Classic Russian Cooking: Elena Molokhovets’ ‘A Gift to Young Housewives’
translated and introduced by Joyce Toomre
Indiana University Press, 680 pp., $39.95
All Russians are familiar with Lenin’s famous saying: “Every cook should know how to run the government.” One wonders what Lenin, who never boiled an egg for himself, could possibly have known about cooks? There was, however, one cook in Russia whose ability to govern her own diminutive empire Lenin himself might have envied.
In 1861, a young provincial Russian housewife, Elena Molokhovets, who knew how to prepare tasty meals, published a collection of 1,500 recipes. Hardly an event of any note, you might think. First of all, it was far from being the first and of course was not the last cookbook in Russia. Further-more, 1861 was the year in which the peasants were freed from more than three hundred years of serfdom, an era of stormy transformations in Russian society, of liberal reforms and hopes. The movement for the emancipation of women from traditional domestic dependence was gaining strength, and thousands of young women yearned to escape their patriarchal homes to freedom; they dreamed of the university bench and not of cooking.
Nonetheless, this very book, appearing at what might have seemed the most inopportune moment, was fated to acquire instant, unprecedented popularity, and to live for decades. Growing in size and complexity, Elena Molokhovets’s Gift to Young Housewives went through dozens of editions, and lived, together with its author, until the Revolution of 1917. It sold more than 250,000 copies, and the last edition contains almost 4,500 recipes, not counting information and advice on building a house, equipping a kitchen, daily schedules, the science of running a household and entertaining guests, as well as the planning of Lenten and regular meals (there are over six hundred types of non-Lenten dinners alone!), ordinary and holiday fare for servants and masters, and an estimate of the costs of each type of meal. After the Revolution, when cooking had been transformed from an applied art into a theoretical science and Molokhovets’s recipes and advice acquired a metaphysical character, her name became synonymous with the fabulous bacchanalia of gluttony that raged on those yellowing pages.
Nowadays, in those Russian families that have kept copies of this old book, no one cooks by it, or only on special occasions and even then only the simplest dishes. And not just because particular items no longer exist in Russia, or are very expensive, or because one has to contend with antiquated measures of weight and volume or the vagueness of instructions like “a hot stove.” The very style of life that Molokhovets took for granted vanished irretrievably into the past long ago, values have changed, the pace of life has accelerated, and despite Russians’ love of scrumptious, abundant fare, despite their hospitality and ability to create culinary wonders from a meager assortment of ingredients, people no longer consider a well-laid table to be the crown of creation, and gorging oneself on delicacies has ceased to be the self-sufficient process that it appears in Molokhovets’s book.
Russians now …