by Marion Nestle
Jun 3 2022

Weekend reading: the history of Russian food

Darra Goldstein.  The Kingdom of Rye: A Brief History of Russian Food.  University of California Press, 2022.

Russia is in the news these days (to say the least) and here is food historian Darra Goldstein’s deeply nostalgic account of how Russians managed to create delicious meals under the worst of circumstances, from tsarist to Soviet times.  Some excerpts:

To explain the title and the cover:

At the heart of any traditional Russian meal lies black bread, a loaf of dense sourdough rye….so ingrained was rye in the Russian diet that by the late nineteenth century, 30 to 60 percent of the country’s arable land was annually planted in this crop, leading to a veritable “kingdom of rye.”  The peasants expressed reverence for their rye bread by holding the loaf close to the chest and slicing it horizontally toward the heart. Wasting breadcrumbs was considered a sin, and even into the late twentieth century, entire cookbooks were devoted to using leftover black bread (p. 9).

On dacha gardens in Soviet times:

The only sure way to guarantee the availability of staples like potatoes was to grow them yourself.  Most of the population, including a great many city dwellers, cultivated their own garden plots, which allowed them to endure periods of food shortages.  These private plots…created a significant second economy–one the government came increasingly to rely on, since the collective and state farms never managed to meet the nation’s demand for fresh produce (p. 89).

On the samovar:

The origins of the samovar’s design are murky, and it is unclear whether this vessel arrived in Russia from the East or the West.  The model may have been the Mongolian hot pot or the elaborate Dutch urns that had taps rather than spouts…Whatever its origin, the Russians adapted a foreign receptacle into a useful object that became not only very much their own, but one that epitomizes Russianness (p. 119).

The book is indeed brief, but enlightening.  It made me think of Anya Von Bremen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing (Broadway Books, 2013).  Both are deeply appreciative of Russian cuisine (if that’s the right word), and ability of Russian cooks to take whatever was available and turn it into something edible and memorable.

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