Alabama feeds Mother Russia
Rhea Wessel, Star Staff Writer
The Anniston Star
November 26, 1998
Alabama families gather together
today to give thanks for abundant blessings. A Russian family crowded around a
family table 5,500 miles away may also have reason for thanksgiving.
recent years, Russians have not faced such formidable conditions: an early
winter with harsh temperatures, the worst harvest in 45
years and, topping it off, a financial crisis that has caused the
ruble to evaporate.
Things look so bleak the West is preparing to ship
in food aid. Alabamians efforts loom large.
dont have a harvest festival similar to Thanksgiving, many families are
grateful for every night they are able to sit down to a warm dinner. They give
thanks that they made it through the day. Hopes for tomorrow are dim.
Many Russian families fret about surviving the winter, feeding their
children, persisting on fixed retirement incomes of less than $50 a month.
Unmentioned in most Russians prayers but nonetheless part of the
process of feeding Russias millions this winter lives in the foothills of
Appalachia. It is Alabama chicken farmers. It is Larry Buckners Ragland
family, among others.
The biggest worry on Buckners plate today
is paying his 13-year-olds tuition at Auburn University in a few years.
The worries of Russian families rise and fall with the sun. What will be for
dinner tonight? Can more corners be cut? Quick, turn out that light; the
electricity bill is going up.
Buckner raises 135,000 chickens every six
weeks and some of his birds make their way to Russian dinner tables. They
dont fly here, they take a long march to Russia via Gadsden and
Blountsville, and on to ports in Mississippi. Much of the poultry crosses the
Atlantic by ship, lands in St. Petersburg, traverses the European continent by
train and ends its journey in Moscows outdoor markets.
78,000 Alabamians work in poultry 78,000 Alabamians helping feed Mother
Russia and benefiting from the economic trade.
Spanning 11 time zones,
Russia is the main export market for U.S. poultry, and Alabama ranks fourth in
domestic poultry production.
The U.S. and Russia have a mutually
beneficial relationship when it comes to chicken. Americans generally prefer
boneless breast meat and Russians like the juicier dark meat of legs and
thighs. (And Chinese like the feet). The chicks grown by Buckner, a supplier
for Tyson Foods, are split down the middle. The top half stays in the U.S. and
the leg quarters hit the chicken trail to Russia.
Here in Russia, the
back ends are fondly called Nozhki Busha or "Bush Legs" for the former U.S.
president who first promoted the trade.
Far across the Atlantic and on
the far side of Europe is Nina Apollonova, a 73-year-old pensioner. The widow
lives in eastern Moscow in a high-rise building. Her efficiency apartment is
one room that measures roughly 25 feet by 15 feet, plus a small bath. Black and
white photos of her two sons hang above her sagging bed which is a few feet
from her dinner table, a few inches from her sofa.
Mrs. Apollonova is
energetic and excitable. She talks with her hands. When she laughs, a twinkle
shows in her eyes and the light catches the gold caps on her lower teeth.
Cooking is an art for Mrs. Apollonova, and she talks zealously about
her recipes for Alabama chicken: broiled birds with prunes, chicken Kiev, and
her favorite a spicy blend from Georgia the country south of her
Back in Ragland, Norma Buckner, Larrys wife, also loves to
cook. Once a month, she drives her Dodge Caravan 50 miles to buy bulk groceries
from a warehouse grocery in Birmingham. Every day Mrs. Apollonova walks three
miles from market to market looking for the lowest prices. Her cupboard and
refrigerator space are limited so she bundles up, pulls on her snow boots and
straightens her fur shapka, the hat so many Russians wear to keep out the
The petite, muscular grandmother emerges from the
summer-like conditions of her apartment into weather colder than Mrs.
Buckners deep freeze. On this mid-November day, it was already 5 degrees
Another household on the receiving end of Alabamas
chicken trail is the Ostashevskaya family. Nikolai, an engineer, drives a white
mini-van for Tysons. Nadya, his wife, used to teach English. Now she does odd
jobs such as baby-sitting and housekeeping. Nikolai worked in aeronautics until
his job was phased out after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Mrs. Ostashevskaya likes to warm up in the evenings by drinking
homemade chicken bouillon. When Ostashevskaya gets home from work around 7
p.m., the couple eats her cooking and settles in for the night.
