During her 34 years at Williams, Darra Goldstein taught classes on Russian language, literature, art and culture, and she introduced food studies into the curriculum. When she was approached last year to write what would be her sixth cookbook—and her second on Russian cuisine—her first reaction was that she had already covered that ground. How she changed her mind is a story about how food connects people through history, culture and politics.
When I first visited Russia as a college student in 1972, I was always well fed, despite the empty grocery shelves and consumer shortages. That was partly because the Russians were honoring me as a guest. They were expert at procuring food through barter and on the black market. Their ability to work the system helped me understand how Russians have endured deprivation. Even with little to offer, people shared, because they knew the positions of supplicant and donor could easily be reversed. Such scarcity, along with Russia’s recurrent famines, gave rise to one of the most vivid images in Russian fairytales: the skatert’-samobranka, a self-spreading tablecloth on which food miraculously appears. All you have to do is unfold it, and a lavish feast fans out before your eyes. Skazano, sdelano! No sooner said than done! My hosts didn’t exactly offer me a magical tablecloth, and Soviet life was hardly a fairytale, but the Russian tables I experienced were surprisingly lavish, considering the country’s desperate material circumstances during Leonid Brezhnev’s decades-long rule. These and other paradoxes of life in Soviet Russia led me to write my first cookbook, published just a few weeks after I arrived at Williams in 1983. Since then, my study of food has allowed me to explore the broader historical, economic and artistic conditions that give rise to culture in Russia and elsewhere. As the 20th-century French critic Roland Barthes famously said, food is a system of communication.
What interests me…are the vital flavors of Russia itself—the buckwheat kasha, the berry pies.
So I think a lot about the interplay between culture and cuisine, about dietary proscriptions, the etiquette of the table and the various systems by which food moves from farms to kitchens throughout the world. The complex social and cultural rules that underlie the consumption of food communicate who we are—and what we aspire to be. The best cookbooks are so much more than instructional manuals or simple compilations of recipes. They are windows into other worlds, which is one reason I write them in addition to my more conventional scholarly work. My first Russian cookbook told a story of Soviet life even as it expressed nostalgia for pre-revolutionary Russia’s lost culinary treasures. Many of those 19th-century recipes were based on French haute cuisine, thanks to the Francophile aristocracy. Beef Stroganoff, for example, simply replaces a French-style cream sauce with the sour cream and mustard the Russians favor. It’s admittedly a classic dish, and I made it for my students this past semester so they could get a taste of luxury dining. But what interests me more than the rarefied ingredients and techniques imported from Western Europe are the vital flavors of Russia itself—the dark sourdough rye bread and buckwheat kasha, the salted mushrooms, the berry pies.
Interestingly, the sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 after the invasion of Crimea have jump-started an artisanal revival of old Russian foodways, and that is what I’m eager to investigate in my post-retirement project: a new cookbook. I hope to share the most essential characteristics of Russian food, which are determined by the country’s remoteness and extreme climate: fermented vegetables and beverages, hearty whole-grain porridges, gorgeous cultured dairy products. The ancient Greeks believed in a mythical place they called Hyperborea, a land of eternal spring “beyond the North Wind,” rich in agricultural bounty. Based on descriptions in Pliny and Herodotus, some Russian scholars have traced its location to the Kola Peninsula, above the Arctic Circle. Because this region is so isolated, it’s had very little contact with the West. I’ve decided to begin researching my book there, in the extreme North.
Vladimir Lenin viewed fairy tales, including the magic tablecloth, as the embodiment of popular hopes and desires. But after the Revolution, fairy tales, myths and folk tales were seen as dangerous to the new Soviet state. By the late 1920s they were officially suppressed as subversive literature. The stories continued to circulate unofficially, and today the magic tablecloth remains part of the Russian cultural imaginary. If I’m lucky, I’ll discover it this summer, beyond the North Wind. I hope to communicate to my American readers something of the real Russia. I like to think of it as my small contribution to culinary diplomacy.
Darra Goldstein is Williams’ Willcox B. and Harriet M. Adsit Professor of Russian, emerita. She is founding editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture and editor-in-chief of Cured, a magazine on the art and science of fermentation. Her sixth cookbook is due to be published by Ten Speed Press in 2019.