Russian and Food Studies

  • Food

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).

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