Russian and Food Studies

Angela Brintlinger

 

When Naomi Caffee and Colleen Lucey asked to interview me for their SEEB post “Spicing up the Classroom: Food in the Russian and Eurasian Studies Curriculum,” it led me to think more deeply about how Russian studies and food studies are connected, for me personally and for students in US institutions. My own peculiar history includes a great high school Russian teacher in suburban Chicago and his elaborate Russian Club banquet, where his students danced and served food and played the balalaika for the community every year. Thinking about Randy Nolde and my high school classmates—and the crazy DIY curriculum Randy invented to supplement our ALM Russian language textbook—reminded me that the best way to learn something is to make it personal.

And what could be more personal than food? Part of why we study and teach foreign cultures in the first place is to explore how our own experience differs from that of others. Foodways have deep roots in a particular culture and can transport us into that space of difference. Teaching about food and foodways also offers new opportunities for asking why, for exploring what influences and shapes Russian culture, including everything from religious practices, philosophies of life, literature, art and music to weather conditions, development and infrastructure issues, and social relations.

At the same time, food—which is so basic, something each of us needs on a daily basis—has a leveling effect. Soup and tea and pickled cucumbers or smoked fish are less foreign than iambic tetrameter, but they give at least as much insight into Russian culture. We all eat, and we all eat every day. When we look at why Russians eat the foods they do, we are able to understand the ways in which all human beings are similar, and we can at the same time parse out diversity within the Russian geographic and historic territories. I still teach Russian poetry, but I also teach Russian food.

Yuri Leving’s summer pickles.

My History of Russian Food and Cuisine course at Ohio State is in part organized around Russian aphorisms about food and domestic culture. “Cabbage soup and kasha are our daily bread.” “With an empty belly you don’t even feel like singing.” “It’s not the outfit that makes a wife attractive, but the way she runs her household.” We use sayings in English, but not as frequently as we meet them in Russian, and that alone is an interesting question for students to contemplate, an interesting entry point into the Russian mindset. Students need to come to their own understanding of what Russian culture is, and it should go beyond “Oh, those novels are so depressing” or “The Russian soul is so deep.” Today’s students are interested in the cultural phenomena we find in folklore, sayings, rituals.  And one way to access them is through food.

For Americans in particular, one of the most curious things about Russian and Eurasian culture is its longevity—and accessing culture through language and food allows us to consider continuities by introducing pre-nineteenth century texts. We can also approach gender questions in new ways. For example, in my course I pair the anonymous Domostroi with Elena Molokhovets’s 1861 Gift for Young Housewives. With these two books we see significant differences—a sixteenth century household manual authored by a man and a cookbook and manual for young women written by a female author concerned with economy and etiquette—but also similarities: both texts offer ideas for careful planning and predict strife among members of a household; both address issues of supply, storage, serendipity. Both consider family relations and those between master (or mistress) and servant. Both are produced in times without serfdom, allowing students to consider how Russian social fabric might differ from what they have seen in some early nineteenth century fiction.  And both are still popular texts today, which makes a discussion of cultural continuity even richer.

A 1911 edition of Domostroy (left) and a 1917 edition of Elena Molokhovets’s Gift for Young Housewives.

In fact, of course, today’s Russian bookstores look a heck of a lot like Barnes and Noble, which means they are overflowing with advice manuals, children’s literature, coffee table books, and cookbooks. One book that has enjoyed immense success in the post-Soviet era is Pyotr Vail and Alexander Genis’s Russian Cuisine in Exile. I first encountered this volume thirty years ago in a bare bones version published in Vermont by dissident Valery Chalidze. Originally collected as a book in 1987, the essays have been republished many times since the fall of the Soviet Union. Those of us who love Vail and Genis have over the years been frustrated that we haven’t been able to share their work with non-Russian speakers. And when I first started teaching Russian foodways, I would offer one or more essays to my students in my own informal translation. But students never understood why I found the essays to be brilliant. They couldn’t see the layers of the text, or sense the humor or style.

First edition of Russian Cuisine in Exile (1987).

Teaching my Russian food course, I came to realize that Russian Cuisine in Exile is best perceived as a set of essays. The chapters make sense in relation to each other—only after reading five or seven or twelve of them do the stylistic choices and cultural insights begin to be revealed. Tom Feerick and I finally translated the book into English and published it late last year with Academic Studies Press. We illustrated the book to demonstrate that same continuity of Russian foodways, with some images evoking the Russian imperial cultural tradition—including a painting by Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani, a period postcard from Riga and one of Caspian fishermen, a lubok, a costume design from “The Firebird”—and others conjuring the Soviet context of Vail and Genis’s youth or their life in diaspora.

