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Dr. Michael Denner is a professor at Stetson's Program in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies (REEES). A food enthusiast, he is currently translating and adapting a cookbook called Лобио, сациви, хачапури, или Грузия со вкусом (Lobio, Satsivi, Khachapuri, or Georgia with Taste) for English-speaking audiences.

As part of this project, Dr. Denner is leading a Georgian Cooking Club at Stetson to test the recipies with Stetson's diverse student group. He will also be sharing some of the recipes on our site in advance of publishing the book.

Dr. Denner will also be leading Georgian Foodways for SRAS a new, two-week study abroad course that will address topics such as climate change and state agricultural policies within the context of broader issues of food security, the place of food in social justice and ethnic identity, and the role of Georgian foodways in the current global tourism economy.

This resource was featured in the free SRAS monthly newsletter. Want the newsletter?

Why I Teach Food
Food is the "DNA of a People"
By Dr. Michael Denner

Food--making it, eating it, thinking about it--has always been central to the way I teach.

For me, food’s an intellectual thing, the way a kid from Indiana figured out the world: My brother and I learned to cook from dogeared and ragged, burgundy-colored, bought-used volume by Marcella Hazan, entitled something like The Essentials of Italian Cooking. Her voice for me, as an eighteen-year-old living away from home for the first time, living on his own for the first time, was wisdom and restraint itself. (She calls for ONE QUARTER of a garlic clove in a recipe! She taught me the word mucilaginous.)

Dr. Denner (far right), leads students in making mchadi at Stetson University in Florida.  

Food’s appeal to all students is obvious… eating ranks pretty high on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Dishes can be devoured and enjoyed viscerally, without thinking too much. Even without thinking, a student has participated in a vital and living cultural act.

Look, telling someone you’ve consumed tam (an Armenian milk-based drink), or khachapuri (Georgian cheese bread), or okroshka (Russian cold cucumber and kefir soup)... that eating means something, culturally and linguistically! You have an immediate connection with your Armenian or Georgian or Russian friend, you’ve internalized a bit of their world. “Oh, I didn’t know Americans ate that! Did you like it?”

There’s a great word, commensality, that means something like “the shared pleasure of eating.” The emphasis is on pleasure. So, we’ve always practiced commensality at Stetson in our Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies: Making bliny for Maslenitsa, mass-production of pelmeni every fall, celebrating Nooruz with Uzbek Wedding Pilaf. Even the simple act of serving tea in the lobby of our building signals that we study another world.

But there’s more to food than just the gut reaction, more than its inherent pleasure. Every food is a complex social fact; preparing food and eating it thoughtfully is a way of unfurling that social fact.

Give me a blin from Russia, and I can talk about ingredients to shed light on Russia’s place in the world: The wheat that signals a westward expansion and an abiding concern about food in Russian culture. “Kiev feeds Moscow” (with wheat!)... The Soviet Union was a huge net-exporter of wheat until the 1980s, and the failure of wheat crops (something we now suspect was the first geo-political tremor of Global Climate Change) was one reason that the USSR collapsed so suddenly. The milk in bliny made Russia famous in the nineteenth century, but Russian believers are forbidden from consuming it a hundred days a year. Oh, the ordinariness of eggs… but also their fertility, their vitality, their potential. Яйца! The way Russians smile, knowingly, when they say that word.

  Various spices and herbs for sale at a local market in a market in Racha, Georgia.

Give me a mchadi from Georgia, a corncake, the most homely of Georgian dishes, and suddenly you realize that this insular culture has taken part in global revolutions that made New World foodstuffs into an inextricable element in Georgian identity. My friend and cookbook collaborator Tina Mzhavanadze, jokes that, Georgians being Georgians, they all believe that corn originated in Georgia. There’s another version of food history, often cited by Georgians, that proposes that corn came to Georgia earlier than to the rest of Europe, via China early in the sixteenth century… I doubt its veracity, it’s really too early, but who knows? In the sixteenth century, Georgia belonged to the Persian empire of the Safavids. I could maybe imagine a Ming merchant wandering across Transoxiana and the Caucasus, sowing corn like Johnny Appleseed…

Within that grain of wheat or rice or potato or pomegranate is wound, tightly and compactly, a culture’s experience of itself and the world.

Inside its DNA is the DNA of a people, a world to be discovered.

And then consumed! Yum! Grab your forks…


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