Good Friends, Old Customs, and Chilled Vodka
Vodka. They say it is the purest of beverages — water and ethanol from grain or potatoes, distilled and sometimes filtered. They make it in Russia and Poland, in Scandinavia, in France, lately in the United States, and, I’m sure, in many other countries. When I looked it up on line I found a designation I loved — the vodka belt countries. They say your breath doesn’t smell after drinking vodka, and you don’t have a headache the next morning. I’m not totally convinced on this last point because when I drink it, usually in the form of a cocktail — like a Vodka Martini, which I top with a splash of Campari — followed by wine with dinner, and possibly other drinks afterwards, my mornings after become mildly challenging.
My father, on the other hand, swore by vodka and drank it neat his entire life; and just like Gus Portokalos, the bride’s father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who tried to cure everything with a little Windex, my father was convinced that vodka was the best remedy for many ailments: colds, frostbites, sunburn (you rub it on your skin), depression, tiredness, melancholy, love (requited or unrequited), but most of all it was the essential party libation. “It hits the spot in the quickest way possible,” he used to declare.
A well-respected surgeon, my father traveled to Moscow quite often for professional exchanges. Listening to his travel stories, I was convinced that the only thing doctors did over there was drink vodka. “They sit at this large table,” he used to tell us. “They go around and toast each other, each time emptying their vodka glasses, which are not small, mind you, but as big as our water glasses, and they expect me to say a few words as well, being the guest of honor. But by the time my turn comes, I’m done, drunk, ready to slide under the table.” One time he returned satisfied to have kept up with his hosts. “I learned my lesson,” he said. “Before dinner, I swallowed a spoonful of sunflower oil that coated my stomach, and it was perfect.” I recently saw the Russian movie Leviathan, and realized that my father was not exaggerating. Those Russians don’t kid around: they drink Vodka like there is no tomorrow.
In Ceausescu’s Romania, where store shelves were mostly empty, my father made his own vodka: two-thirds water, one-third alcohol, sugar, and lemon peel. It turned pale, cloudy, and yellow after a few days, and we called it Limonka.
My wife and I came to the US in the mid-seventies as refugees. My parents joined us years later, and settled down not far from us in Columbia, MD. They continued to make their own vodka, and use it to charm and entertain with it countless Romanian immigrants and new American friends over eight course dinners. They helped us raise our American born son and daughter, their grandchildren.
Many young, and some not so young Romanians took the way of the West after the fall of Communism. In the winter of 1991, the 27-year-old son of a friend of my father’s, a nuclear engineer, landed at his doorstep. My father gave him a shot of Limonka and opened the door for him as wide as he could. The young man spent a few months in my parents’ apartment. In the fall of that year he was accepted for a master’s program at a Midwestern university where he studied nuclear medicine. His tourist visa was replaced by a student visa, and his wife could join him. She studied at the same school for a similar degree. When their son, Alex, was born, I became his godfather.
At that same time, we met another recently immigrated Romanian couple. They were both computer gurus. Today, they both have remarkable careers in IT. We are good friends and they live near by. One evening they invited us to a vodka tasting party in their beautiful home. That closed the circle for me. We drank from small elegant shot glasses and ate wonderful cheeses, olives and smoked trout. We tasted Grey Goose, Belvedere, Absolute, and Stolichnaya, all big names in the world of vodka. We sampled an American vodka called Harvest. We all liked Harvest best. It was smooth and gentle and smelled and tasted like crusty fresh bread.
After my father died we fulfilled his last wish and spread his ashes in the Atlantic Ocean, not far from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. That evening, my wife, my two children who had just graduated from college, and I went into Rehoboth and stopped at a rather fancy restaurant to have a drink in the memory of my father. A waiter, not much older than our children, took the order. It was astoundingly simple: four shots of Stolichnaya, no ice. He served us, and we drank in silence. When we got up to leave, he stared at us as if we were from a different planet.
Years later my son confessed that sometimes, when he was in high school, grandpa would lift his spirit and that of his sister by treating them in great secret to half and even three quarters of a shot glass of his beloved Limonka.
Time flies. Alex, my godson, is 21. He studies computer science and he came to Maryland for an internship with a hi-tech company. He now lives with us for the summer. His parents drove down from New England to visit. They picked up a few bottles of vodka on the way. On a perfect Maryland evening, when the humidity was low and the temperature just about right, I took all the vodka bottles out of the freezer and lined them up on our deck top rail. They were all small batches, hand crafted vodkas, two from Maine (Twenty 2, and Wiggly Bridge), one from Pennsylvania (Bluebird) and one from Iceland (Reyka). I added a bottle of Czech Slivovitz for good measure. My wife served crackers and cheeses, and a Romanian vegetable spread called Zacusca (available on Amazon!), and the tasting began. These vodkas had personality and even though each of us, young Alex included, drank a few shots and expressed an opinion, there wasn’t a clear winner. We called our friends, the computer experts, and they came to meet Alex. Our next-door neighbors and their son joined the party. We didn’t have Limonka, but we had stories, and a good appetite. We barbequed, ate, and drank some more. Jokes abounded. Vodka was but a pretext to make us happy.
We had done our jobs, paid our taxes, raised our children, and succeeded in our careers.
We are home.
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