ABOUT FOOD AND CULTURE IN RUSSIA
Nobody can find more excuses for eating than the Russian. The generous, gregarious Slav spirit can make a party with only one herring and a bottle of homemade vodka. Even the grayest, most depressing day will be greeted by the Russian with a gathering of chairs to the table and comments like, “It’s a good day for eating.” And the visitor who protests the endless flow of food and the pressing of drinks is reminded that “God created everything in pairs,” a rough translation being, “How can you eat just one?”
Religious feast days and fast days, saint’s days and name days are further excuses for the Russian creative ingenuity to produce a veritable flood of culinary delights for which it is said the Russian soul pines when away from home. So closely intertwined are food and happiness that it is even rumored that concert artists traveling abroad bring with them a special delegation whose sole task is to locate and provide black bread, borsch, vodka, and perhaps with luck even kasha.
In 1875, John Murray commented in A Handbook from Travelers in Russia that “hospitality is still … one of the chief virtues of the Russian people.” One hundred years later, hospitality – whether it be the traditional welcome of bread and salt, a sumptuous dinner beginning with zakusky, or even the offering of a glass of tea with lemon and sugar cubes – still characterizes the generous sharing spirit of the Russian. Whatever is offered will be accompanied by excited talk, which will sometimes lapse into soulful songs and the melodic strumming of the balalaika, and the guest will be left with an aura of hearty warmth and conviviality.
The passion with which Russians describe (often in beloved diminutives), cook, and serve food may have its roots in the many long periods of suffering endured over their almost 2,000-year history. The pleasures of guests were too infrequent pleasures for a people who were often isolated not only by miles and transportation difficulties but also by long, severe winters. And food itself could never be taken for granted by a people who still retain memories of the great famines of the 1100s and 1200s when straw and bark were soup ingredients and when more than one family survived only by resorting to cannibalism. Nor can the stinging memories of hundreds of years of oppressive rule by callous royalty (with few exceptions) more concerned with territorial acquisition and sumptuous banquets and extravaganzas than with the tortured, starving, and illiterate serfs be quickly erased. To have food and drink and to share these with family and friends – these simple pleasures have been elevated to artistry unequaled elsewhere, perhaps because the Russian’s passionate appreciation is not equaled elsewhere.
Spilling over two continents with its more than 240 million people spread over fifteen republics, the Soviet Union was formed after the Russian Revolution of 1917. It embraced more than 170 ethnic groups speaking predominantly Russian but also almost 200 other languages and dialects. The largest group of these are the Slays making up Great Russia and Little Russia or Ukraine. Others include the Turko-Tatar, the Japhetic peoples of the Caucasus, the northern people mainly in the Baltic states of Finno-Ugric origin, as well as much smaller groups of Jews, Greeks, Bulgarians, Koreans, Chinese, and others.
Entering the twenty-first century, the former Russian Empire up to 1917, and the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic from 1917 to 1991, is now Russia or the Russian Federation. As such it no longer encompasses the Baltic States, Ukraine, Belarus (or Belorussia or White Russia), Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, or Mongolia. Russia now embraces at least 60 ethnic groups, and over 80 percent of this population of more than 147 million, are Russians.
What is perhaps most interesting is that despite a history of migrations, wars, and fluctuating borders, not only each of the republics, but frequently each of the ethnic groups, clung to individual food customs. Further, much of what we consider today as Russian cuisine can be traced to influences of the early Slavic paganism. The reverence for bread and water is an example. The Russian Orthodox Church’s proclamation of Wednesdays and Fridays as meatless days leads to the inclusion of more fish and imaginative flour-based dishes. The adoption of tea and noodles and dumplings from the Chinese, wine from the Greeks, pastas from the Italians, and sauerkraut and sausages from the Germans has greatly enriched the Russian cuisine.
The basis of the Slav cuisine is grain. Rye bread and Kvass, a fermented slightly alcoholic beverage made from rye, are important in the north; wheat flour and wheat breads predominate in the south, while corn is the staple in the southwest. From the dawn of the Russian Empire under the rule of the Scandinavian chief Runk, breads and meats were the staple foods. They were plainly cooked and plainly eaten with dried or fresh fruits such as apples and pears forming desserts, and salted or seasonal vegetables adding some variety.
From this period of Scandinavian influence comes the Russian zakusky, an array of assorted appetizer foods adapted from the Swedish smorgasbord and now an integral part of the evening meal. The conversion of Vladimir the Great (980-1015) to Greek Orthodox Christianity and its subsequent acceptance by the people through the slightly differing Russian Orthodox Church led to taboos regarding the eating of wild animals and the consumption of meats with blood. Further, the meatless fast days as well as Lent led to the increased used of fish, dairy products, and vegetable oils.
But perhaps most influential of all was Peter the Great (1672-1725) who attempted to “Westernize” the semi-Oriental society of his country. He stimulated the organization of the military, increased industrialization, acquired territory and supremacy in the Baltic, and brought home from his travels chefs, artisans, officers, and boatbuilders. The latter introduced French soups and sauces, Italian pastas, pastries and ice cream, German sausages and sauerkraut. But it was the Russians themselves who added their own touches of mushrooms and sour cream, dill and brined vegetables and butter.
With increased production, improved transportation, and exciting possible imports from neighboring republics, the Greater Russian diet could include exotic Caucasian and Central Asian fruits, Siberian canned gamed meats, a greater variety of vegetables from Ukraine, and cakes and sweets from the Baltics. Nonetheless, the “soul food” of Great Russia will always be cabbage, beets and borsch, black bread and kasha, and what is life without vodka to wash it down?