July 01, 2007

Culinary Detente

Though it hasn’t made headlines here in the States, this year marks the bicentennial of U.S.-Russian Diplo-matic Relations. This anniversary got me thinking about my own small role in furthering détente between the two countries. 

In 1978, I was hired by the now-defunct United States Information Agency as a guide-interpreter for a cultural exhibit that traveled to several Soviet cities. The organizers of the 1978-79 exhibit, “Agriculture USA,” could not have chosen a more provocative theme. During the height of Brezhnev’s era of stagnation, very little food was to be seen in Soviet stores, especially in the provincial cities of Kishinev and Rostov-on-Don, where I spent two months apiece. Through images of awesome abundance in our modern, self-service supermarkets, the American exhibit was intended to show the Russians everything that we had and they did not. 

The tenor of the USIA exhibits fairly accurately reflected U.S.-Soviet relations at any given time. When relations were fraught, as they were in 1978-79, life as a guide could be difficult. In Rostov, in particular, we were frequently subjected to Soviet-style provokatsiya. Of course, as a young graduate student eager to perfect my Russian, I found it all rather fascinating, and, when I was able to speak openly about American society or to learn from the Russians about the true nature of their lives, it was wonderfully meaningful. However, given Ros-tov’s empty store shelves, I felt deeply embarrassed by our supermarket propaganda film. Even more confrontational were the actual blue-ribbon preserves we displayed from the Iowa State Fair. So it was not surprising that many visitors felt the need to let me know that they, too, could produce prize-winning preserves. They made it a point to bring me all sorts of homemade foods, in the process sharing not only the best that they had — the true gift of Russian hospitality — but also greatly contributing to my Russian culinary education. 

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