Re-creating Martha Stewart’s Russian Buffet

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Kaitlyn: A few months ago, my friend Stephanie found a copy of Martha Stewart’s 1982 book, Entertaining, on a stoop in Brooklyn and gave it to me at my birthday breakfast. This book is amazing. In it, Martha teaches how to plan a wide variety of food-focused parties, including “midnight omelette supper for thirty,” “neoclassic dinner for eight to ten,” and “sit-down country luncheon for one hundred seventy-five.” At the front, there’s a stunning photo of Martha wearing Adidas Superstars and feeding her chickens. The recipes are, I have to assume, of their time. There is one for “pureé of fennel,” and one for chicken paté served on apple slices. There is one for snow peas stuffed with Saint-André cheese (“guests cannot believe that someone has actually stuffed a snow pea!”) and one for a hollowed-out pumpkin full of asparagus, just to mention the second-most-surprising recipe involving snow peas and the second-most surprising recipe involving a hollowed-out pumpkin.

Martha Stewart knows more about a greater number of things than anyone else alive, and I genuinely believe that. I am always trying to learn from her. So, on a Saturday in January, I invited Lizzie and some of our friends over for an approximation of Martha’s “Russian Buffet for Twenty-Four.” I couldn’t fit “Twenty-Four” people into my apartment, so I only invited seven.

Lizzie: Before Martha’s “Russian Buffet for Twenty-Four”-via-Kaitlyn, I would’ve been among those guests who couldn’t believe that someone had actually stuffed a snow pea. Now I would say, “That’s nothing compared to petrifying a fresh rose and some other fake flowers in an ice block fused to a bottle of vodka.” Art is all around us, and sometimes it’s even created by our friends!

Normally I might take this opportunity up front to tell you a little bit about how I prepared for this party. But the truth is that on January 1, I received a Google Calendar invite for this banquet, and a week later, on the invite’s designated day and time, I showed up. I brought with me only a bottle of wine, a bottle of prosecco, and a soup ladle, as requested by our host. The soup ladle was one of those “free sidewalk soup ladles” you sometimes hear about in NYC: one item among dozens in a cardboard box outside a brownstone, full of dishes, plastic toys, and old magazines that the original owner doesn’t think are worth selling or throwing out. You are, potentially, meeting me for the first time, and now you know that my contribution to this party was a free soup ladle with an ugly wooden handle that I took home with me when the night was over. Unsurprisingly, Kaitlyn pulled it all off without me.

Kaitlyn: Sometimes if you’re doing something elaborate for literally no reason you just have to do it yourself. This cost a lot of money honestly and I didn’t love my own temperament during the process. As Lizzie mentioned, the centerpiece for the table was a 750-ml bottle of vodka frozen into a brick of ice embedded with flowers, which was executed by placing the vodka and flowers into an emptied half-gallon milk carton full of water and setting it out on the fire escape the night before. I was frustrated by this because I wasn’t able to fit anywhere near as many flowers as Martha somehow squeezed into her vodka ice carton, and the top three inches of the vodka bottle didn’t fit in there either, so I don’t know, I guess my bottle was somehow too wide and too tall, despite being 750 ml as directed. Sometimes it does seem like Martha is lying. I really hate to say that.

Two photos of vodka ice bottles
Martha’s vodka ice carton (left); Kaitlyn’s vodka ice carton (right)(Courtesy of Kaitlyn Tiffany)

Then Nathan and I stayed up until 1 a.m. prepping the fillings for the piroshki and the stuffed cabbage leaves and making Martha’s favorite borscht recipe, which requires buying and cutting up something like eight pounds of vegetables that are eventually strained out and thrown in the trash. Martha wanted us to make our own pastry dough for the piroshki but I had already had it up to here. [Gesture to my eyebrows.] I revere Martha, but I’m from a household where we respect convenience, modern food science, and our own limitations, so if we can swap frozen Pillsbury into a recipe, then we do that. Martha also wanted me to bake a cake in a coffee can and a second cake (made with seven hard-boiled egg yolks) in a cone-shaped metal sieve. [Moment of silence.] Instead, we went to La Brioche Cafe in Brighton Beach on Saturday morning and picked out some really elegant stuff.

