WHEN THE MOSCOW Circus arrives in town next Monday, Tania Zubrilina and her husband Oleg Kontimirov may go out to dinner. But it very likely will be their only dinner out during their stay in Baltimore.
Once settled at their hotel, Zubrilina will fall into a routine of preparing typical Russian meals -- at least as typical as she can muster up -- at either the hotel or the Baltimore Arena, where a small kitchen will be set up for the performers.
In the case of Vladimir Ageev, a bear handler with the circus, he may head to Lexington Market to survey the fresh produce. Ageev loves to cook and at almost every arena he visits can be found whipping up a vegetable soup or chicken dinner within shouting distance of his beloved Russian brown bears.
The third Moscow Circus troupe to visit Baltimore in two years is scheduled to give nine shows at the Baltimore Arena next Wednesday through Sunday. For more information call the Arena's box office at 347-2010. Unlike U.S. performers, who generally eat out while on the road, most of the traveling Soviets prefer to do their own cooking--for a number of reasons.
The circus is made up of several family acts, including some children traveling with parents, who are away from the Soviet Union for as much as a year at a time. They try to maintain as much of a family routine of eating together in a regular place as is possible, says Katia Luft, assistant to the general manager and public relations director of the circus.
For other performers it is just less expensive and less time-consuming to cook than to eat out. Besides, in the Soviet Union, it is the norm for traveling circus artists to prepare meals in their rooms.
Still others, like Ageev, find the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables in the United States too tempting to pass up. Ageev and some of his fellow performers discussed, with the help of a translator, their culinary habits during a recent visit to the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Va.
"I don't know why, with such good produce here, people don't make more of an effort to make something of it," says Ageev of Americans' tendency to buy convenience foods. He says he's not particularly fond of prepared foods or the microwave oven.
But cooking on the road isn't necessarily easy. The performers must carry pots and pans as well as staples like flour, sugar and spices with them from city to city, sometimes in a very limited space. Most of them rely on portable two-burner stoves and toaster ovens for cooking. A glass jar might sub as a potato masher or rolling pin, a jar lid as a dough-cutter.
With children in tow, it can be especially difficult, says Natashia Serdukov, a dancer who has a 3-year-old daughter. Even if she and husband Petr, an aerialist, would rather pick up something on the run, she still cooks for young Natashia, who has made it pretty clear she prefers Russian meals, particularly borscht (a beet-rich soup).
"Most of us try to cook something simple, to save on time," says Alla Gadzhikurbanov, a high-wire artist who performs with her husband Akhmed Abakharov. Gadzhikurbanov, who has a reputation as an excellent cook, has brought with her everything she needs, from toaster to teapot.
While she admits that she likes having "a good New York steak" periodically, her family more commonly dines on borscht or another type of soup or some variety of chicken.
For Zubrilina, a gymnast in a rope act, cooking on the road can be particularly challenging:
"Oleg and I have very different ways of eating," she says of her husband, an acrobat. She is from Irkutsk in Siberia, where pel'meni (dumplings filled with pork and beef) originated and are very popular. But Kontimirov prefers the more spicy Caucasian dishes favored in his native Georgian region. So for him she prepares dinners like plov (a spicy lamb dish with rice and shredded carrots).
For breakfast, she says, she will usually make blini (thin pancakes) or oladii (smaller, raised pancakes).
The resourcefulness of the traveling Soviets is impressive. Wherever there is water and electricity on the circus site--in this tour, where the bears are housed--is where you can run into someone cooking. If there is a surplus of food purchased for the animals--yes, the bears eat cucumbers, carrots, apples, bread and parsley, too--it might find its way into a soup or salad prepared by Ageev.
"The Russians are very inventive," says Luft, noting the ease with which they can put together a meal under less-than-perfect conditions.
"Sometimes they can cook a whole chicken in a frying pan--cut it up a bit, close it up and turn it. When it's done it can look like it came out of the oven," she says.
On a recent visit to Nevada, a few circus members went fishing during the day and came back to cook their catch for that evening's post-performance dinner, Luft says. On the circus' last visit to Baltimore, less than a year ago, they celebrated with shashlik (grilled lamb).
In the spirit of a summer barbecue or bull roast, designated chefs cooked the marinated lamb over a fire on a makeshift grill in the parking lot, invited 60 people to their dressing room and celebrated a circus member's birthday after the Saturday night performance, proving that cooking on the road isn't all work and no play.
Actually, says Zubrilina, being on tour the last several months has been a bit of a vacation for her because she hasn't had to spend as much time in the kitchen as she would at home in Moscow. There, particularly in the warm months, women spend many hours not only preparing the day's meal but also canning jams, fruits and vegetables for use in cold weather when fresh produce is impossible to find.
"It's too easy in America," she says. "You can just have a pizz and warm it up when you're hungry. But in my country the women stay in the kitchen from morning to evening. It's impossible to buy ready-made food."