January 01, 2014

Dine Like a Pomor

Dine Like a Pomor
Alexander Sherstobitov

Cod was once an everyday fish in New England, so plentiful that it wasn’t very highly regarded. Only when overfishing caused the rich stock of wild cod off the Massachusetts coast to collapse did the fish become rare, and hence more desirable. In Russia, the story is somewhat different. Cod thrived in the waters of Russia’s far North, where fish was the main food of the Pomor population that lived along the White Sea coast. The Pomors prized the flaky white flesh of cod above all other types of fish. A local saying affirmed that, “If you haven’t eaten cod, you haven’t dined.” (“Трещочки не поести – не пообедаешь.”)

But this appreciation was an exception. Until the time of Peter the Great, most Russians were suspicious of ocean fish like cod, which inhabited the frightening, unknown depths of the sea. Except for herring, the Russians ate mainly freshwater fish from rivers and lakes. They found the eating habits of the northern people so strange that they called them, pejoratively, treskoyedy or “cod-eaters.”

Attitudes began forcibly to change in 1721, when Peter the Great issued an ukaz ordering his subjects to eat ocean fish – an act designed to revive the once-important port city of Arkhangelsk, which had declined after St. Petersburg’s founding. Although the peasantry remained wary of ocean fish (and could hardly have afforded to buy it), the nobility positively reveled in the novelty of the new fish. Throughout the eighteenth century, they used sledges to transport flash-frozen fish from Arkhangelsk to Petersburg and Moscow in the wintertime, vying to be the first to show it off in their kitchens.

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