Ragland, a similar scene is lived out.
Buckner has taken his last
shower of the day trying to rid himself of the smell of his source of income.
He and his wife eat the supper she cooks and serves while talking about farm
jobs they finished and what needs to be done tomorrow. The kids run in, grab a
plate. Larry catches the 10 oclock news.
In western Moscow,
sitting in his cloth-covered armchair, wearing an argyle sweater, Ostashevskaya
is also watching the tube. Maybe its a rerun of "ER" or an old French
flick. Though the Russian engineer has attended college, Buckner nets more than
100 times his salary of about $1,000 a month. But at the end of the day, it
really doesnt matter. They are both dog-tired.
The Cold War
officially defrosted long ago. Some Americans may still think of Russians as
our recent Communist enemy. A few may also recall Russia was our World War II
ally before the Stalinist regime soured relations.
The new global
economy that exports Alabama chickens to Russia is recipe for a whole new
relationship. The poultry industry is not charity but international trade with
considerable monetary benefit to producers.
Instead of "us" and "them,"
Alabamians and Russians are simply trade partners.
The two peoples have
sound economic and social reasons to learn mutual understanding. The process
begins by recognizing cultural differences and similarities.
shopping as an example. While Americans wait for their Sunday newspaper inserts
to scope out the lowest prices on food, Mrs. Apollonova joins other pensioners
in a weekday morning shopping crunch. Instead of a frozen food section, all
goods come that way. Anything left outside in Russias frigid winters for
any time will begin to crystallize.
As two Americans bump into each
other in the produce section of Winn-Dixie, Mrs. Ostashevskaya sees friends and
interacts with neighbors at her local rynok, or outdoor market. Shopping is a
social event a time to see familiar faces and to find some someone to
commiserate with about the high prices.
Since Russias financial
system collapsed Aug. 17, some prices have doubled while salaries have
generally stayed the same. Many workers are on an unpaid "holiday" as they wait
until the economy improves. In some cases, families lost their whole
lifes savings when the ruble lost its value and banks closed their doors.
At a butcher shop or small grocery store, Mrs. Ostashevskaya shells out
her rubles for Alabama Bush legs. No need to stand in line. Thats a
futile effort. The way to make it to the front is to push your body toward it.
The eager but silent mob doesnt seem to vex the lone clerk behind the
Mrs. Ostashevskayas food has made it past the cashier.
Shes on her own to pack it into her personal grocery cart, much like
luggage wheels with metal tubing and a leather-look sack. She layers her milk,
her cabbage and her Alabama chicken legs.
Had she forgotten to bring
her own shopping bag, Mrs. Apollonova or Mrs. Ostashevskaya would have to pay a
small sum for a plastic one. No freebies here. Many street vendors sell plastic
shopping bags decorated with scenes from a fantasy life fast cars, jet
planes and island vacations.
At Wal-Mart SuperCenter in Oxford,
cashiers make brief eye contact asking, "How are you today?" Programmed to the
greeting, the typical reply is, "Fine. How are you?" As niceties are exchanged,
your shampoo, your new radio and your Alabama chicken legs are double bagged.
Since market reforms took hold in Russia, superstores have begun to
Unlike American ones, where discounts are the attraction,
hypermarkets in Russia have variety and availability as their selling points.
Shoppers are usually the upper middle class, newly rich Russians or Americans
and Europeans working in Russia.
A blast of hot air welcomes shoppers
to Ramstor hypermarket in Western Moscow. Instead of an elderly people-greeter
at the door, the shopper first encounters two men holding mops. The moppers are
everywhere. Twenty or 30 of them. Following in shoppers footsteps.
Interested in the muddy slush tracked in. A foreigner looks guilty for causing
such work. High unemployment eases the conscience.
Perusing the acres
of shelves on Sunday morning at the squeaky clean and glimmering 24-hour store,
the director of the U.S. Department of Agricultures Trade Office in
Moscow notices the variety of American chicken available. Bob Walker comments
that poultry is one of the lowest-priced sources of protein for Russians and
before the financial crisis, the U.S. sent 100,000 tons each year. At many
shops, beef is twice the price of chicken.
