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The Food and Cooking of Eastern Europe
By Lesley Chamberlain
University of Nebraska Press
Copyright © 2006
University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.
Books on food can be many things to their authors, and more things
again to their readers. Conceived as a successor to The Food and Cooking
of Russia, The Food and Cooking of Eastern Europe was presented to the
public in 1989 as a collection of recipes from countries whose cuisines
were little known as a consequence of the Cold War. It was ironic then
that, having been a while in preparation, this volume should appear in
exactly the year when the Iron Curtain was lifted after having divided
Europe for almost half a century. As Communist authority finally lost
its hold over millions of people, most spectacularly with the fall of the
Berlin Wall, the old "Eastern Bloc," and with it the terms in which
the book was conceived, disintegrated overnight. The term "Eastern
Europe"-for Westerners, always a political term rather than a matter
of geographical accuracy-was even an insult now that the old Moscow
satellites were suddenly free nations again. It was more fitting to speak
of a "Central Europe" that included Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, Croatia,
Hungary, and western Poland, and an "East Europe" comprising the
remainder of Poland, Ukraine, Belorussia, and parts of Russia. The
three Baltic States-Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania-andthe Balkan
countries, which also once formed part of "Eastern Europe" were also
now liberated to be themselves. The Balkan group included Bulgaria,
Romania, and the southern republics of Yugoslavia-Serbia, Montenegro,
Macedonia, Bosnia, Kosovo-together with neighboring Albania.
Here were many distinct nations, to be freshly defined by their
particular languages, ethnic makeup, and shifting historical borders. The
process continued when Czechoslovakia disappeared, and the Czech
Republic and Slovakia emerged, and when Yugoslavia broke up. Equally,
from the moment the Soviet Union no longer existed, Ukraine, Belorussia,
and the Baltic States, whose food had been covered in The
Food and Cooking of Russia, were now geopolitically, and again perhaps
offensively, misplaced as cultures on the Russian periphery and might
better have been included in a book making them culinary neighbors of
Poland and Germany. Germany, now one large country again, had itself
to be reassessed. It evidently qualified for a place in Central Europe,
even if it remained a unique amalgam from a culinary point of view.
Still, I took exception to the reviewer who called The Food and Cooking
of Eastern Europe "a museum piece." Here evidently was a reviewer who
neither cooked nor understood the continuity of food across political
borders, nor, most important, the diverse functions of food writing.
I began writing the present book at the tail end of a grand tradition
in postwar English cookery writing, in my mind created primarily by
Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson. These women were practical cooks
who were also writers. Their familiarity with ingredients and kitchen
equipment was both essential and not quite the point of the enterprise.
M. F. K. Fisher was another éminence grise, and though I had not read her
work, she surely helped create the cultural impulse that was reflected in
a newspaper column I read sometime in the early 1980s. "If you can't
think of a plot, write a cookbook," said the writer, whose famous name
escapes me. She made me aware of some of the motivation behind
my first book. Nevertheless, the cookbook genre was a fine choice in
my view, precisely because its best postwar exponents were travelers.
In Grigson's case, they were also translators of note. And on top of all
this, they were intrepid notetakers of their daily experience. This was
exactly what I wanted to be.
Excerpted from The Food and Cooking of Eastern Europe
by Lesley Chamberlain
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press.
Excerpted by permission.
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