Russian Cuisine in Exile, published by Academic Studies Press in 2018.

More and more secondary research is also becoming available to use in the classroom. For instance, this spring a volume I co-edited with Anastasia Lakhtikova and Irina Glushchenko—Seasoned Socialism: Gender and Food in Late Soviet Everyday Life—was published by Indiana University Press. In her preface to the book Darra Goldstein—known to many not just as the founding editor of Gastronomica and an early voice in Russian food studies in the US but also the author of several great cookbooks about Russian and Georgian food—points out something really important: food in the Soviet period was not just consumed, it was also performed. In our volume Anastasia, Irina and I strove to bring together an international collection of authors from different disciplines who would explore this nexus of food and gender and who would reveal how food studies encompasses film, poetry, cookbooks, popular magazines, folklore and fairytales, and etiquette manuals. We see food as a social phenomenon, and our authors survey it across the late Soviet period and take it into all kinds of spaces, from cafeterias and dacha gardens to homes and workplaces.

At a roundtable devoted to the book in Zagreb this summer, Natalia Pushkareva, the acknowledged founder of the discipline of women’s history in Russia, argued that Seasoned Socialism is the first volume to really pinpoint the gendered aspect of foodways in Russia. Focusing on the period of late socialism, which was in a way its own country, enabled us to explore the parameters of that culture through the everyday—through byt—and through how the everyday has been represented in both popular and elite culture. As Diane Koenker writes in the volume’s afterword, food opens up a way to study socialist consumer culture, and that too is a very productive area of inquiry in scholarship and the classroom.

Seasoned Socialism, published by Indiana University Press in 2019.

Naomi and Colleen asked me whether I see food becoming a more important topic in our field, and the answer is yes! Food reveals culture. But it is more than that: Terry Eagleton has written that food looks like an object, but is really a relationship. I would go further to say that we study (and teach) Russian culture as an object, but we should really study it as a web of relationships, as ways that people interact with each other, their identity, their environment, and their history.

My anecdotal evidence suggests that college instructors across the U.S. are seeing food studies as a way to access Russian, Soviet, and post-Soviet identities, and Naomi and Colleen’s blog piece in March confirmed that. More and more students from the post-Soviet diaspora are ending up in our classrooms, and for them as well as their fellow students Russian food studies are a real plus. These heritage students serve as native informants, and we as teachers and scholars will continue to find new ways to frame and enhance the cultural information they bring with culinary essays, films demonstrating food culture, and of course literary works, including the poetry of Alexander Pushkin.


Angela Brintlinger is the Director of Ohio State University’s Center for Slavic and East European Studies, as well as a Professor and Graduate Studies Chair in the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures. She is the Co-Translator with Thomas Feerick, Pyotr Vail and Alexander Genis of Russian Cuisine in Exile (Academic Studies Press, 2018).


SEEB is currently accepting blog post ideas and submissions from graduate students and faculty members. Please visit this page to learn more about our submission guidelines. We look forward to working with you!


 

Spicing up the Classroom: Food in the Russian and Eurasian Studies Curriculum

Naomi Caffee and Colleen Lucey

 

As any Russian language instructor can attest, the topic of food is a perennial student favorite. After slaving away all semester on case endings and the nuances of verbal aspect, students are usually thrilled to enter the world of pirozhki, borscht, samovars, sukhariki, and sweets from the Red October chocolate factory. Food, together with the customs of hospitality and togetherness that characterize Russian and Eurasian cultures, presents language learners with a topic that feeds the body and soul as well as the mind.

Foodways and food studies, defined broadly by Elizabeth Engelhardt as “the study of what we eat, how we eat, and what it means” have traditionally been the province of the social sciences (1). However, as food scholars Darra Goldstein and Anya von Bremzen have pointed out, Russian literature is bursting with culinary moments as rich in meaning as they are in salt and fat: for example, Gogol’s sensuously grotesque table spreads and characters that resemble samovars, plums, and buns, or the epic dinners in Anna Karenina that lay out the ecstasies and anxieties of Russian aristocratic life. The significance of food looms even larger in its absence, as can be seen in the literature of the GULAG and the Blockade, where bread functions as the currency of hope and survival. Ohio State University professor Angela Brintlinger, who is the author of two recent books on Russian food culture (Russian Cuisine in Exile and Seasoned Socialism: Gender and Food in Late Soviet Everyday Life), stresses the importance of food’s interdisciplinary potential. The study of food “offers new opportunities for asking why, for exploring what influences and shapes Russian culture, which I would argue is everything from religious practices, philosophies of life, literature, art and music to weather conditions, development and infrastructure issues, and social relations.”

