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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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