SAN FRANCISCO—At the Russian Center of San Francisco, visitors tasted a bit of traditional Russia through three floors of food, music, and dancing on the weekend before the holiday known as Maslenitsa.
For Russians, Maslenitsa, also called Pancake Week or Butter Week, is an ancient holiday to welcome spring. This year, Maslenitsa runs from Feb. 24 to March 1.
During the celebration at the Russian Center, people enjoyed traditional food and watched Russian dancers perform. Visitors could choose from a variety of desserts for sale and view a traditional Russian teakettle, or samovar, on display.
Maslenitsa is known as the Russian version of Mardi Gras, and the tradition dates back to the second century A.D. Pancakes are an important part of the holiday.
Russian pancakes are called blini and are thin, resembling French crepes. Blini are made with buckwheat and yeast and are eaten with caviar, sour cream, jam, or butter.
The cakes’ warmth and golden roundness is similar to the sun, so people eat them to feel warm after a cold winter. Pancakes also represent birth and death. In traditional Russian culture, circles are sacred shapes that protect people from evil.
Two weeks before Maslenitsa, people are allowed to eat anything they want and celebrate with activities. The week before Maslenitsa, people start alternating their fasting days. During Maslenitsa, meat is forbidden, but dairy products are still allowed until the next week, when Lent begins.
Each day of Maslenitsa has its own designated activities.
Monday: Welcome day; people start making pancakes.
Tuesday: People play outside. Children play in the snow while eating pancakes, and people are welcomed to eat blini as they pass by gates. Single men can ride a sleigh and look for women, making matchmaking easier in time to hold weddings on Red Hill Holiday (the first Sunday after Easter).
Wednesday: Sons-in-law eat pancakes and other delicacies at the homes of their mothers-in-law.
Thursday: The peak fun day; people are not allowed to work. Men have fist fights, and children dress up and sing.
Friday: Mothers-in-law visit the homes of their sons-in-law. The grander the invitation to such a gathering, the greater the honor to the mother-in-law. A son-in-law might send a delegation to his mother-in-law as part of the invitation.
Saturday: The tradition is for young wives to invite their sisters-in-law to a feast to help them get along. The Russian word for sister-in-law stems from the word “evil,” and sisters-in-law were known for being suspicious of their brother’s wife because she was an outsider. Thus, this day gives them bonding time.
Sunday: Forgiveness day, when people bow and ask for forgiveness. The reply is usually, “God will forgive you.” This is also when young couples present gifts to friends and family members who have supported them. On this day, people leave blini on their ancestor’s graves. All leftover food is eaten.
Maslenitsa is a preparation for Lent, the fasting period before Easter. During Lent, people do not eat meat, fish, dairy products, or eggs. They are also prohibited from dancing and throwing parties so they can focus on spiritual life.
According to Margarita Menialenko, chief archivist of the Museum of Russian Culture San Francisco, eating this way helps discipline a person.
“Food helps you to be strong and to keep some tradition and to create a better character,” said Menialenko. “Before Lent, you have to eat as much as you can, you have to laugh as much as you can, you have to dance as much as you can; then you’re so tired that you don’t want anything anymore, and you want only the Lent.”
Other Popular Russian Dishes
Besides blini, another favorite dish is borscht, a sour soup made of beetroots. The distinctive red soup usually consists of cabbage, potatoes, sour cream, and a meat such as beef.
Beef Stroganoff is a savory, filling meal of sautéed beef and mushroom cream poured over noodles or pasta.
Pelmeni is a boiled dumpling in the shape of a small turnip. It is often stuffed with minced meat, vinegar, sour cream, and onions.
Piroshki is fried bread that can be stuffed with a variety of fillings. The boat-shaped yeast buns are served warm or hot.
Desserts such as Napoleon cakes, similar to the layered French Mille-feuille, were popular in the 19th century.
Sweet cheese pancakes called Syrniki are denser and more filling than the normal pancakes. With jam and berries on top, they make a popular breakfast treat.
Russians often prefer to have their food with tea rather than coffee. The tea is brewed in a samovar, an intricate metal container with a dispenser.
Samovars come in many shapes, sizes, and colors. Most have a hollow cylinder at the center to burn wood or coal. Water is poured in the space around it to be heated.
“Russian people like black tea,” said Galina Epifanova, a volunteer at the Museum of Russian Culture. “Coffee, I think, is for the big city—Moscow and St. Petersburg. So it’s business culture. But tea is a Russian tradition. Every morning we start with tea.”