where water from the taps ranged in color from clear to amber to purple to black—and smelled of petroleum, sewer gas, ham, rotten eggs, or fish. Picture trying to prepare cold meals by candlelight, in the middle of the winter, because the electricity has been cut off (which happened almost daily in Vladivostok). Or taking a shower by candlelight, in a dark, unheated apartment, when all the water is suddenly cut off, and you’re left standing there covered with soap and with hair full of foamy shampoo? Think about what it’s like to live in such a place when all the water, heating, and electricity are cut off at the same time—and you have to go to work the next morning, well dressed and fresh looking for another day at the office. That was typical of daily life in Russia—and many Russians still have to cope with such living conditions today.

texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you witnessed in Asian Russia?

SH: In The Other Side of Russia I describe a traditional feast prepared for us by Buryat Siberians in a small town north of Irkutsk. Tom and I were the honored guests at a dinner where the hosts slaughtered and butchered a sheep in their back yard, then cooked the various parts of the sheep in a big iron cauldron outdoors over an open fire. When the sheep’s liver was removed, fresh and steaming, from the carcass, the raw liver was cut into chunks and distributed among the guests as a special treat.

Tom was also served the boiled sheep’s head, wet wool and sightless eyeballs still attached. I was served the sheep’s stomach, which had been filled with a mixture of sheep’s blood, cow’s milk, garlic, and spring onions, then tied up with the sheep’s intestines and boiled in the cauldron with the rest of the meat. I told myself that I was going to eat that repulsive blob without throwing up. I did succeed in getting down a soupspoon full of it, before the Buryats saved me by digging in to eat the rest of it themselves.

However, I should point out that this feast was not at all typical of the many excellent meals that we ate in Siberia and the Russian Far East—meals that compare favorably with the best of American and European home cooking and even good restaurant cuisine. I think that readers of The Other Side of Russia will be surprised to learn how well we dined in Asian Russia.

texasmonthly.com: What was your mission in writing The Other Side of Russia?

SH: I wanted to answer the questions that people asked me about Siberia after I returned to the U.S. Even more important, I wanted to dispel the many misconceptions that most people in the West have about Siberia. In the Western media, the Asian part of Russia is usually depicted as a place of frozen tundra, snowy steppes, dense forests, icy wastelands, and grim prison camps. Yes, Asian Russia encompasses all of these, but it’s also a region of great natural beauty, thriving cities, and proud people. Most people in the West are surprised to learn that Siberia and the Russian Far East are home not only to reindeer herders and ice fishermen, but also to millions of Russian citizens who live and work in modern metropolises, attend technical schools and universities, own cars and dachas (country cottages used especially in the summer), and have a rich social and cultural life.

texasmonthly.com: The book covers a variety of foods and customs that people here may find bizarre and unfamiliar. Was it difficult to write about a culture in a way that an American audience could understand?

SH: It wasn’t at all difficult for me to write about another culture in a way that a U.S. audience could understand. Since 1983, when I first became a food and travel writer, I’ve been explaining other cultures to people from different countries, including Americans.

I worked for six years as the food columnist for the Stars and Stripes in Europe—writing about the foods of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, for an audience of American military personnel and their families, stationed abroad, who lived in places such as Iceland, England, Germany, Spain, Italy, Turkey, and Bahrain. So when I began writing The Other Side of Russia, I addressed my American audience in the same way that I had always done.

texasmonthly.com: I hear that you carried a suitcase full of tortillas from Texas back to Russia with you for a Tex-Mex party. How did your guests receive the food of Texas?

SH: When we first moved to Russia in the summer of 1993, we knew that we wouldn’t be able to find many of the ingredients that we were accustomed to cooking with, including some of our favorite spices. So we went to Pendery’s Chile Supply in Fort Worth and stocked up on ground chiles, Texas chili powder, curry powder, and a variety of dried whole chiles. We also carried two bottles of Tabasco sauce with us to Russia—one of which froze solid and burst on a Trans-Siberian train when we were traveling in the winter (a real loss!).

In Russia we made several of our favorite Tex-Mex and Mexican dishes—including turkey mole—with those chiles from Texas and with Russian ingredients available locally. But we really missed corn tortillas, which were impossible to get in Siberia. In the summer of 1994, we returned to Texas for a short visit and to stock up on supplies for the next semester in Russia. Just before leaving for the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, we filled all the extra spaces in our suitcases with bags of Mission brand yellow and white corn tortillas. I was afraid that they’d be confiscated by the customs agents when we landed in the Russian Far East, but nobody cared about those strange flatbreads in our luggage. We filled the freezing compartment of our refrigerator in Vladivostok with those tortillas—and rationed them out during the next several months in Russia.

One of the funniest stories in The Other Side of Russia is about a Tex-Mex dinner that we cooked for Russian, Bosnian, and Serbian friends in Vladivostok. All of our guests were adventuresome eaters and good cooks themselves, but turkey mole enchiladas were totally alien to them. You’ll have to read the book to find out how that disastrous dinner party ended.

texasmonthly.com: How did you become interested in food?

SH: Ironically, my interest in Russia is what got me interested in food. When I was growing up in Texas, I didn’t care about learning to cook—I was planning to be a career woman, not a housewife. I did learn a bit about baking from my mother, because I always loved desserts. But I really didn’t learn how to cook until my senior year at the University of Texas, when I first lived in an apartment of my own. Since I was so interested in Russia, I began trying to cook Russian dishes in Austin.

