A vodka-fuelled fantasy dinner with Zelensky, Borat and Joan Rivers

My dinner party fuses the two things that mean the most to me in this miserable life but which are currently compatible only as a distant fantasy: laughter and the former Soviet Union.

I spent a lot of time in Russia and Ukraine when I was first learning Russian in the mid-1990s, and I used to hold a lot of dinner parties both tam (over there) and back in England as a misguided form of culinary diplomacy. This was in the days when it wasn’t complicated or controversial to move between Russia and Ukraine, and I spent a long heady summer in and around the town of Kryviy Rih, home to, I would discover years later, a boy called Vladimir, who would grow up to be President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Those dinners were a mix of Georgian food (walnut chicken, aubergine dishes, sprigs of dill and pomegranate seeds strewn all over the place), Soviet “delicacies” (tinned sprouts, sugary shampanskoye, fat gherkins) and many types of vodka — Zubrowka, Krupnik (honey vodka), chilli horilka home-brew. Eventually, lily-livered British friends begged me to stop hosting these parties because they usually resulted in at least one person getting alcohol poisoning.

In light of recent events, though, it is time to re­instate the unifying tradition spawned by the words that were a rallying cry during those more innocent times: “Please to the table”. Back in the day, it was essential to pronounce these words of welcome as extravagantly and idiotically as possible. To ensure this, my sommelier and maître d’ of choice is Borat Sagdiyev, the character played by Sacha Baron Cohen. (My 18-year-old son will also not forgive me if I hold a dinner party where it is possible to include Borat, and I do not.) Borat will be serving his native kumis — fermented mare’s milk. But the main drinks on offer will be Cerdon (a fizzy rosé that tastes like Ribena), Zubrowka (bison grass vodka, the only truly drinkable one), Krupnik (honey vodka, not drinkable but smells beautiful) and Aperol Spritz, alleged to be the favourite drink of my favourite writer, the late Nora Ephron, who heads up the guest list and will be bringing her trademark Key lime pie from the novel Heartburn.

The New York setting for this party is convenient for Ephron (or her ghost, at least). She lived on the Upper West Side for decades. For this party, we head to the place Ephron once said she would rather be: the Upper East Side and the $38mn apartment once belonging to Joan Rivers that is currently for sale. Why? Because it’s the only property I know of that has leopard print carpets and you’ve just got to admire that.

Seeing as Joan Rivers’ ghost already inhabits this space, she is naturally invited and a huge dessert trolley will be dedicated to her. Rivers was known for dining in the same restaurant daily, religiously ordering the most extravagant pudding on the menu, eating only one spoonful and sending the dish back. This is the lifetime habit I most envy. Never miss dessert. Never put on weight. Genius.

The source of “Please to the table” comes from Anya von Bremzen, honorary New Yorker and author of the best anthology on post-Soviet food. (Title? You guessed it: Please to the Table.) The menu is inspired partly by the Ukrainian recipes in this book and partly by the choices of Ukrainian food writer and our chef for the night, Olia Hercules. I know Olia in the same way I know Anya, which is to say in real life not at all but on the page intimately. Olia represents something hopeful and inspiring thanks to her #CookForUkraine campaign. I am leaving the menu up to her but hoping for her signature dishes: borscht, cauliflower fritters, braised chicken with hazelnut paste and baked cheesecake made with tvorog (cottage cheese).

The one person apart from me who really enjoys this kind of food (and I am kind of assuming the ghosts of Joan and Nora will not really eat) is guest number four, the Russian stand-up comedian Igor Meerson. We’ve shared a comedy bill many times in both Russian and English, and he always tells funny stories about wearing a polo neck. Igor is also the only person I know who has performed on stage with my final guest, Volodymyr Zelensky. OK, so the president has better things to do. But what kind of fantasy is this if you don’t give a night off to the one person who really deserves it? Plus, he can help me in the quest shared by every right-thinking Russian-speaker: mastery of the Ukrainian language. Bud’ laska do stolu! (Please to the table, of course.)

Viv Groskop is the author of “The Anna Karenina Fix” and hosts the podcast How to Own the Room

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