- Recipes for Russia: Food and Nationhood under the Tsars
Food studies as an area of scholarly investigation is relatively new, having come to the fore only in the 1960s with the French Annales school of historians. Recently scholars in a wide range of disciplines have embraced the field, leading to a proliferation of books, from magisterial reference works to individual commodity studies. Not surprisingly, many titles focus on France, Italy, and China, countries with highly developed cuisines and a sense of national culinary identity. So far very little has been written about Russia; thus the attention to Russian cuisine promised by Alison K. Smith's volume is highly welcome. Unfortunately, this book does little to further our understanding of Russia's culinary culture.
There are two major problems. First, although the book purports to be about food, much of it is about agricultural and social policy, which is not quite the same thing. The disjuncture between policy and practice might have been addressed by referencing the work of Aleksandr Nikolaevich Engelgardt, whose Letters from the Country, 1872–1887 discusses agricultural innovations, the subsistence diet of the peasants, and social norms surrounding food and its dearth, such as the accepted practice of "begging for crusts." Engelgardt and his insights into agricultural and culinary methods are oddly missing in a volume that is otherwise impressive for the breadth of its research (fully one quarter of the book is taken up by endnotes). Other lacunae lead to incomplete information; the content seems to be driven by the archival and other material the author examined in the provincial Kazan' and Kostroma archives rather than being guided by any larger argument. For instance, the practice of avoiding meat on Mondays (in addition to the Churchmandated meatless days of Wednesdays and Fridays) was widespread, not limited only to Kostroma province (p. 83). How else would the precise verb ponedel'nichat' ("to fast on Mondays") have come into standard usage? The sole chapter devoted to Russian food (chapter 3, "Describing the Russian Diet: Ethnography, History, and Cultural Definition") digresses into a discussion of the foods of the indigenous tribes living near Kazan'—the Chuvash, Cheremis, Tatars, and others—instead of fully exploring what makes Russian cuisine distinctive.
It is in this chapter that the book's second major problem becomes most apparent, a problem that is, unfortunately, practically endemic in the work of scholars who have lately jumped onto the food bandwagon. Smith is an excellent researcher, but her knowledge of food and cooking [End Page 778] is limited. It is not sufficient to investigate food without understanding how ingredients behave in the kitchen. Just as art historians pay attention to the materials an artist chooses to use and the transformations they undergo through manipulation, and archaeologists study the properties of the various clays and glazes used to produce the pots they unearth, so food scholars must go beyond printed documents to uncover the physical and sensual properties of food. Although Recipes for Russia is laudable for its research, there is a basic lack of understanding of the subject itself—of the process of culinary transformation and the history of foodstuffs and their uses in Russia. This deficiency unfortunately leads to misinterpretations and, in many cases, outright errors.
The author's position is that the Russian peasant diet was "Monotonous, Simple, and Crude," as one section of chapter 3 is titled. And of course that position is largely correct. But there is no acknowledgment of the skill and even artistry involved in preparing tasty food. Smith writes that "Peasants merely boiled grains or cabbage, or prepared sour bread that rises in the simplest way" (p. 77). What is the simplest way for bread to rise? The dense rye loaves of the peasants (which were not always possible in times of poor harvest) depended on the preparation and careful maintenance of a sourdough starter—not, in fact, the simplest way to get bread to rise. Furthermore, grains like barley or oats were not boiled. They were slowly baked in the...