It’s a Saturday morning in autumn when I sit down with the Soviet Book of Tasty and Healthy Food to decide what dishes to make for a feast that evening. Based on the day and the season, the iconic cookbook makes several suggestions for a three-course dinner. I do as it advises and choose a menu composed of both meat and vegetable dishes. It’s also crucial, I note, for the menu to have variety: “Oftentimes, this is overlooked. Not all housewives take the time and effort to make a plan for food preparation in advance. Mostly they only have around ten or 12 dishes that they alternate throughout the years, and the family receives monotonous meals.”
Keen to excel in my role as a good Soviet housewife, I take on board both pieces of counsel. I settle on a herring salad and mushrooms in sour cream to start with, followed by pumpkin soup and kharcho, a Georgian broth flavoured with beef and sour plums. For our main course I opt for the fried duck with apples and a Ukranian dish, holubtsi, vegetable-stuffed cabbage leaves. We’ll end on a sweet note: apple kissel (think puree), sour cream mousse and syrniki, or curd fritters. Each dish will chased by shots of vodka and washed down with Soviet champagne, a somewhat embroidered term for sparkling wine from the Black Sea region.
As a vegetarian, I enlist the help of two comrades for the meat-based dishes. We travel to five different supermarkets, including a specialist Russian one, in search of ingredients. It takes us a few hours to gather the necessary constituents, a fairly easy task given we’re in London. As I nose through the aisles packed with food, I consider how this would not have been the case when the book was first published in 1939 or even in the decades that followed.
Despite the myth of abundance perpetuated by the book, the Thirties were characterised by severe food shortages and rationing. The book’s lush imagery of tables laden with sumptuous tableware, bowls overflowing with fruit, pyramids of cheese and meat, tins of caviar and cream-filled cakes were nothing but a chimera. This aspirational quality — and the fact that it was the only cookbook available — made it a thumping success. Since the updated 1952 edition, more than eight million copies of the book have been printed. “It was the book my mum used all the time,” says Moscow-born Karina Baldry, the author of Russia on a Plate. “It was our culinary bible and the only cookbook on our shelves.”
The propagandist tome was curated by the People’s Commissar of the Food Industry Anastas Mikoyan, a mustachioed Armenian who introduced ketchup and kornfleks to the Soviet Union following a three-month trip to the US in 1936. The visit to the heartland of capitalism was a fruitful one. Mikoyan returned with the technical know-how and equipment to produce machine-made ice-cream and hamburgers — the buns, writes Anya Von Bremzen in her recently published memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, were dispensed with during World War Two. The result was kotlety, a Russian dish much-loved today. As well as recipes from across the Soviet Union, which aimed to propagate a narrative of cultural harmony, Mikoyan's cookbook pontificates on hygiene, etiquette and nutrition. There’s even a chapter with a long list of salubrious dishes for those with any number of ailments from bowel disorders to liver disease.
"Even though books were generally not expensive, shortages meant this one became scarce, making it more like a ‘coffee table’ book"
According to Katya Rogatchevskaia, lead east European curator (Russian) for London's British Library, until its publication, the only other cookbook was A Gift for Young Housewives, which came out in 1861. “The Soviet cookbook was very well received because for a long time there was no cookery book in Russian,” she says. “It became a luxury item that was kept not in the kitchen but in the living room where people could sit down and look through it. Even though books were generally not expensive, shortages meant this one became scarce, making it more like a ‘coffee table’ book.”
While the book contains much simple fare, recipes with ingredients such as suckling pig, sturgeon and salmon caviar were all part of an illusion that befitted Joseph Stalin’s ideological trajectory well. In contrast to the Bolsheviks’ ascetic approach to food in the Twenties, writes Von Bremzen, under Stalin food became an integral part of his myth of prosperity. Unlike the Bolsheviks, Stalin’s brand of socialism was tinged with elements of a more bourgeois nature. In this way, the cookbook not only symbolised a kind of aspirational socialism but even went so far as to suggest that the good life had already been attained.
The book overlooked the fact that Stalin’s policy of enforced collectivisation had sparked a series of food crises including a year-long famine in 1932 that precipitated an estimated seven million deaths in the Soviet Union. “The book was a fantasy of society but people perceived it for what it was,” says Von Bremzen. “They perceived it as a kind of Potemkin village. It was a part of Stalin’s discourse but it also relieved everyday drabness. So many people have the same memories of being mesmerised by it.”
A few years after the famine in 1935, Stalin uttered one of his most risible statements: “Life has gotten better, comrades, life has gotten more cheerful.” This message was coupled with a call for greater culturedness, another theme picked up on by the cookbook, and one which we try to adhere to when we later lay the table. We start with a white, well-pressed tablecloth ensuring the middle fold aligns to the centre of the table. We dot the table with plates of thinly sliced bread and serve wine from bottles that have been pre-opened. Vodka is in a decanter. Each spoon and fork is placed with its concave side up while each knife’s cutting edge faces the plate. Flowers, as it rightly advises, “add beauty to the table”. We open the champagne immediately before pouring into glasses. The champagne has particular significance. It was during the late Thirties that Stalin took a personal interest in reviving the champagne industry, pledging to produce 20 million bottles a year by 1942. For a few years, it was even sold on tap in certain stores.
"The book was a fantasy of society but people perceived it for what it was. They perceived it as a kind of Potemkin village"
A second edition of the cookbook was published in 1952, which Von Bremzen describes as “bigger, better, happier and more politically virulent”, in line with Stalin’s antisemitic, anti-imperialist shift in ideology. By 1952, recipes from outside of the Soviet Union were expunged to allow for a greater focus on national identity and articles extolling the success of food production increased in number. “By 1952, there was a feel that more food was available even though this wasn’t the case,” says Rogatchevskaia.
Compared to today’s detailed recipes with their lists of ingredients as long as your arm, those in the book are somewhat laconic. There’s a lot of guesswork involved and it’s impossible to stick to the lacklustre recipes. Mushrooms without garlic? Kharcho without spices? Pumpkin soup without so much as a hint of cinnamon or nutmeg? It isn’t long before we deviate, adding garlic to the mushrooms and chilli to the pumpkin soup. The kharcho is also jazzed up with a sprinkling of garlic, chilli, mint and vegetable stock. The bland Soviet fare we discover just isn’t suited to our contemporary palettes.
When we finally sit down to eat, we make a vain attempt to adopt the etiquette outlined in the book, which Von Bremzen tells me was aimed at the “newly urbanised who wouldn’t have known how to hold a fork”. Plated food is served from the right while all other dishes are served from the left. We do as we’re instructed and hold our forks in a “tilted position”, fearing that failure to do so will cause the utensil to “slip and throw the contents of the plate onto the table”. We don’t last long. With each vodka shot, our state-prescribed table manners begin to slip. By the time we finish our meal, we pay no heed to the book, which advises all good housewives to promptly clean up after themselves. “Leaving dishes unwashed,” it chides, “is unacceptable.” We close the book and put it to one side.