Anyway, I had broken Dry January with two glasses of the cooking wine by the time Lizzie arrived.

Lizzie: The Q train was on my side that night—I got to Kaitlyn’s first. When I got there, Nathan and Kait were hard at work putting the finishing touches on their menu. Nathan was handling a full-body sea bass in a very friendly manner while Kait set up the decor: vintage glassware, a floral table runner, and long red candlesticks. Call it modern Victorian?

I was wearing multiple layers, including two pairs of pants, which turned out to be at least one more pair of pants than I needed. My landlord is running some kind of brilliant scam where I have to pay for my own heat, so my apartment is always cold, but I forgot what it was like to be multiple stories up in a building where heat just pumps in all day long. It was hot, I mean. Kait poured me a blackberry-liqueur-based cocktail to cool off.

Kaitlyn: The cocktail was called an “Uncle Vanya,” and it was so, so sweet. Everyone who tried one looked pretty upset.

I hadn’t invited more than one other person into my apartment at a time in oh … two years. So it was really a thrill to hear the doorbell ring. When Ashley and Bran arrived, they handed me a casserole carrier with a cheese-blintz souffl​​é in it—a soufflé! When Jake and Lori arrived, I rushed over to tell Lori that I’d read The Passage of Power at her suggestion and agreed 100 percent with her assessment of Lyndon B. Johnson’s terrifying personality. (Women really connect over the works of Robert Caro, in my experience.) My apartment is 400 square feet, so everyone had to settle into a single oval of conversation, some on the couch and some on the folding stools I purchased at Super Discount Store specifically for the occasion. I sat in my gray armchair by the window and shouted.

Lizzie: The conversation oval, while vaguely reminiscent of some kind of group-therapy setup, was actually conducive to full-party participation, and I think we collectively got a lot more out of it than we would have if the setup had pushed us towards smaller islands of conversation. We talked about how Lori’s dad is really into building porches, sometimes going so far as to build porches on top of porches. We talked about the faulty design of paper-towel roll holders, the aesthetic legacy of 5 Gum, if the judges on The Great British Bake Off spit out the cake like you might at a wine tasting, how to tap a tree for maple syrup, if all Duane Reades are called “Duane Reade by Walgreens” now, and if it would be worth it to get plastic surgery so my ears stick out more.

Kaitlyn: Duane Reade is literally owned by Walgreens!!! Lizzie’s ears are perfect.

We started dinner with a borscht course. (And Lizzie’s ladle.) Of course I experienced mortal fear while watching everyone hold bowls of liquid the color of pinkish blood in their laps, on my furniture. It was sort of a macabre sight, which is maybe why the conversation drifted toward the surreal: Lizzie’s recent dream about podcast host Chris Black trimming her fingernails, whether my enormous cat, Ghost, gave my college boyfriend’s dad cat scratch fever that time he bit him right down to the thumb bone … Could he have?

Lizzie: The CDC says yes, but it seems unlikely unless Ghost had fleas or recently got in a brawl with another cat. I don’t normally go for a finger-themed conversation, but chatting about a REM-cycle manicure from a podcast host and the transmission of cat scratch fever from tooth to thumb was an interesting addition to the genre.

At one point I smoothly changed topics (like I’m doing now) by mentioning how the best joke on Seinfeld is when some guy asks Jerry if he can store his trench coat at Jerry’s apartment for a few months, because his own closet is too crowded. Not everyone agreed with me that it was the best joke, but it did give us an opportunity to discuss whether or not we would let a distant acquaintance store a coat at our apartment for some vague period of time. I don’t have a closet, but I said I would be okay with it if the coat were something I could wear. Nathan said he would be too uncomfortable to say no, meaning he would say yes. I think everyone else just said no.

Kaitlyn: I hate Seinfeld and never want to talk about it, but I was forced as hostess to wait this one out. Later, I cracked up when Lizzie said to Matt in a very even tone of voice, as if asking him to take out the trash: “Eat the eyeball to see if it’s gooey,” regarding the fish. I was wondering what Martha would think of that. I was also wondering: Why did I do this? I created problems for myself for a full week and then enjoyed my friends’ company for like four hours while yawning? Martha must know so much more that she isn’t telling.