The Food and Cooking of Russiaby Lesley Chamberlain
Lesley Chamberlain lived in Soviet Russia in 1978–79 and recorded her experiences in the form of two hundred recipes interwoven with details of Russian culture and history and her own practical advice. From blini to cabbage soup, and caviar eggs to “Russian salad,” she reveals the continuity of Russian life, despite political repression, in which the bourgeois cooking of the nineteenth century coexisted with old dishes dictated by the church calendar and new inventions to “make do” with the frequent shortages of vital ingredients under the Soviets. First published in 1982, this fine collection of recipes and entertaining literary quotations has become a classic introduction to the rich culinary history of the region. This new Bison Books edition contains period illustrations and a new introduction by the author.
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The Food and Cooking of Russia
By Lesley Chamberlain
University of Nebraska Press
Copyright © 2006
University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.
Russia in 1978, the year I conceived and began working on this book,
was a dreary and mysterious place seen through Western eyes. The
Cold War, dividing the world into two power blocs, American and
Soviet, was at its height, bringing with it in both Russia and the West
fear and a distorted picture of "the other side." I had two university
degrees in Russian, several visits to the country, and a great deal
of reading behind me by the time I was assigned as a trainee Reuter
correspondent to Moscow in August that year. I spoke Russian well,
and I probably should have been thinking about my lofty mission
as a reporter conveying to the free world information from the yet-to-be-named
"evil empire." But what most concerned me was how
to convey Russian life as it was. I wanted to send home news of
everything that was left over when politics was pushed aside.
Of course that could never quite be done. The repressions and
injustices of Soviet political life reached into the private life of every
family. Moreover, my presence in Moscow was legitimized by the
fact that I was both by profession and conviction on the other side.
I drove a car with a license plate labeling me a Western journalist.
In truth, too, I had never been a Communist supporter,and I rejected
a Marxist reading of history. But I was quite sure Russians
were "normal" people who had hopes and fears, who grew up in a
wide variety of family circumstances, loved or hated their teachers,
fell in love, achieved or failed in their ambitions, enjoyed books,
films, holidays, walks in the country, and meals together. Against a
background of decisions taken by their government that influenced
world events, Russians led "ordinary lives," which I wanted to portray.
I probably should have written a novel, but what was possible
at the time was a cookbook.
Many things made it an exciting project. It was my first book, and
it gave me a purpose that, I have to admit, I couldn't find in my designated
political work. I wanted to write always about exceptions to
the rule, particular people and practices that defied generalization,
and also to recapture the sights and sounds and smells of places I
had visited in a Russia that, if it wasn't timeless, was a place where
people lived and not just a token in a political game. The result was
that I traveled as much as I could in my free time. (I still use the
wonderful iron pans I bought in Georgia.)
When I was in Moscow I tried to shop in our often poorly stocked
local shops and markets rather than in the opulent grocery store reserved
for foreigners. Of course I often succumbed to convenience.
I piled my cart high with luxury goods behind shuttered windows
and, like many of my Western press colleagues, felt ashamed. "Ordinary"
Russians, whose lives were blighted by constant consumer
shortages and daily lines, knew exactly what was going on. We
should have shown solidarity.
My slender excuse was that I needed ingredients to try out my
recipes, and I just couldn't find them anywhere else. I had the feeling
I was helping to keep alive a culinary tradition that was in danger
of disappearing. It was an unusual cause to adopt: not a great one
in human terms, but one that gave me a way of writing about and
finding readers interested in a real Russia. Lives in which no one had
time to cook and so many ingredients were unobtainable were one
real outcome of the inefficient command economy. I could at least
draw attention to the way Communist ideology tried to conceal this
lapse by dismissing the culinary arts as a bourgeois fetish.
My joy was to work with Russian books, past and present, and to
research meals I enjoyed in restaurants and occasionally in private
apartments, pressing my questions on the few Russians who felt
brave enough to answer them. The idea that talking to a Western
journalist about food was somehow dangerous or subversive seems
absurd today, but it was the case then that every conversation with a
foreigner had to be reported to the authorities, and most people understandably
preferred to avoid such a situation. I always remember
the friendly director of Moscow's then very small and rather bizarre
Culinary Museum who gave me such an interesting interview and
promised me an Easter cake recipe if I popped back the following
week. When I returned he had evidently been forbidden to pass it
Excerpted from The Food and Cooking of Russia
by Lesley Chamberlain
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press.
Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Lesley Chamberlain studied Russian and German languages and literature before working as a journalist for Reuters in Moscow. She has traveled extensively in Eastern Europe, Central Europe, and Russia, and now works as a writer and a freelance scholar. In addition to her cookery books, her published works include Nietzsche in Turin: An Intimate Biography and In the Communist Mirror.
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