• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Age of Innocence

Tatyana Tolstaya, translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell

All in all, of course, she does concern herself with her retainers: in “Five Plans for Convenient Apartments” included in one of the Russian editions, she advises building a niche in the wall in a narrow, dead-end, windowless corridor opposite the coat rack for fur coats: there, on a collapsible board instead of a bed, the lackey may sleep. And “when building a house, it is absolutely necessary to hang the gates no less than two arshins from the outer wall, so that the gatekeeper may sit in this indentation at night and take cover from rain and wind.”

One can only guess what thoughts visited the sleeping lackey and sleepless gatekeeper at night. No doubt they were not happy thoughts, but a means had been devised against them as well. First of all: “I find that servants will partially correct themselves, in the moral sense, and that there will be greater cleanliness and order in the kitchen if it is on the same floor with other living quarters.” Not only should one keep a constant eye on the servants, but one should have a special common room for prayer, where “the head of the family, daily, by diligent and unanimous prayer, might by his own good example try to instill both in the family and the servants an unlimited love of God, and faith in His impartial justice and His charity towards mankind.”

It didn’t help. “There is a tsar in the world, and he is merciless; Hunger is his name,” wrote the poet Nekrasov at the time Molokhovets’s books were appearing, edition after edition. Hunger, injustice, envy, and humiliation did their work. Incited by the Bolsheviks, the lackey left his niche, the gatekeeper came out from under the fence; with hands skilled in butchering boar, they dispatched the masters and their households, they burned houses with “five plans for convenient apartments,” destroyed hothouses, cut down fruit orchards, and took particular pleasure in plundering wine cellars. Rivers of Muscat de Lunel, Château d’Yquem, and sweet vodka-ratafias flowed into mouths and on the ground.

The old life and the old cuisine came to an end. The life style to which Molokhovets was accustomed was never resurrected. Today, not even many of the very rich eat as she ate.

Joyce Toomre, who translated and published this insane historical monument, has accomplished an enormous task, fully on a par with the original author’s slave labor. Her extensive preface and her detailed and entertaining notes are marvelous. Her grasp of history, both culinary and otherwise, is excellent, and she knows how to find the example that will vividly convey the cultural context, not just the recipe for a dish. (Thus, for example, you can’t help but appreciate the luxurious dinner for twenty-five people that Molokhovets proposes, if you know that a year’s worth of study in a women’s course, four times a week, cost less than one such dinner.)

However, Joyce Toomre, by her own acknowledgment, has singled out only one aspect of the book in following her main goal: to give convenient, practical directions to those who would like to prepare Russian dishes themselves. In other words, she decided to return Molokhovets’s book to its original use. And to do this, unfortunately, she had to sacrifice a great deal: she chose only a quarter of the recipes for translation, discarding entire sections, entire groups of dishes, consciously sacrificing historicity to pragmatic goals. Her decision to destroy A Gift to Young Housewives as a historical monument and recreate it in another, more convenient format is probably justified by many considerations: a practical book would be more likely to attract both publishers and readers. And, shortening Molokhovets’s tiresome wordiness (for some probably unfair reason I have always imagined Molokhovets as a fat, rather thick-witted, humorless, spiritless glutton), Joyce Toomre didn’t allow the useful tips and techniques to entirely disappear, but included some of them in the entertaining analysis that precedes the translation. The book is interesting and informative to read in translation; cooking with it is possible if not exactly convenient, and even simply turning the pages and looking at the illustrations is a pleasure. All the same, the living original has collapsed, perished irretrievably. Toomre herself knows the scale of the destruction she’s brought about, furthermore, she specifically draws our attention to it. I don’t want to be misunderstood—her conscientious, highly qualified work deserves endless respect. She killed with love.

But what can I do, how can I not heave a deep, melancholy sigh, gazing upon the ruins? How to console oneself, when, in the place of a sumptuous and absurd, scintillating and senseless edifice, there arises a neat, serviceable little standard house? Where are our shchi, cabbage soup, the basis of all Russian cooking? Of seven recipes for shchi, there’s only one here, and all the others are given in a list, like a memorial plaque (“Here so and so lived and died”). Why has meat okroshka been rejected, that classic cold soup made with kvass, served both in the Kremlin and in forgotten, weed-infested villages? And cranberry kissel, which survived the tsars and Lenin and Gorbachev? Why, of forty-seven types of pirozhki, have only eleven been left, of twelve mousses two, of fourteen kissels five, of fifteen compotes three? I want to see all fifty recipes for babas, eighty tarts, 112 puddings! I want to know all 342 ways of preparing fish dishes (there are more, but I’ve lost count!). Why is so little space allotted to buckwheat kasha, which Russians stuff in everything: in blini, in pies, in suckling pig, in soup, mixed with sautéed mushrooms? Why have dishes like French Julienne soup, Italian soup with macaroni, fried potatoes à la Lyonnaise, rice à la Milanese, the German dish Baumkuchen, and the Finnish drink Limpopo been chosen for translation, when they are unusual in Russian cuisine, instead of Guriev pancakes, the Smolensk dish rezniki, and other dishes with undistinguished names that are just as typical?

