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EURASIAN COOKBOOK  / A BRIEF CONCEPTUAL HISTORY OF THE RUSSIAN DIET
23.05.2005


This article was published as part of SRAS's free monthly newsletter. To sign up for the newsletter, just send an email with "subscribe" in the subject field to jwilson@sras.org. 


A Brief History of the Russian Diet
Traditionally High-Calorie, High-Fat, Low Flavor
By Josh Wilson

Dietary concepts, like most concepts in Russia, are changing.  In fact, watching cooking shows on Russian TV can be downright amusing.  One person will exclaim in near horror: "Какой супер-калорийный завтрак!" Another will answer: "Нормальный. Вам полезно." ("What a super-calorie breakfast!" / "It"s normal. It"s good for you.") Both, of course, are absolutely sure in their convictions.  The history of these concepts, again, like many concepts in Russia, developed within a unique historical context and, after the Revolution, was greatly affected by state ideology and acts.

  
       На вкус и свет
 Телеканал "Домашний"

The  early   context  is  perhaps   best  explained   in  the   writings  of Alexander Nikolaevich Engelgardt, a Russian noble and scientist of the late 18th century.  He tells of coming across a group of workers who were eating a lunch consisting solely of boiled potatoes.  Having thought their wages generous, he asked why they were eating so meagerly. Their response was:  the richer (more fatty) one's diet, the harder one could/would work. Since Engelgardt was paying them a daily wage, independent of the amount of work performed, the workers were economizing on their diet. 

Engelgardt was enthralled by this scientific reasoning and wrote in praise of it.  He describes the "ideal meal" for a working peasant:  Shchi (щи - cabbage soup), salted beef (соленоё мясо), kasha (каша - boiled buckwheat) served with lard (сало - though in a pinch, raw linseed oil would work), and kvass (квас - a fermented drink from black bread).  We can also infer from tradition, that this would all have been eaten with slices of dense, sour, black bread (черный хлеб).   

This was healthy: heavy, fatty, salty (though otherwise quite bland) food.  Food was to "hold you to the earth" and be sufficiently indigestible that it would last a full working day.  The fat would supply enough calories and the salt presumably aid in water retention.  Fats (жир) hold a particularly important place in the folk diet: it will induce activity independent of the wishes of the consumer.  If this energy is not channeled into productive work, it will manifest in the reproductive; if the workers ate ideally without working ideally "not even a single babushka would get by them," the workers explained. 

 
     "For our own (people)" 
       marginal but cheap
  

This dietary thinking also became popular with much of the liberal nobility; in Tolstoy it is readily apparent, although he advises avoiding fat so as to lead a quiet, chaste life.  Because the thinking also idealized "народная мудрость" (folk wisdom), the Communists also championed it.  Yet it was also practical for them.  In the food shortages that plagued the early communist years, the main concern was getting the people enough calories to keep them alive.  Encouraging the heavy use of oil was an easy and reasonably inexpensive way to increase the caloric value of any meal.  

The Communists' main contribution to dietary conceptions was to lower the standards of edibility. Russian food was already noted for being generally bland. The court of Catherine the Great was famous for serving tasteless "fare without flare" and Tolstoy maintained that a tasteless diet was a godly diet and his following was substantial. Interestingly, tons of spices were long transported from China through Russia to satisfy Europe's massive hunger for them. But Russians had never really partaken themselves in large quanitities. 

The Communists however, factory-produced bad food and discouraged people from making good food at home.  One early story involves an attempt to open communal dining halls to be supplied from massive kitchen-factories.  Food would be prepared and partially cooked, then shipped in giant, heat-tight термосы (thermoses).  During transport, the food's own heat would continue to cook it and it would arrive fresh to the hungry workers.  In theory, the idea was very practical, and in practice it was a disaster. The kitchens were unsanitary and used less-than-fresh, sometimes  synthesized  ingredients. The  thermoses were poorly constructed, so that various compartments leaked and the workers were served a soggy, unappetizing mess.  Although the thermos program was abandoned early on, Russians learned to accept barely acceptable food (so long as it was cheap) and they still do today.  This, coupled with the surviving concepts of fat, according to some analysts, is a major reason why McDonald's has been so wildly successful in Russia.   

Of course, one should not infer from this that all food is bad in Russia.  Indeed, to taste fresh, homemade borsch is a thing of beauty and pelmeni, properly cooked and garnished are worth a trip to Russia alone. This cursory article has been only to introduce the reader to an interesting microcosm of Russian history, one strikingly representative of its larger constituent cosmos.  For those interested in further exploration a very interesting book, Food in Russian History and Culture has recently been published by Indiana University Press.  The book was the major source for this article.


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