As instructors and curriculum developers at the University of Arizona (UA) and Reed College, we have found that cuisine can be an excellent entry point to broader discussions of Russian and Eurasian culture and history, as well as a crucial element in building the skills of critical thinking and intercultural understanding. And we are not alone: faculty across the country are beginning to incorporate food into the Russian and Eurasian Studies curriculum, providing new avenues for collaboration and interdisciplinary outreach across the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. We surveyed colleagues who are spearheading such efforts, in hopes that their experiences will inspire more educators to explore the vast, and delicious, possibilities.

Recipes for Success: Russian and Eurasian Foodways


When introducing curricular material on Russian and Eurasian Foodways, what are the potential and actual learning outcomes for students? The answer to this question will likely vary depending on the focus of your course and the resources at your disposal.

At Grinnell College, history and cultural studies combine with hands-on engagement in Professor Todd Armstrong’s course “Comrades in the Kitchen: Russian Food and Culture in the Soviet Century.” On top of their normal readings and class discussions, students were tasked with re-creating dishes from across the Soviet Union using recipes from Anya von Bremzen’s memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, as well as her cookbook Please to the Table. Along with cooking and eating, which took place with support from the Grinnell College dining hall, students researched their recipes and documented their preparation along with reflections on the process, which are published on the course’s blog.

Peer-to-peer experiential learning is the focus of the University of Arizona course “Russian and Sonoran Foodways,” first piloted in 2017 as part of a State Department-funded initiative. The course’s current instructor, Dr. Anastasiia Gordiienko, explains that the comparative study of food culture enables students to analyze the “history, society and politics” of Russia and the American Southwest, while also learning about contemporary issues of environmental sustainability. In addition to interdisciplinary readings and guest lectures from faculty members in the university’s Food Studies program, students “happily got their hands dirty” with experiential components such as tasting Russian and Sonoran dishes, holding an Iron Chef-style cooking competition, and cultivating (and eating) local vegetables during a field trip to the Tucson Village Farm.

UA students put their learning to practice at the Tucson Village Farm

UA students partner with Russian exchange students to create dishes for Iron Chef competition

Meanwhile at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, historian Leah Goldman concluded her course “Cultural Construction in the Soviet Empire” with a special guest lecture from Chef Bonnie Morales, co-owner of the Soviet-style farm-to-table restaurant Kachka. With a modest budget of only $125, Chef Morales prepared a meal of classic Soviet dishes, including the legendary salad sel’edka pod shuboi (“herring under a fur coat”) and arrived with her father in tow to lead the students in a culinary exploration of the Soviet Union. “It was an incredible experience” writes Dr. Goldman. “As we passed the dishes around for students to try, I asked Chef Morales to talk about what this food meant to her, as the American child of Soviet emigrants, and why she had decided to open a Soviet-style restaurant.” As father and daughter shared both food and memories, “they created a vibrant and very meaningful story about why they emigrated, the unexpected challenges they faced in the US (including a Jewish refugee group telling them they had to stop eating salo and other pork products), and Chef Morales’ gradual return to the food of her childhood.” Dr. Goldman adds, “If there is one thing the students will remember from that class, this is it! I think it was really valuable for them to be able to connect the subjects we had been reading about and discussing all year to something as concrete and tangible as food and to be able to experience the camaraderie of the Soviet ‘kitchen table’ culture.”

If you cannot find a local award-winning chef capable of preparing Soviet-inspired cuisine, what are your options? Professor Michael Denner of Stetson University came up with a tasty solution: travel to Georgia and make the country your classroom.

A Moveable Feast: Foodways and Study Abroad


Incorporating foodways into new or existing study abroad programs can produce exciting results for faculty, students, and local partners. The program Georgian Foodways: Global Pathways/Local Contexts offers participants the chance to sample the country’s unique cuisine–designated  by UNESCO as an object of Intangible Cultural Heritage—while assessing the connection between culture and culinary traditions. Organized by the School of Russian and Asian Studies (SRAS) and lead by Dr. Denner, the students travel to the capital of Tbilisi and make side trips to various towns famous for their local delicacies. For Dr. Denner, “Food—making it, eating it, thinking about it—has always been central to the way I teach.” When you “tell someone you’ve consumed tan (an Armenian milk-based drink), or khachapuri (Georgian cheese bread), or okroshka (Russian cold cucumber and kefir soup) that act of 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.”