Two years later, when I first traveled to Europe, I encountered a whole new world of foods. I was hooked! I began cooking all kinds of foreign dishes at home, collecting cookbooks from around the world, and taking copious notes about foods wherever I traveled. After a decade or so of doing that, I decided that I knew enough to become a food writer myself. I sold my first food column to the Stars and Stripes in 1983, and have been working as a professional food writer ever since.

texasmonthly.com: How did you become so interested in travel?

SH: Traveling is in my blood. When I was growing up in Texas, my father was a fireman on the M-K-T [Katy] Railroad in Denison, which meant that the whole family got free passes for traveling on the train, wherever and whenever we wanted to go. I took my first train trip, to Iowa, when I was six weeks old. By the time I entered the first grade, I had visited 44 of the (then) 48 states—traveling with my parents, by train and car. Fortunately, I married a man whose parents had taken him all over the U.S. when he was a child too, so we share the same wanderlust, instilled at an early age.

texasmonthly.com: In addition to absolutely mouth-watering descriptions of food and festivals, you really look in-depth at heritage, politics, economics, and daily life in a changing society. Have you ever undertaken such an extensive project before?

SH: I’ve undertaken similar projects, but none that took me as long to research and write as The Other Side of Russia.

My first book was Spanien: Küche, Land und Menschen (Spain: The Cuisine, the Land, the People), which was published in Germany in 1991. Although it was a cookbook about the regional cuisines of Spain, it was full of the same kind of historical, geographical, and cultural material that I’ve included in my Russia book. In 1992, it won a national literary award from the German Academy of Gastronomy—equivalent to a James Beard or IACP cookbook award in the United States—in recognition of its in-depth study of Spanish regional cuisines.

My second book, Never an Ivory Tower, was a history of the University of Maryland’s global education programs. That project also required a lot of research—primary sources, secondary sources, interviews, and travel. So when I set out to write The Other Side of Russia, I knew what a large project I was undertaking. I just didn’t know how long it would take me to write it.

texasmonthly.com: You discuss the difficulties of shopping for groceries, and yet there were not many restaurants for those too busy or disinclined to spend hours in various markets. Do you just learn to cook with whatever you can find?

SH: Yes, shopping for food was a daily, time-consuming chore. But we both approached it like we approached life in general in Russia: as an adventure, a challenge, even a kind of treasure hunt. Tom was a great food shopper, much to the surprise of our Russian friends who were accustomed to women doing most of the food buying. He hadn’t studied the Russian language before we moved there, but he quickly picked up “market Russian”—food and money terms—that made shopping much easier.

texasmonthly.com: As a foreigner, you were required to take an AIDS test. Your computer disks were destroyed. Your notes were read and e-mails intercepted. What was it like to recognize the realities of government control and the remnants of Big Brother mentality?

SH: I didn’t worry about it in Russia. Maybe I’d just read too many Cold War spy novels before I went, so I wasn’t too surprised about that low-level surveillance. More important, I didn’t take it personally. I just accepted it as a part of daily life. Other Americans, who felt personally targeted by Big Brother in Russia, had a much harder time adjusting to life there.

texasmonthly.com: You mention Americans’ frustration with the roll-over-and-accept-it attitudes of Russians regarding the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of things like public utilities, public transportation, and government services. Do you think these attitudes will change, or have changed, as Russia moves further into the free market and people have increasing access to outside ideas and influences?

SH: Yes, I think some of those attitudes will certainly change as the older generation passes away and younger people, who never experienced the Soviet system and Soviet ways of thinking, become the adults leading the country, the economy, and the education system.

I could already see that potential developing among the students in our university programs there. They were well educated, spoke English, and interested in the modern world. Their focus was the future, not the old Soviet past. Some of them were also well traveled—perhaps more so than many college students of the same age in the U.S. These are the people who will be leading Russia in the first half of the twenty-first century. On the other hand, Russians will never turn into an Eastern Hemisphere version of Americans (nor should they!). I think there will always be significant cultural differences between Russia and the Western world, no matter how modern and westernized the country becomes.

texasmonthly.com: Have you been back to Asian Russia? Do you plan to?

SH: No, I haven’t been back, much to my regret. I would love to travel there again. I do keep in touch with other friends who’ve gone there for work or travel, so I have an idea about how things have changed (or remained the same) since I lived there.

texasmonthly.com: Are you working on any new projects?

SH: My next book will be a memoir cookbook titled T-Bone Whacks and Caviar Snacks: Cooking With Two Texans in Siberia. After I finished writing The Other Side of Russia, I realized that I had many more food stories that I was unable to include in that book, because of space, plus all the recipes to go along with those stories. So I’m writing a cookbook that will be a companion book to The Other Side of Russia.

Half of each chapter of T-Bone Whacks and Caviar Snacks will be my personal narrative—about food shopping, cooking, dinner parties, festivals, restaurants, and culinary outings in Russia—followed by the recipes for all the dishes mentioned in the text. I’m also including a lot of additional information about food history, agriculture, food products, and the cultural dimensions of food as they pertain to the parts of Asian Russia that I lived in. Since Tom cooked as much as I did in Russia, and many of the recipes are ones that he himself developed, this is a collaborative cookbook, with both of our names on the cover.

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