Thanksgiving chefs tap Moscow's plenty

November 25, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

MOSCOW -- It's a struggle trying to put together a real American Thanksgiving dinner here in the snow-swept capital of the former Evil Empire.

There's the stuffing, for instance: Will it be Stove Top from the box or should we grab that box of Progresso bread crumbs and go for homemade?

The cranberry sauce is a dilemma as well. We could go down to the market and get a huge $3 bag of juicy, fresh cranberries, but it would be so much more convenient just to pop open that can with the reassuring generic American label.

The turkey, too, is troublesome. The Butterballs have been in the freezer cases for weeks already, but the fresh ones look oh-so-tempting.

Or maybe we should just bag the whole idea and head off to one of the half-dozen luxury hotels that will be laying out huge Thanksgiving Day buffet spreads, complete with sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie.

There are countless mind-boggling problems afflicting Russia these days, ranging from crime and corruption to the profound struggle to build some kind of a democratic state.

But what to do about Thanksgiving, let us give thanks, is not one of them.

Forget all those old images of Soviet-era bread lines and endless rows of empty store shelves. The fact is that Moscow today is host to more than a dozen competing grocery stores, selling all manner of imported American and European foodstuffs running the nutritional gamut from Sara Lee pecan coffeecake and Planters cheese curls to Danish butter cookies and Haagen-Dazs chocolate chocolate-chip ice cream.

Naturally, you also can get real food, like Mrs. Paul's frozen fish sticks and Old El Paso burritos. All you need is enough money in your pocket to afford them.

Prices for Thanksgiving-related items are a good example. The smallest frozen American-brand turkeys start at $50, a two-pound bag of frozen carrots costs about $5 and a fresh pumpkin will set you back about $60, pumpkins not being a particularly familiar crop in this part of the world.

Mineral water to wash it all down -- few expatriates here dare to drink the poorly disinfected Moscow tap water -- runs about $1.50 a bottle. And add 15 cents for every plastic grocery bag to cart everything home.

In general, prices in Moscow's Western-style grocery stores are two to four times higher than in American supermarkets -- and there are no bank ready-teller machines next to the checkouts to help if you come up short. Most of the stores do, however, take Visa and American Express.

It's also possible to assemble most of the necessary Thanksgiving ingredients by visiting Moscow's major open-air markets, which, these days, thanks to free prices and market economics, are full of food. The prices there for fresh meat, vegetables and fruits are about a third lower than the grocery stores.

But the questionable provenance of the products and the filthy conditions -- Moscow is experiencing a diphtheria epidemic -- can discourage even the most determined Western bargain-hunters.

The biggest frustration with food shopping in Moscow is the irregularity of the supplies. Both the stores and the markets offer large varieties of products, but not always exactly the thing you need right when you need it.

At the moment, for example, there is a mysterious citywide shortage of oregano, although practically every other type of McCormick-brand spice is available.

And there is one essential Thanksgiving item that's still impossible to get here: a football game on TV. Somehow a Russian-dubbed Mexican soap opera -- the current daytime rage on Russian TV -- just doesn't cut it as the wonderful smells of the self-basting turkey come wafting into the living room.

We usually pop a video of an old Chicago Bears game into the VCR, just for effect. For authenticity's sake, it's a game they lost.

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