A glutton is quite capable of including all sorts of exotic recipes in her lists. But fish, mushrooms, aspics, pirozhkis, blini, kashas, cabbage soups, and breadcrust kvass are the foundation of the Russian table, i.e., garden and field grasses, and river life, things that you can gather or catch. I think that in translation and given the necessity of shortening a cook book, the proportionate “imbalances” of the original cuisine should be retained. The principle of equal selection of recipes chosen by Joyce Toomre in fact shifts the entire scale and distorts the face of the culture to unrecognizability. This is all too evident thanks to the original list of recipes, which the translator honestly reproduces in one of the addenda—one can see that Russian cuisine is heavily skewed toward certain ingredients and types of dishes, like fish, kashas, and aspics. I can’t help but feel that it would have done greater justice to the fallen colossus of prerevolutionary Russia to have translated abundance with abundance, gluttony with gluttony, injustice with injustice, and esoterica with esoterica.

This is important not only in and of itself, that is, as an aid to the lover of authentic foreign cuisine, but in order to avoid distorting the historical and cultural picture, making the exotica of one culture into exotica of quite another type. Otherwise why bother trying, learning the language, and immersing oneself in the culture at all? Breaking bread at the table by its very nature brings people closer together and, as is well known, the way to the heart is through the stomach; but if you stray from the path you could end up in an entirely unfamiliar place.

The reader who has a special interest in historical cuisine and who wishes to reproduce Russian dishes, especially the American reader, would do well to pay attention not only to the recipes and technology of preparing dishes, but also the most important thing—the manner of their consumption. The taste and distinctive qualities of a national cuisine are dramatically enhanced by the beverages that are meant to accompany it. (Of course, if you wash everything down with Coca-Cola then it really doesn’t matter what you eat.) Everyone knows that the primary Russian alcoholic beverage is vodka. But I have yet to meet an American who drinks it properly.

The American manner of drinking vodka—on an empty stomach and either warm, or diluted by being “on the rocks”—is as destructive for humans as it is for the product. It’s rather like drinking yesterday’s champagne from a tea cup. The whole point of vodka lies in the fact that a small jigger is swallowed quickly in one breath (it’s poured from a bottle kept in the freezer), as if one were gulping fire and that in the same instant one takes a bite of something very hot or spicy—mushrooms, pickles, marinated pepper, salted fish, scalding borshch, hot sausages in tomato sauce—it doesn’t matter. Virtuosos don’t eat, but sniff black bread (only black!) or the sleeve of an old jacket—but it’s hard to recommend this method in a country with a well-developed system of dry cleaners: it won’t produce the same effect. To drink vodka properly one should open the mouth wide and exhale sharply after swallowing, and tears should well up in the eyes. One of the participants will inevitably shake his head and say with a shudder: “That went down well! On to the next round!” The first jigger should hit the nerves, and there’s even an old proverb: “The first strikes like a stake, the second dives like a falcon, and the rest flutter around like tiny little birds.”

Vodka and zakuski (appetizers) are theoretically indivisible. The word zakuska denotes specifically food that is eaten with vodka in order to temper its effect on the body. It’s ridiculous to drink vodka without zakuski. You’ll get drunk immediately, especially if you’re hungry, and you won’t be able to appreciate the dinner to come. It’s even more ridiculous to eat zakuski without vodka; you’ll ruin your appetite, and if you’re having a Molokhovets-style dinner, you’ll still have need of it. In combination, vodka and zakuski stimulate the appetite, cheer the soul, warm you up, and prepare you for a feast.

Come to think of it, a real Russian is always thinking about vodka. In springtime, when he plants cucumber seedlings, he rubs his hands together—a good zakuska is growing. In the summer, preparing pickled tomatoes, canning stuffed bell peppers and eggplant caviar, he dreams about the long winter when there’s snow on the ground outside the window and a bottle of Stolichnaya on the table. In the fall, everyone, including old women and children, rushes to the forest to gather mushrooms. They rise at four in the morning to make the early train out of the city and travel at least two hours (the nearby suburbs are hopelessly trampled and picked clean by local mushroomers). Not everyone knows how to correctly salt, marinate, dry, boil, and fry mushrooms, but even people who don’t eat them (and they are few) go picking. Well-marinated mushrooms are a host’s pride, the best zakuska. But in the end, all of this—the food, the drink, and the zakuski—is little more than an excuse to indulge in the most cherished Russian tradition of all: the endless “kitchen conversations” about world politics, the Tatar yoke, the fate of Russia, and the enigmas of the Russian soul.

Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print