Mrs. Ostashevskaya has done
her shopping for the week, and its time for Sunday-style family
activities and Alabama chicken, of course. As Larry and Norma head to Hardin
Chapel Bible Church in Ragland, Nadya and Nikolai make for the woods outside
Moscow. The couple owns their own cross-country skiing gear and they like
getting exercise and fresh air. Speaking for her husband, Nadya says they are
"Nikolai doesnt go to church, but he believes
in God in his heart," she says. Married 24 years, with one son, Nadya is the
talkative one, and she is clearly in control.
Larry and Norma have been
together since she was 14. They operate by consensus, discussing whether their
youngest son, Pike, should switch off the television and practice his trumpet.
In their 33 years of marriage, they have four children. Two boys, Pike the
surprise, and then a girl.
The oldest two are Jeff, 31, and Bradley,
28. Pike, the youngest son, is 13, and Beth is 10. Kira, the dog, joined the
family somewhere along the way.
"I wouldnt change a thing. I
wouldnt have it any different," says Mrs. Buckner.
for a good job with the phone company and he was sent away for training for a
few months. He missed Norma so much he went home to Ragland and married his
Nadya and Nikolai fell in love when they were a bit older.
She was 21, and he was 29. She had introduced another couple and the friends
wanted to return her favor. Enter Nikolai and the rest is Russian history.
Together with Riki, a 9-year old Airedale terrier, they have lived in
their two-bedroom apartment in Moscow for the past 24 years. Their son, Artem,
who is 22, is married and lives with his wife in Moscow.
At the distant
dinner tables, both Mrs. Buckner and Mrs. Ostashevskaya serve their husbands
the dishes they cooked on their gas stoves. Buckner and Ostashevskaya are
seated; the women are scurrying, making sure the chicken doesnt get too
Western pop music by Sting and the Pet Shop Boys plays in the
background of the small Moscow apartment thats about 350 square feet of
living space. The phone rings as the screen-saver on the family computer kicks
in. (Ostashevskaya studies English on the computer).
At the 140-acre
Buckner farm, the big screen television and microwave hum in the background of
the 2,700-square foot house. Beth has connected to a Beanie Baby web site to
find out which one she wants to add to her collection of 123 just as Pike, the
eager concert and marching band member, practices his scales.
vodka is poured as dinner is served in Moscow. Little chunks of chicken are
layered into a salad. In a second dish, cooks combine finely chopped chicken
into a smooth recipe somewhat like paté. This precedes a main course of
broiled chicken with prunes and cauliflower, something of a Russian standard.
The Buckners are true Southerners, and they take their chicken fried
with a glass of iced tea to wash it down. Norma slices breasts lengthwise, dips
them in milk and egg, dredges in White Lily self-rising flour and fries in a
little bit of corn oil. The fixins? Mashed potatoes and gravy, macaroni
and cheese and a green salad dressed by Paul Newman. Pickled vegetables from
the familys dacha, or suburban garden house, dress the bird in Moscow.
A toast is made to all present and even to those who arent.
Careful not to set your glass down without drinking or it will bring bad luck.
Women, dont sit at the outermost seat or you may not get married for the
next seven years. And never leave an empty alcohol bottle on the table.
Its a bad sign.
The Ostashevskayas and guests linger at the
rectangular lace-covered table in their living room. It is furnished with a
long armoire and a framed mirror.
The armoire holds the familys
treasures a flowered china set, pictures and trinkets.
served Russian style. Leaves are seeped in a small pot and half a teacup of the
strong brew is served. Then boiling water from a different kettle is poured on
top. The samovar, an ornate container once used for boiling water, is mostly
for decoration these days.
Nadya takes a teaspoon full of cranberries
in gooey sauce and stirs them into her green tea, called chai. "Its
better than sugar," she says, spooning out the warmed fruits when shes
finished with her tea.
Next come the candies. Individually wrapped and
served in a beveled glass dish, the Russian specialties are crisp and rich. A
large box of Western European chocolates is opened at the table. The
guests eyes grow large with anticipation. At the Buckners, its
apple pie for those who have any room left.
For some Russian families
not as fortunate as the Ostashevskayas, the meal never progresses to desert. It
is chicken boiled, baked, rolled, stuffed or broiled. It is every last
piece, cleaned to the bone, then boiled again to make broth.
thousands of miles away, Buckner excuses himself from the dinner table.
Its time to check on his chicks. The chicks that will soon help nourish a
hungry Mother Russia.