Classic Russian Cooking: Elena Molokhovets’ ‘A Gift to Young Housewives’
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 open this book to laugh to their heart’s content, in order, trembling with holy horror, to immerse themselves in that lost era of culinary titans, maniacs with cast-iron intestines as long as fire hoses, with stomachs of elephantine proportions, with the jaws of ancient Charybdis, who devoured entire ships and their oarsmen at one sitting.
Where is the creature who, rising at dawn, spends two and a half hours roasting chamois in time for breakfast? Or who tosses back a jigger of vodka in the morning and sits down to consume beer soup with sour cream (Rhine wines are served in the middle of breakfast, punch at the end; or the other way around), and with barely time to recover, again drinks vodka or wine for midday dinner (with hors d’oeuvres: marinated fish, smoked hare, stuffed goose or pears in honey, ninety versions to choose from), and applies himself to soup with champagne and savory pies (the champagne is poured in the soup!), upon which there follows yet another bountiful meat dish, and then a heavy desert, drenched in sugar and fat.
After that, it’s not long until evening tea with five types of bread, veal, ham, beef, hazel grouse, turkey, tongue, hare, four sorts of cheese. This is not counting rolls, different sorts of cookies, babas, jam, oranges, apples, pears, mandarins, dates, plums, and grapes; as if that were not enough, for “tea” one must offer rum, cognac, red wine, cherry syrup, sherbet (a kind of sugary fruit halvah or sweet drink), cream, sugar, and lemon. Plain butter and lemon butter, parmesan butter, butter from hazel grouse, with fried liver, with almonds, walnuts, pistachios. With green cheese. And shredded corned beef. (Molokhovets notes that this “may replace dinner.” What? Meaning, it may not replace dinner? Here, by the way, one remembers that the subtitle of the book is “means of reducing expenses in the domestic household.”) By Molokhovets’s reckoning, this evening tea in the spirit of Gargantua is suitable for a friendly conversation that does not go on much past midnight.
In the morning, presumably, one starts all over again: suckling pig, breast of mutton, pies, pâtés, stuffed eel. If you happen to be a “vegetarian,” then your voracity only grows in the author’s view, for after all, neither fried calf’s head and feet, nor wild boar roasted on the spit—alas—can be part of your breakfast. Therefore, you must eat more frequently and a bit at a time, for example: morning tea (including cream, butter, eggs), then breakfast (main dish plus tea or coffee with babas, cookies, rolls), then a dinner (Russian dinner is in the middle of the day, about three o’clock) of FOUR dishes, of which the last two in fact are sweet, and two hours after dinner—more food (after all, you’re hungry again, aren’t you?)—and in the evening, tea resembling the one described above, only vegetarian.
Molokhovets notes specifically that her recipes and advice are calculated for a family with a normal appetite, of average means, and modest budget. But she sees the plainest, most ordinary “fourth-rate” dinner as a feast of four dishes. (December, Dinner No. 11: Wallachian white soup, cold salmon, capercaillie with salad, boiled custard with caramel syrup.) The fanciest diners consist of eleven courses, or even more, for in these cases two soups are served and the endless small meat pies and cheeses after dessert are not even counted, just mentioned like something that goes without saying, in small print. On these grand occasions wines, vodka, and liqueurs are changed seven times…and the contemporary Russian reader, leafing through the thousand-page folio in horror, begins to guess why Chekhov’s early, comic stories sometimes end with the words: “Then he was seized by an apoplectic fit and died.”
Chekhov, Gogol, Bunin, Shchedrin, and countless memoirists have devoted no small number of pages to descriptions of oblivious gorging, a process that literally becomes orgiastic, virtually a sexual activity. Russian literature’s reserve in regard to eroticism and carnal love is compensated for many times over by the lengthy unbridled epic poems devoted to the joys of the stomach. It suffices to read Chekhov’s story “The Siren,” or Gogol’s “Old World Landowners” to believe in the “economy” of Molokhovets’s meals and in the ordinariness of her household.
From a contemporary point of view, Molokhovets’s housewife (actually, a cook under the housewife’s supervision) prepares not only huge quantities of food, but extremely filling meals, to put it kindly: for instance, in order to make babas, a type of sweet cake, you need to beat ninety egg yolks without stopping, for two hours. Eggs, cream, butter, sour cream—all are generously poured into doughs, sauces, and soups: a chicken soup for six contains a cup of cream, meat broth, a cup of sour cream. Molokhovets skims the foam and fat from soup, but “for those who like things greasier,” she proposes boiling the skimmed fat and pouring it back into the soup. A “manorial table” uses up two pounds of salt a week. Reading Molokhovets’s general instructions, one feels oneself a pathetic, feeble dwarf: thus, for a “small dinner or evening gathering” she proposes a guest list of fifteen to eighteen people, for whom one may prepare, not counting everything else, ninety cups of cranberry drink.
For greater economy a huge number of stores are supposed to be prepared at home: holes must be dug in the cellar for preserving turnips, pike must be dried, nettles planted in order to make threads for repairing stockings, and many, many other things, not to mention well-known preserves and marinades. One should make rose groats, beet coffee, April birch sap vinegar, chestnut starch, pear mustard, pine shoot beer, cucumber jam, and violet syrup. There is, it seems, no object on land, air, or sea that does not find itself in frying pans, casseroles, jars, barrels, sacks, and clay pots. Everything is used, and aside from complex but familiar dishes, one encounters on the pages of Molokhovets such exotic items as cornflower mousse, water ice from currant buds, cream custard with mignonette flowers, and boiled fermented milk with silver leaven.
It is, of course, unimaginable, impossible, to run such a household alone or with the help of merely one cook; and in Molokhovets there’s no question of this. All the work is done by servants, though the author doesn’t say how many. At any rate, the recipes for servants’ meals are based on calculations for four persons. The servants certainly don’t starve, but when one reads the menu intended for them, angry class feelings begin to seethe in the soul. Thus, for example, a break-fast for these round-the-clock laborers frequently consists solely of milk or yogurt; dinner of soup and kasha, and dinner leftovers are proposed for supper. It’s amusing, following the diagram for butchering a cow, to note which parts—third- and fourth-rate—are meant for the servants’ soup. Here’s a soup for a holiday dinner: boil beef tripe, add potatoes and secondrate flour. That’s it. No greens, no spices, no joy. There’s no mention of fruit: common people should eat common things. Here’s a Lenten breakfast: smoked herring. Or: grated turnip with Lenten butter on black bread and tea.
One wonders whether it was gratifying after such a breakfast to prepare stores of barberry: “Each pretty branch of barberry, held by the stem, should be dipped in syrup, and immediately rolled in very finely crushed and sifted sugar of the best sort…” etc. It makes you want to gather in a group and sing revolutionary songs, or join a band of terrorists, or steal. But Molokhovets won’t allow stealing: her housewife sits in the china pantry or in a “warm maid’s work room” at a table and though “because of frail health” she avoids the larder in cold weather, she nonetheless watches keenly to make sure that nothing is carried past her other than what and how much she has earmarked for the table—whether truffles, cream, and pineapple for the masters, or ox lips, legs, and heart for the servants. She is a delicate lady, and, “seeing as the butchering of a boar is a rather unpleasant thing and not every mistress will want to be present during it,” she is given only a general idea of the process. Even so, it contains details that might horrify our tender housewife: how to cut off the head…boil the lower jaw…how to sever the legs at the knee…She even does a little work herself: “The mistress may occasionally give herself the pleasure of skimming cream or sour cream, or direct the servants to beat the butter in her presence,” etc.
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