Remembering when the Soviet Union dropped by Minnesota for tea

The dining room was filled with TV cameras and the whole world was watching as a Minneapolis family served as host.

Raisa Gorbachev, the wife of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, visits the Karen and Steve Watson family at their south Minneapolis home du
Raisa Gorbachev, the wife of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, visits the Karen and Steve Watson family at their south Minneapolis home during the Gorbachev trip to Minneapolis in June 1990.

— Larry Salzman

Three years after President Ronald Reagan directed his comments about the Berlin Wall to the Soviet Union — “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” — its president, Mikhail Gorbachev, and his wife, Raisa, visited Minnesota, at the behest of Gov. Rudy Perpich, to discuss trade.

On June 3, 1990, Gorbachev and his wife were met in the Twin Cities with massive crowds yelling “Gorby, Gorby!” on a cold, 42-degree summer visit that lasted almost seven hours.

While Mikhail was busy talking with business representatives, Raisa headed out for other activities — including a stop at a Snyder’s drugstore, a Mexican deli (Pepito’s) and a visit to the south Minneapolis home of Steve and Karen Watson, he an art teacher and she a part-time obstetrics nurse.

Raisa Gorbachev holds 13-year-old Lisa Watson’s hand.
Raisa Gorbachev holds 13-year-old Lisa Watson’s hand.

Rick Sennott

Raisa had specific requirements for the type of family she wanted to see: The family had to have at least three children and a dog, and be part of a cultural exchange, Steve Watson later told MPR. They had 10 days to prepare for the event.

The Watsons had four kids and their eldest daughter had visited the Soviet Union a year earlier as part of a production by the Children’s Theatre Company of “Rembrandt Takes a Walk.”

The culinary details were chronicled in two stories by Taste.

When Raisa sat down with the Watsons, she brought up what must be the universal question among working parents, regardless of the decade or country:

“How do you get dinner on the table?”

It was a question that took Karen by surprise. She told the first lady, as well as the live television audience that was along for the ride, that she had five or six 30-minute meals that she regularly served.

Hours later — to no food writer’s surprise — viewers began calling the Taste office to find out what those quick meals were.

Raisa Gorbachev touring Snyder Drugs at 46th & Nicolett.
Raisa Gorbachev touring Snyder Drugs at 46th & Nicolett.

Pool photo

In an interview, Karen noted that their diet was anything but typical, given that they had adopted a modified macrobiotic diet that depended on whole grains and nonmeat forms of protein. “We eat a lot of rice, lentils and beans,” she told Taste.

The Watsons also avoided processed and refined foods. They did not use white sugar and avoided dairy products, though they made certain that their children had milk.

“We’ve become better label readers,” said Karen, who noted that theirs was an economical diet that cost about $100 a week for their family of six.

Her quick meals included tortillas with refried beans, commercially prepared spaghetti sauce (a no-sugar brand) served with lupini pasta and tofu-burgers, or what the Watsons call “neatballs” (tofu formed into the shape of meatballs).

Stir-fried vegetables, lentils and homemade pizza (with tofu replacing some of the traditional mozzarella cheese) were part of the mix, as was a brown rice recipe that Karen said was life changing.

As for those treats that the Watsons served Raisa, they included two plates of cookies, one set made with sugar, and the other using sugar alternatives, in deference to the family’s preference for avoiding refined sugar.

The sugar plate included traditional chocolate-chip cookies made from the directions on the back of the chocolate-chip bag (think Toll House) and oatmeal peanut-butter cookies.

The nonsugar plate included macaroons and a version of the traditional Rice Krispies bar using crispy brown rice. (Taste offered recipes of both.)

Raisa did sample a macaroon, but the KGB would not allow her to be filmed while she ate it.

Eighteen months later, the Soviet Union collapsed when Gorbachev resigned and Boris Yeltsin succeeded him as president in December 1991.