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

  • Food

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. 

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