This January 1st many families in Russia—and those from the Russian diaspora around the world—will wake up to their refrigerators still full. The leftovers of zakuski, the appetizers, prepared for and eaten at the New Year's Eve dinner, will be stowed there—covered with plastic wrap, stuffed into Tupperware, or stored in repurposed margarine containers. Someone from the family (usually a grandmother or a mother) will reach in, take them out, and place them on the table. “Breakfast is served,” she’ll say. And the tradition of eating celebratory leftovers for the morning meal will begin.
The largest holiday in Russia today, New Year's Eve, became the most important family holiday after the Russian Revolution in 1917. The dismantling of religion and church effectively cancelled Christmas festivities so, to give people something in return, the authorities elevated the New Year to be a very special celebration. “During the Soviet time people spent months preparing for the New Year celebration,” says Pavel Syutkin, a food historian and one of the authors of CCCP Cook Book: True Stories of Soviet Cuisine (2015). “They bought and saved food items and drinks—everyone wanted to have a bogatii stol, a rich table, that night.”
In my family of three having a bogatii stol meant cooking almost the entire day. My grandmother, my mother and I—as soon as I was old enough to hold a knife—labored in the kitchen chopping vegetables for zakuski, stuffing a duck for the main course, and baking a Napoleon, our favorite cake. By the time we sat down to dinner at 10 o’clock at night every last centimeter of our dining room table had been covered with serving dishes leaving little space for our own plates, bottles of vodka and cognac, and my mother’s precious crystal glasses.
Although my grandmother’s apple-stuffed duck was always the highlight of the night, zakuski started the meal. Eggplant caviar, deviled eggs, carrot and walnut salad, beet salad, herring under a fur coat—a layered dish of herring, potatoes, beets and mayonnaise—gherkins and pickled tomatoes, platters of sliced cheese, smoked fish, and smoked sausage were all decorated with sprigs of parsley and laid out on our best china. But the flagship of the bogatii stol, the king of all zakuski, and the symbol of New Year's Eve was the Oliv’ie salad.
Made by cutting cooked potatoes, carrots, hard-boiled eggs, pickles, and apples and then mixing them together with canned peas, mayonnaise, and chopped dill (some families also added cooked chicken), Oliv’ie occupied the largest bowl, the central spot, and the most important role in the festivities. We made enough of it to share with our entire 12-story building—and so did every family we knew. So the next morning when we ate breakfast, Oliv’ie, much like the night before, was the focus of the table. A joke that still makes the rounds in Russia in reference to January 1st goes something like this:
“What’s for breakfast?”
“What’s for lunch?”
“What’s for dinner?”
“Made from Oliv’ie.”
The history of Oliv’ie goes back to the nineteenth century when a French chef, Lucien Olivier, ran a restaurant called Hermitage in Moscow. The salad bears the chef’s name but its ingredients have changed over the years. While Olivier kept the recipe secret, it’s believed that his version of the salad contained caviar, crayfish, capers, and grouse meat and its sauce was made by hand from eggs and imported olive oil. The arrival of the Russian Revolution and seventy-plus years of a deficit-laden Soviet system caused the disappearance of these fit-for-a-Tsar ingredients. Instead, people replaced them with what they could find and afford: chicken, pickles, and factory-made mayonnaise.
Much like the Oliv’ie salad, the habit of eating leftovers isn’t new in Russia. “It’s not just the legacy of the Soviet system,” says Syutkin. “If you read old cookbooks, you often see instructions to use ‘leftover roast-beef or mutton’ for breakfast. For example, the traditional Russian soup pokhmelka (a broth used to sober up) is prepared with leftover mutton, pickles, pickle juice, vinegar, and pepper. The recipe is purported to have been used in Russia in 16th and 17th centuries.”
Yet, while consuming pokhmelka was meant to stave off the unwelcome results of the previous evening, eating leftovers on January 1 means the continuation of New Year's Eve festivities. “People never thought of the first day of the new year as a regular day,” says Syutkin. “It’s always been an extension of the celebratory meal started the night before. Hence the custom to take the leftover zakuski out of the refrigerator and serve them for breakfast.”
Nowadays in my family this New Year tradition of eating celebratory leftovers isn’t limited to the first of January. Although I’ll miss my mother’s Oliv’ie this New Year because we won’t be celebrating together, I know I’ll have it for breakfast the next time we see her. She celebrates our visits with a large, zakuski-laden meal, and we always continue that celebration the following morning.