How to Depict Sour Faces and Sour Smiles

Кисляк: sourpuss

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Thinking about the summer drink of квас (kvas) immediately makes me think of another traditional Russian summery dish, кисель (kisel, fruit jelly). It's no wonder my synapses made the leap. In Russian, квасить (to pickle or ferment) is more or less in the same kitchen category as киснуть (to sour).

This might surprise you when you are served kisel today, which is not tart and not made through any process of fermentation. Kisel is usually a sweet fruit or berry jelly thickened with potato starch to the consistency of a thin pudding.

Americans: Think of Jell-O before it sets.

But кисель, like квас, is an ancient Slavic dish, and like kvas, it was first made by fermentation. In the olden days, oatmeal (or wheat) was fermented and sweetened. This kind of кисель was traditionally served at funerals and other religious holidays of remembrance for the departed. It could also be cooled to a hard mass and cut with a knife.

Italians: Think of polenta -- only made of oatmeal and served with butter, milk or honey.

Later, when the potato made its way from the Americas through Europe to Russia, кисель was made of fruit or berries and thickened with картофельный крахмал (potato starch).

Even though the name implies that the dish is кислый (sour, acidic), it is usually quite sweet. And it's flavorful -- kisel was always a real treat for dessert. In fact, when Russians want to describe heaven on earth, they say: Молочные реки с кисельными берегами (literally. "rivers of milk by banks of fruit jelly").

Everyone: Think "land of milk and honey." Don't think of how you'd go swimming in that sweet muck.

But if piquancy is good on the table, it's bad in human beings. Кислый человек (also кисляк) is a sourpuss, sometimes with the additional notion of someone who is lackadaisical or sluggish -- that is, someone like a bowl of кисель.

Кислятина is a good word to sneer when the sommelier foists some bad wine on you: Это не вино, а кислятина! (That's not wine, it's like vinegar!) It can also be used to describe a boring, lazy whiner -- someone who is like a sour glob of oatmeal kisel -- although this usage doesn't seem to be very common these days.

Кислая улыбка (literally, a sour smile) describes the hypocritical smile of someone who is mightily displeased but feigning politeness. This is the sort of grimace you see on the face of your boss when you upstage him at the big meeting with the board of directors. На губах его мелькнула кислая улыбка (He flashed a sour smile).

This can also be described less politely as кислая рожа (literally, a sour face). Почему у Сони такая кислая рожа? (Why does Sonya have such a sour face?)

Кислый can also be used to describe a person's mood. Like in English, in Russian a person usually sours on something; being sour is generally more of a temporary state than a permanent personality disorder. So when your otherwise cheerful co-worker looks daggers at everyone, you can ask: Отчего ты такая кислая? (Why are you so cranky?).

The verb киснуть (literally, to sour) may also be applied to people. It seems to have originally been used in the expression киснуть, как квас (literally, to sour like kvas) and referred to higher-born Russians idling in the countryside, where their abilities soured among the fields, cows and mud.

Today, people are more likely to use it to mean "getting into a foul mood." When you tell your friend about your miserable new boss, she might bemoan your fate say: Не кисни! Это еще не конец света (Don't let it get you down. It's not the end of the world).

But if you do get in a foul mood, you can sweeten it with the original Russian comfort food -- кисель.

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