Learning About Russian Culture Through a Cookbook
One of my favorite “hobbies” (one of many many many hobbies because choosing one thing and sticking to it just isn’t for me) is collecting old cookbooks.
I love browsing tag sales or used book sales and finding cookbooks from a different era. Imagine my excitement when my grandmother, who recently moved from Moscow to NYC, gave me a coveted old Russian cookbook.
Directly translated, the title is “book about tasty and healthy food.”
Published during the Communist years, this book not only contains some of the most popular and amazing recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation, mostly by word of mouth, but it also shows the culture that I grew up with.
The picture above is of Pelmeni, a meat dumpling, served with sour cream, salt and pepper.
This book is currently held together by duct tape (yes, they have duct tape in Russia) and is guarded very cautiously by me as I hope to pass it on to my children some day.
A rather large kitchen in the photo above and a chapter on typical kitchens. The kitchens that I grew up with were about half that size and contained a small table for casual meals. The large, “dining” room table would go in the living room/my parents’ bedroom/family room when we hosted a party. The bed, or rather a sleeper couch, would be folded up and serve as a seating bench. The table is usually the small table from the kitchen that would include an insert to expand it.
Most of the recipes in this cookbook are made with very few ingredients and a lot of fresh veggies from the local farms or canned food. That’s the type of ingredients that were available to the public. It still amazes me how delicious the food that my family made tastes when 90% of it contains beats, potatoes, or cabbage as the main ingredient.
Canned foods were rather popular – in fact, almost everything was canned. Coffee, cocoa, milk, oil.
And each recipe has a variation. I have a few family friends that are Russian and depending on what part of Russia they came from, the same recipes can taste completely different. My best friend Inna and I often compare notes on our Russian recipes, those that are passed down through family rather than learned from a cookbook, and we always rejoice when something tastes the same.
Regardless of how “poor” life may have felt back then, it would never show in the parties hosted by the population. Tables covered in bleached, pressed white table clothes, topped with the most beautiful china that only came out on special occasion and have most-likely been passed down through generations or carefully collected piece by piece. There is rarely an inch left on the table that isn’t covered with food. The meals lasted hours from lunch until late evenings, changing shifts from “zakuzka” or basically anti-pasta, to small appetizer salads, to appetizers, to soup, to entrees, and always finishing with desserts and tea.
And yes, there is always vodka. Some stereotypes are just true.
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