Borscht and Pub Culture

Last week, my Husband and I went to a birthday party for one of his co-workers at the Local Pub (yes, for all intents and purposes, it is a noun, I’ll explain in a minute). Now pubs and pub culture does not exist in the United States – the closest thing we have to it are Bars and Night Clubs. As I perceive it, they are differentiated thus:

Bar/Local Bar: place you go to get drinks when you’re roaming round town in the evening or on a Saturday. Usually some X miles away from home, though if you’re in the city, you might be able to walk there.

Night Club: The place you go to drink, listen to music and generally party until you puke into the nearest porcelain bowl (if you’re lucky, you won’t miss and get your shoes instead). Like a Bar, it is also some X miles away from home; though usually reserved for deep inner city goers where they don’t care about the noise because no one sleeps there, anyway.

Pub/Local Pub: That place you go to after work to meet/hang out with friends/coworkers for 3 to 5 hours, talking and having drinks – maybe food, but that’s sketchy – most nights of the week (yes, for some, it is that frequent). They are more family friendly, as well, though only just barely, and only if advertised.

In the UK, comparable to where I grew up in the States, the general population drinks a lot. Seriously; I am not joking – when I first came to visit when I was still dating my now-husband, I consumed more wine in one week than I did in the time between turning 21 and that point (I was about 25 going on 26). Arguably, I’ve never been a drinker; it wasn’t discouraged when I was growing up mind, but neither was it overly encouraged. Alcohol was just one of those things that wasn’t a big deal and I never got onto the happy-wagon as far as that was concerned. Prior to that, the most I had ever had in one sitting was 1 and a half margaritas on one occasion when I went out for drinks when I was 23 – and that was only because it was happy-hour.

But I digress, point being: my thought process at the time was that my Husband’s family drank like ever-loving fish. Funnily enough; they were the tip of the iceberg as far as that went, as most of the people I have met (aside from those of notable faiths like Islam and Baha’i – who abstain from drinking), tend to drink more.

So when alcohol is part of a social construct, it really is no surprise that the Pub is basically the centre of the community. So much so that people refer to it as “the Local Pub,” even when speaking to people who are not in the area. Even when they are giving you directions to where it is. To the point where the person who’s party we were attending didn’t even know the actual name of the place.

In her defence, as it isn’t just her fault; the Local Pub did change its name a couple of times over the years (from “the Shed” to “the Brewery” to “the Barn” to something-Fatcat, I… really, its no wonder that people stick with the imprecise and generic “Local Pub”) and I got the distinct impression that she, as an older lady, had lived in the area for a significant part of her life.

It was just very fortunate that there was still a website up with one of the older names that had the address. We probably wouldn’t have found it otherwise. Even then, when we got there, we were uncertain. Thankfully, my Husband recognised someone inside and that became the hitch-that-never-was.

I have to say, I never would dream of having a party, birthday or otherwise, at a Pub. Just not part of my culture – which celebrates everything with copious amounts of food. The closest my family ever came to replicating this was by going out to a fancy restaurant. That said, I was curious as to how this was going to work. I came to find out that they secured the place because of a family connection (a friend-of-a-friend, if you will) which leads me to question if adult birthdays being held at the Local Pub are really a social norm, or if they aren’t actually just a sub-culture specialty.

Anyway, we got inside, we took off our jackets and set our things in a corner and we were introduced around to everyone who was there at that point. By the most part, at the time we arrived, it was just family and their respective partners/dates. As more people began to filter in, they brought out pitchers of Lager and house wine on ice to get people going.

Not being drinking types, my Husband went to the bar and fetched back some “fizzy,” coke-cola to be specific, which was in cans accompanied with a pair of glasses and the UK standard 3-5 ice cubes. Instantly I was reminded of my first time coming to the UK and discovering that they not only do not fill their glasses with (cheap) frozen water to ensure that it is perfectly cold and crisp, but they do not do the American “free-refill” either. Probably just as well; diet soda drinks here taste absolutely foul and I just don’t have much of an urge to consume a lot of the regular stuff.

To make a comparison: UK diet sodas taste bad and the regular sodas that they have remind me of US diet drinks – only without the artificial sweeteners  (I’m pretty sure I’ve touched on this topic before, but it bears repeating) – I suspect Americans would better enjoy the alcohol or stick to tea; they might find themselves sorely disappointed otherwise. Why? Because Americans are also spoiled when it comes to coffee and unless you’re into fruit juice or milk (if you’re lucky, they may have a hot chocolate option, which is almost always worth it – IMHO) that’s pretty much it for your drink choices beyond water.

And, to be frank, people look at you funny here if you just ask for water. Probably because it’s seen as only an ingredient for tea/coffee and some obscene product called “squash” which is basically liquid kool-aid (see: no actual fruit were harmed in the creation of this product), but more likely it has something to do with the fact that some places still have lead pipes. Not that BOILING the water gets rid of that, but hey w/e, right? Some things, you just don’t question the English.

