Getting Sour, Sluggish and Old on Kvas

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Квасить: to make sour, to pickle; to drink (slang)

What do you get when you cross an American carbonated soft drink and a traditional Russian fermented beverage? Bubbly bread? Cola with a kick?

I don't know, but for me, the mere mention of квас, that divinely inspired, thirst-quenching Russian drink, conjures up memories of the yellow kvas trucks -- called цистерны (cisterns) -- that would appear on Moscow street corners on hot days. Instantly, there would be a line that reflected all of Soviet reality: grandmothers with бидоны (enameled cans with tops and handles); mothers in house dresses clutching трехлитровые банки (three-liter glass jars); kids in scruffy sandals stirring up the dust and tossing coins -- стакан за три копейки, кружка за пять (a glass cost 3 kopeks and a big mug cost 5); and usually an energetic fellow with a bucket hoping to get enough kvas for a party. When your turn finally came and you took a sip, it was like drinking ambrosia.

There is something to be said for a deficit economy. When you managed to get one of the goods in short supply, it always tasted like heaven.

Квас is derived from the verb квасить (to ferment, make sour) and is made by mixing солод (malt) and some kind of sugar and grain. Restaurants specializing in Ye Olde Russian Cuisine are reviving it. You can now find медовый, клюквенный, яблочный квас (honey, cranberry, apple kvas) or light kvases flavored with mint and other spices. Kvas is a marketers' dream of a well-established brand; it was first mentioned in the Chronicles more than 1,000 years ago.

Квасить is a good verb to know. It is used to describe any kitchen process in which something is soured or fermented. The end results are homey pleasures like квашеная капуста (sauerkraut) and простокваша (literally, "simply soured," soured clotted milk, similar to buttermilk). But when your neighbor's husband says, Мы с Васей всю прошлую ночь квасили, he doesn't mean that he and Vasya were up until the wee hours putting up crocks of sauerkraut. He means: Vasya and I drank all last night.

Квасной (literally, "pickled") is usually used derogatively with патриотизм (patriotism) to mean someone who is a patriot of the "my country, right or wrong" variety.

Another handy little квасить derivative is закваска. Its first meaning is a starter -- a bit of old bread (kvas, soured milk, etc.) used to start a new batch. (In bread making, this is also called an опара -- sponge.) The notion of something old carrying over to the present led to a figurative meaning, most commonly used in the phrase старая закваска (literally, "old starter"). This refers to some kind of upbringing or way of thinking that determines a person's current behavior or views. Depending on the context, tone of voice, and the speaker's views, this old baggage can be good or bad. Это был человек старой закваски -- в его кабинете висели советские знамёна (He was old school -- he had Soviet banners hanging in his office).

And then there's квашня, literally a wooden bread-making container that looks something like a mini-barrel, slightly wider at the bottom than the top. In some contexts and regional dialects, квашня can also mean starter dough, a kvas-making container or a bread-making container. Figuratively, it can refer to either a thick, sluggish mess or a lazy, sluggish human being. Квашня is also a Russian town, a character in "На Дне" ("The Lower Depths") by Maxim Gorky and the nickname of a prince that ruled Kostroma in the 13th century -- Князь Василий Квашня (Prince Vasily the Slug).

If some of the instruments and ingredients of kvas don't have pleasant linguistic associations in Russian, the final product is revered.

As an old saying goes: Худой квас лучше хорошей воды (Bad kvas is still better than good water).

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.