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"Is that Russian salad?" Account Executive Jane Poretsky asked, peering but really more accurately leering at the uniformly diced, mayonnaise-coated ingredients on a platter in front of me. How badly I wanted to say no. "Yes! Do you want some?" She veered towards the elevator with a passing "No no no no no please no."
Jane's parents are Russian—that is, they were born and raised in the Ukraine while it was part of the Soviet Union. While immigrating to Brooklyn in 1989, they were introduced by a mutual friend in Italy and fell in love; her mom arrived in the U.S. first, and after 8 months of love letters, her dad was granted entry, too. Soon followed Jane and her brother, who were fed such classic Russian dishes as mayo-based salads—and apparently a lot of Italian food. (Crying yet?)
Stolichny Salad, the one I was torturing her with, is an updated version of classic Olivier Salad, which is in fact the quintessential Russian salad (good eye, Jane). The recipe is from the new CCCP Cook Book by Olga and Pavel Syutkin, a concoction of potatoes, carrots, eggs, onion, pickles, chicken, tinned peas, and mayonnaise.
If it helps to think of this mess as a love child between potato salad, egg salad, and chicken salad, please do.
Considered "the mandatory dish at any festive occasion" after its invention in the 1860's USSR, Olivier salad was a combination of "capers, grouse, crayfish tails, and black caviar, among other ingredients" that was most often enjoyed at New Years. Eventually, chicken replaced grouse, tinned peas went in for capers, and carrots for crayfish—a chef named Grigory Ermilin dubbed this updated and arguably more palatable combination "Stolichny Salad" in 1939.
The reason for making this dish—despite Jane thinking I'd done so to torture her—was that the ingredient list was notably akin to a traditional and similarly festive Southern salad that I grew up eating. Rather unlike Jane, I was born into a family of longtime East Tennesseans; we made (and still make) a recipe called "Layered Salad" at Christmastime and special occasions.
To make Layered Salad, you break out a clear glass bowl—even a trifle dish, my mom tells me—and layer one ingredient on top of another in this order: finely chopped Iceberg lettuce, raw onion rings, chopped celery, chopped green pepper, cooked and drained frozen green peas, a whole pint of Hellman's mayonnaise, grated hard cooked eggs, crumbled cooked bacon, and Parmesan cheese.
After letting it sit for half a day, during which the flavors are allowed to meld—and in the case of the onions, mellow—the salad can be easily transported as the layer of mayo acts as a sort of airtight seal. The lettuce won't brown, and it's all mixed together before serving alongside roast beast or turkey.
The salads certainly differ: Stolichny is uniform in nature like an egg salad, due to a consistent dice and cooked ingredients, and gets its nuance from pickled cucumbers and dark-meat chicken. I'd like to eat it spooned onto saltines—or fried toast—with a pickled banana pepper or slash of hot sauce on top.
"The liberal use of mayonnaise meant the fresh ingredients did not have to be of high quality," write the Syutkins of the Soviet-era mayonnaise salads, and I don't doubt the same reasoning went into the creation of the like-minded though Southern Layered Salad. Mayo, of course, has a very long shelf life and gives creamy heft to even simple ingredients—think of ranch or blue cheese dressings. More a side salad than a tartine topper, the Layered Salad is characterized by sharp raw onions, grated eggs, and a lot of bacon, with plenty of audible raw vegetable crunch. We eat it alongside all kinds of holiday mains and sides.
I won't deny that the current trend in salads—a riot of colors, textures, and vivacious dressings—is in direct opposition to these mayo-dressed ensembles. But they do have a place in history and on our tables, if only because your
Russian Southern mother says so. The recipes:
- 1 head Iceberg lettuce, finely chopped
- 1 small onion, sliced into rings
- 3 stalks celery, chopped
- 1 small green pepper, chopped
- 1 10-ounce package frozen peas, cooked, drained, and cooled
- 4 hard-cooked eggs, grated
- 8 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
- 6 tablespoons shredded Parmesan cheese
- 1 pint jar of Hellman's mayo