Literature: Anton Chekov, Blini

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Did you know that blini have been around for more than a thousand years, from the old, so-called Slavonic ab ovo[1]? They came into the light prior to Russian history, experienced it all from the beginning to the last page, and there is no doubt that, like the Samovar, they were thought up by a Russian mind. In anthropology, they should occupy the same honorable place as towering ferns or stone knives. But if we still have no scientific papers regarding blini, this is easily explained by the fact that eating blini is much easier than wracking your brain over them.

Times change and little by little, ancient Russian customs, clothes and songs fade away; many have already disappeared and bear only a historic interest, and yet, nonsense such as blini retain a place in the contemporary Russian repertoire as firm and rooted as 1000 years ago. And there isn’t an end in sight.

Taking into account the venerable antiquity of blini and their extraordinary, resistance, with centuries of testimony, in the struggle against innovation, it is sad to think that these delicious circles of dough serve only narrow culinary and gastronomic purposes. It’s a shame for their antiquity and their exact, wholly Spartan steadfastness. Law, the kitchen and the stomach do not last thousands of years.

As for me, I am almost certain that the ever-talking old blini, in addition to being cooked and eaten, have other goals. Aside for heavy, indigestible dough, in them is hidden something higher, more symbolic, perhaps even prophetic… but what?

I do not know and will not know. It is and remains a deep, impenetrable female mystery, which is as difficult to solve, as it is to get a bear to laugh. Yes, blini, their meaning and purpose – this is a female mystery, a mystery which man will not soon uncover. You could write an operetta!

Since prehistoric times, Russian woman watches over this sacred secret, passing it from generation to generation, through none other than her daughters and granddaughters. If, God forbid, even a single man finds out, something so terrible will happen, that even the women can’t imagine what it is. Not wife, not sister, not daughter… no woman will reveal the secret to you, no matter how precious you are to her, no matter what she would stoop to. To buy or barter for this secret is impossible. No woman has uttered it, not in the heat of passion nor in delirium. In other words, this is the only mystery, which has managed, for 1000 years, to remain and not slip through the fine sieve that is the fairer sex!

How are blini made? It is unknown. Only the distant future will know. We must, without thought or question, eat what we are served. This is a mystery!

You will say that men, too, make blini. Yes, but men’s blini aren’t blini. A cold wind blows from their nostrils, on the teeth they create the impression of rubber boots, and in taste they are far behind the blini of women. Cooks must withdraw and admit defeat.

Making blini is exclusively a woman’s job. Cooks must have understood long ago that it’s not merely pouring liquid batter over hot frying pans, but a religious rite, an entire complex system, with its own beliefs, traditions, language, prejudice, joy, suffering. Yes, suffering. If Nekrasov said that the Russian woman has suffered, then blini are partially to blame.

I do not know what the process of making blini consists of, but mystery and gravity, with which the woman has furnished this rite, are somewhat familiar to me. There is a lot here that is mystical, fantastical and even spiritual. Seeing a woman baking blini, one might think that she’s summoning spirits or extracting dough from the philosopher’s stone.

Firstly, no woman, no matter how englightened, would make blini on the eve of or on the 13th, on the eve of or on a Monday. On these days, blini don’t work out. In order to avoid this problem, many clever women begin their pancake-making long before maslenitsa begins. In this way, one can eat blini on that Monday and on the 13th.

Secondly, on the eve of the blini, the mistress of the house is always whispering something mysteriously with the cook. They whisper and look at one another with eyes like they’re composing a love letter. After they whisper, they usually send the kitchen boy, Egorka, to the shop for yeast; The mistress examines the yeast for a long time, smells them, and if they are in any way imperfect, immediately says, “This yeast is no good. You worthless boy, go tell them to give you better yeast.”

The boy runs and brings new yeast. After that, a large clay jar is filled with water, in which the yeast is scattered along with a little flour. When the yeast dissolves, the mistress and the cook go pale, cover the jar with an old tablecloth and put it in a warm place.

“Watch out and don’t oversleep, Matryona,” whispers the mistress. “And make sure you’re keeping the jar warm.”

Then follows a restless, agonizing night. Both the mistress and the cook suffer from insomnia, and if they sleep, they are delirious and have nightmares. How lucky are you, men, that you don’t make blini!

No sooner does a foggy morning light up behind the window, does the mistress – barefoot, disheveled, and still in her nightgown – run down to the kitchen.

“Well, what? Well, how?” She throws questions at Matryona. “Huh? Answer me!”

But Matryona is already by the jar, pouring in buckwheat flour.

Thirdly, women keep careful watch to make sure no outsiders or men from the household enter the kitchen as the blini are being made. Cooks don’t even allow in firemen. You can neither enter, nor look, nor ask. If someone peeks into the clay jar and says, “What fine batter!” then it may as well be poured out as no good blini will come of it. What women talk about while they make blini, what incantations they repeat – this is unknown.

Exactly half an hour prior to the moment when the batter is poured onto the pan, the red and tortured cook pours into the jar a little hot water or warm milk. The mistress stands there, wanting to say something, but under the influence of holy terror, cannot. The other members of the household, meanwhile, pace the rooms in anticipation of the blini, and, seeing the face of the mistress running in and out of the kitchen, think there must be a birth taking place, or at the very least, a wedding.

But finally, the first pan is sizzling, then another, then a third. The first three blini are garbage fit for Egorka, but the fourth, the fifth, the sixth and so on, are placed on a plate, covered in a napkin and brought out to the dining room to the hungry and craving. The mistress herself brings them, red, glowing, proud. One might think that in her hands are not blini, but her first-born.

Well, how would you explain this triumphant sight? By evening, neither the mistress nor the cook can stand or sit from exhaustion. They look pained. A little more, it seems, and they’d be drawing their last breath.

Such is the outside view of the sacred rites. If blini were intended solely for vile gluttony, then, let’s face it, none of this mystery, this night, this suffering would be comprehensible. Clearly there is something, and this “something” is thoroughly hidden.

Looking at the ladies, one concludes that in the future, blini will be the answer to a great, global problem.

[1] Ab ovo (Latin, “from the egg”): This phrase refers to a narrative that starts at the beginning of the plot, and then moves chronologically through a sequence of events to the tale’s conclusion.

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