- The Taste of OthersSoviet Adventures in Cosmopolitan Cuisines
The Sixth International Youth Festival, held in Moscow from 28 July to 11 August 1957, proved a watershed in opening the borders of the communist homeland. More than 34,000 young people from 131 countries converged on the Soviet capital, and for many commentators Soviet life was never the same again, with sex and rock ’n’ roll high on the hit parade.1 Soviet restaurants welcomed these foreign guests by preparing the visitors’ own foods during their stay, and this opening to world cuisines gained reinforcement through the appearance in Moscow of restaurants specializing in various national cuisines and in the promotion in the periodical press of new flavors. In a 1958 guide to Moscow restaurants, the food critic and restaurant manager Petr Aksenov positively gushed with pride in the accomplishments of Moscow chefs in 1957. For their Indian guests they prepared rice and steamed vegetables, Chinese friends were treated to Peking duck and roast cuttlefish with bamboo shoots, and Italians, “true to their taste,” could order macaroni with cheese.2 [End Page 243]
At the same time, from 1955 on Soviet citizens had begun to travel beyond their own borders in large numbers. The state licensed and encouraged this travel, sending trade and cultural delegations to exchange experience with their counterparts abroad. Soviet citizens eagerly embraced these new opportunities to explore unfamiliar cultures, compare experiences in other socialist countries with their own, and for the privileged few, to observe and sample life in the capitalist West.3 In welcoming international youth and in sending citizens abroad, the Soviet regime announced its arrival on the world stage, no longer playing catch-up but claiming a new position as the leader of a growing socialist and postcolonial world. This new role required a shift in Soviet mentality. If the Stalin-era yardstick of Soviet identity was internal and ideological, Soviet citizens in the post-Stalin Cold War years needed to be knowledgeable about the world beyond their borders if they hoped to exercise leadership in world affairs. Venturing into the broader world, as hosts and as guests, Soviets had to learn to engage, understand, appreciate, and appropriate the cultures, practices, and norms of a cosmopolitan world.
Among those border-crossing practices were encountering new cultures of food and acknowledging the role that tastes could play in determining national and individual modern identities. Anthropologists and historians of food have explored the ways in which eating and drinking in company help define group identities. Both the everyday practices of food consumption and the particular makeup of a group’s culinary repertoire contribute to a shared identity that is visceral and material as well as symbolic.4 Arjun Appadurai has written about how the interplay of regional inflection and national standardization through cookbooks and restaurants produced a transcendence of ethnic differences in India, creating a national self in opposition to a culinary Other.5 Looking at Yugoslav cookbooks, by contrast, Wendy Bracewell argues that regional and ethnic distinctions persisted, and that a single “Yugoslav cuisine” existed only for an export market, defining “Yugoslavness” for foreigners but not for Yugoslavs themselves.6 Soviet culinary historians have [End Page 244] likewise looked to the iconic Soviet cook book, The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food (first edition 1939; new edition in 1952 and almost annually thereafter) for evidence of both standardization and non-Russian contributions to the Soviet palate.7 Soviet culinary traditions offer great potential for analyzing the identities produced through the materiality of taste, but I argue that these identities are also mediated through the experience of travel and physical exchange.
Travel and gastronomic practices both represent aspects of a modern consumer culture that was one of the goals of the socialist project. While the satisfaction of consumer demand for useful material goods (from fabric to radios to refrigerators to automobiles) occupied an increasingly central place in Soviet economic planning, consumption of services and experiences was also acknowledged to be the right of socialist citizens.8 The right to rest (otdykh) had been written into the 1936 Soviet Constitution, and access to health spa and tourist opportunities that would enrich such...