You know, like drinking hot tea during the peak of summer while they fan themselves, slowly dying from the rising temperatures (if you missed it before, that’s your cue to start laughing).

As more people began to arrive at the Pub, we eventually struck up a conversation with a woman who is a 10-year Transplant to the UK from Slovenia/Slovakia (I have to apologise, I can’t remember now and I was lacking in tools to make notes), though she is of Russian descent.

She’s slowly building up her own practice (I didn’t catch what it was, but my inkling is that it is somewhere on the Mental Therapies spectrum) where we live and she moved into the town itself about two years ago. I’ll forgo the story of how she came to be in the UK, but suffice it to say that she’s gone through a lot to get to this point in her life.

We talked in length about social dynamics, customs, proxemics. Being from a colder portion of the world as well, she and I exchanged stories about how we bested the winter chill (apparently, on top of insulating homes better, during the winter, they would seal the windows with insulation and newspaper was covered over the top – sealing out drafts and held in place with soap, interestingly enough).

“Hand gestures,” she noted to us, “are different.” Though, when I asked her, she couldn’t say how. If people used different hand expressions or what, but she did feel there was a distinct difference about them.

She did speak some English before coming to the UK, though she was not confident with it; in some ways, she thought this might have helped her as people are more lenient to those speaking English who are not from English-speaking countries. The general sense was that she felt she escaped some of the social faux pas that I endured because I was assumed to already just know.

Her experience with the UK public was that they were generally more polite. So much so, that, when her mother comes to visit, she finds herself actively reminding her mom to use the word “please” when asking for thing. I’m inclined to agree with this point; if only because I know my own brand of American politeness still violates the social rules (I.e.: I am perceived as rude at times). On the flip-side of that extreme, I did note that my sub-culture is hyper-aware of proxemics – relating a story where I found myself emphatically apologising for ALMOST cutting in front of someone where most people would have not bothered, or only apologised if an actual collision had taken place.

We had a good laugh about perceptions; I concluded that “Rude Americans” by British standards were, generally speaking, seen as being “assertive” where I am from. My Husband, perhaps grudgingly, agreed – but only to a point, which is fair. Assertive does not permit people to be abusive (using insults, though people are more quick to them here, than I recall experiencing in the States).

It was hard to say if homes or private property was bigger or smaller. My Husband noted that, while American homes are massive, they tend to be perched on top of disproportionally small plots of land. Pot calling the Kettle black, as he was; I had to point out that his familial home was far from the norm as England goes, where most gardens are sometimes only big enough to turn ourself around in. She (Let’s call her M so there’s no confusion) noted that houses were about the same size in the UK in relation to where she was from, but the rooms inside tended to be smaller; whereas I noted almost the opposite effect. M didn’t think there was much difference in the relation if land, though she pointed out she was from a more rural – small village type – area compared to the rest of the nation where she was from.

In terms of parties and family celebrations, I found I could easily relate to M – our cultures were similar in that respect, though I still reckon my family has a greater emphasis on food (most noted by the fact that you’re almost chased out the door by relatives with bags of leftovers once the party is over) – striking me that if one were to put them on a polarised line graph, M’s culture as far as birthdays were concerned would have fallen in the middle between my Husband’s and my own.

It was interesting how food was managed at the party; they ultimately did what was basically a simple canapé spread (crusty bread, liver pate, sausage rolls, grapes, chutneys and jams, crackers, butter and cheese) and for most, I could see how it would work. It would never have done for my lot – if because all of the cross contamination made the whole thing a no-go for me; thankfully, I wasn’t very hungry that night.

All in all, it was a good evening and we were home at about midnight.

Perhaps it was because our new acquaintance was Russian, but I had gotten it in my mind a few days later (see: Wednesday) to take a stab at making Borscht – something I hadn’t tried before despite having heard of it. I did look around for recipes, and I did find one which I ended up loosely (emphasis on that) following. Sad to say, it seems I forgot to favourite it on Pinterest.

Long story short, Borscht is a relaxed soup to make, really. The biggest thing is to remember to chop things into small enough cubes to start. Most recipes called for cabbage, but I decided to skip it since I had a literal ton of other vegetables on hand. The hardest step is probably getting the skins off of the beets after roasting them – they slide off easily enough if you rub them under cold water, but you have to chop them after that and all that warm beet juice is dark and thick…

and it dribbles everywhere…

Basically, the kitchen looked like a set for a murder scene, and it was tricky to clean up as I went along – the cutting board is still tinged raspberry. In the end, the results were great – everyone enjoyed it, so despite the mess, it’s worth doing again.

I will pass on a suggestion that I picked up along the way, however and that is to add a dash of cider vinegar – the acidity worked really well and adds a new dimension of flavour.

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