Tuesday started the way every Tuesday should start: with a hearty English breakfast. We hadn’t planned it that way, but Jim had to head out to a business meeting so breakfast out seemed like an excellent idea. I had forgotten that things don’t really get popping until at least 10am so we had trouble finding a place. But the lovely Café Paul was awake and bustling with warm, fresh pastries and blessedly hot coffee. After perusing the menu the economics of ordering basically dictated that I follow Jim’s lead and get the English breakfast. It was just too good a value. So we had coffee, fresh-squeezed juice, eggs, sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes, toast and a croissant. It all quickly made its way into my yawning stomach. Jim set off for his meeting and I went home to nap.
But not for long—I had to meet Sergei, the conference organizer, for lunch. I got to his office, but not without wrong turns. This is absolutely ridiculous. I’ve been to his office at least five times. It’s not at all tricky. Just further proof that I should never be in charge of navigation.
His office is stuffed with people—many people that are going to the conference have congregated there early. They quickly absorb me into their group, fix me some tea, and ply me with Central Asian delicacies. For unclear reasons, there is a gynecologist from Kazakhstan there along with an older Tajik man named Sharif. They insist that I sample a wide assortment of Tajik nuts and dried fruits: pistachios, walnuts, cashews, almonds, etc. They are similar to what I’m used to tasting but also markedly different. It’s like these are the cousins of the nuts I am used to. I also get to try some dried figs and other fruits. There was one that looked like a blackberry coated in sugar, but that’s not what it was at all. In fact, I think it was a walnut, but I’m not sure.
Sharif took a liking to me very quickly and took it upon himself to explain to me the meaning of our President’s first name in Arabic: Barack. He said it means “favored by God.” Then he said, “See? I teach Americans about America!” He then asked me how many Wilsons had been President of the U.S. and I had to admit I didn’t know. But he didn’t know, either, so it worked out perfectly. By the end of our short conversation he had decided that we would open a chain of Tajik stores together in the U.S. called “Rachel.”
Sergei was ready to go to lunch so we hurried out the door, but not before Sharif could give me a gift: a lemon from Tajikistan. “You must tell me how this lemon is different from all other lemons!” he exhorted.
Sergei took me to a steakhouse. This was most unexpected. I’ve never eaten steak in Russia. What’s more, I had just wolfed down that English breakfast. But I don’t know Sergei very well and I’m trying to be as polite as possible so I just have what he’s having. Which turned out to be a big-ass steak. But I can put away food pretty much any time, so I ate the entire thing. So I waddled back home in time to….cook.
Yes, cook. I had invited my friend Sasha over for dinner. Back in Tucson, I had it in my head that I really ought to cook something Tucsonan for Sasha. So I brought some canned beans and some salsa with me. My brilliant idea had been to make Sonoran hot dogs. The day before I’d bought hot dogs, buns, bacon, mayonnaise, and a few other necessaries. I couldn’t’ eat anything else, but at least I could put together a spread. At least I hoped.
But as soon as I started I could tell there were big problems. The first was with the Russian hot dogs. Like, I know there are different kinds of Russian hot dogs. I know this. But at the store I had been fooled into buying a package of what looked like American hot dogs. They were even labeled “Bar-B-Que.” But each hot dog was individually wrapped in meat-colored plastic. When I cut the plastic off these turned out to be regular old Russian dogs. They’re called “doctors’ dogs,”—no idea why. But the texture is as if bologna has been shaped into a hot-dog shape. I think that’s why they were individually wrapped in plastic—because they would fall apart of you just boiled them straight. Well, I wrapped them in “bacon,” (again, not bacon, but something bacon-ish that was not quite fatty enough, oddly) and started frying them in the pan. They stuck immediately, so I had to add some oil. Fuck, I thought. This is not good.
The bread was also terribly disappointing. Sonoran hot dogs aren’t served on regular hot dog buns. They’re served on Mexican bolillos, which are boat-shaped and fluffier than regular buns. I knew I’d never find that so I settled for what looked like regular hot dog buns. But it turns out they weren’t even that. They were stale, whatever they were, and they tasted like paste, frankly.
Poor Sasha. My dear friend ate this terrible food. I even suggested we ditch this whole thing and go out to dinner, but he bravely persevered. The conversation was so good that it probably made up for it, though, and Jim treated us to a read-through of his product catalog before leaving. Believe me, once you’ve seen Jim’s catalog, even my disgusting Russian-made Sonoran hot dogs looked appetizing.
As a last slap in the face, I forgot to offer my Tajik lemon to Sasha for his tea. Thank god we’ve been friends for 20 years already.