We found that a study abroad trip focusing on the shared language of food helped recruit new students to our departments. In collaboration with Moscow University for the Humanities (MUH), UA began offering Russian and American Foodways, a short-term study abroad option for students to travel and study the Russian food culture, including the burgeoning locavore movement in and around Moscow. We paired our students with undergrads from MUH and traveled to local farms where they tasted fresh kefir, yogurt, and cheese, as well as to farmers’ markets, shopping mall food courts, the historic Eliseevskii gastronom, the Stalin-era exhibition halls of VDNKh, and the country’s first-ever McDonald’s. Olin Marman, one of the students participating in the program, stressed that these activities helped him to better understand Russia’s diversity: “Russian food culture is not exclusively Russian […] It includes a culmination of culinary influence from surrounding areas, foods introduced by the government in the past, and the intake of global food culture via the internet.” He also noted that “I was blown away by how hospitable [the Russians were] to our group. I think that I, along with the general American population, had a very preconceived idea of what Russian culture would be like. I was expecting a very cold and quiet population that would not be interested in interacting with foreigners. I could not have been more wrong.” These reflections draw our attention to perhaps the most important role of food: upending assumptions and helping to discover common ground.

Na pososhok – Final Thoughts


What student of Russian or Eurasian culture can forget the fun of preparing shashliki with friends or a trip to the host family’s dacha? Food in these settings is more than the sum of its ingredients—it is a powerful means to forge memories and lasting friendships, as well as spark lifelong interest in a foreign culture. Such experiences can also bridge the gap between students and the cultures they study. As Dr. Brintlinger puts it, “We all eat, and we all eat every day. When we look at why Russians eat the foods they do, we are able to understand the ways in which all human beings are similar, and we can at the same time parse out diversity within the Russian geographic and historic territories.”

Whether as an extracurricular activity, a study abroad opportunity, an independent course, or a component of a language or culture course, foodways can provide instructors with new and compelling ways to enrich the Russian and Eurasian studies curriculum.

References Cited and Consulted


  • Brintlinger, Angela, Anastasia Laktikova and Irina Glushchenko, eds. Seasoned Socialism: Gender and Food in Late Soviet Everyday Life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019.
  • Caffee, Naomi and Colleen Lucey. “Borscht, Bliny, and Burritos: The Benefits of Peer-to-Peer Experiential Learning through Food.” Russian Language Journal 68.1: 2018. 33–54.
  • Engelhardt, Elizabeth. “Redrawing the Grocery: Practices and Methods for Studying Southern Food.” The Larder: Food Studies Methods from the American South, Ed. John T. Edge, Elizabeth Engelhardt, and Ted Ownby. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013. 1–9.
  • Genis, Alexander and Pyotr Vail. Russian Cuisine in Exile. Trans. Angela Brintlinger and Thomas Feerick. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2018.
  • Glants, Musya, and Joyce Toomre, eds. Food in Russian History and Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.
  • Goldstein, Darra. A Taste of Russia: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality, 3rd edition. Edward and Dee: Montpelier, 2013.
  • Mikoyan, Anastas Ivanovich. Book of Tasty and Healthy Food: Iconic Cookbook of the Soviet Union. Trans. Boris Ushumirskiy. Utah: SkyPeak Publishing, 2012.
  • Scott, Erik. “Edible Ethnicity: How Georgian Cuisine Conquered the Soviet Table.” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 13.4 (2012.): 831–58.
  • Von Bremzen, Anya. Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing. New York: Crown, 2013.
  • Von Bremzen, Anya and John Welchman. Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook. New York: Workman Publishing, 1990.
  • Zavisca, Jane. “Contesting Capitalism at the Post-Soviet Dacha: The Meaning of Food Cultivation for Urban Russians.” Slavic Review 62.4 (2003): 786–810.

Naomi Caffee is Assistant Professor of Russian and Humanities at Reed College in Portland, Oregon

Colleen Lucey is Assistant Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at the University of Arizona. 


SEEB is currently accepting blog post ideas and submissions from graduate students and faculty members. Please visit this page to learn more about our submission guidelines. We look forward to working with you!