March 01, 2006

Of Bees and Cabbage Pie

In our wired age, it is hard to imagine life without distractions—between cell phones, iPods and instant messaging, we rarely find ourselves alone. But, just for a moment, picture a Russian village deep in the countryside, with no means of easy communication with the outside world. How did the villagers keep themselves entertained? 

By all accounts, life was anything but dull, as people gathered regularly to talk, sing and dance. Yet most social gatherings were not simply an excuse to idle away the time: more often than not they were structured around work. Male gatherings frequently took place in the summer, when barns needed to be raised or cottages built in a communal effort. Women’s gatherings took place in the late summer and early fall, when the fruits of the harvest had to be processed quickly before spoiling. They also took place in winter, when young girls and women gathered to spin or card wool. Such tedious tasks could fly by if the conversation was lively enough and especially if the workers knew that a feast awaited them at the end of their labors. 

The American term “bee” captures the bustle of these gatherings. As you’ll read elsewhere in this issue [pages 51-56], one especially popular type of bee in Russia was the kapustnik, when women got together to chop cabbage — an activity that even under the best of circumstances is laborious. Most of the cabbage would be immersed in brine to make kvashenaya kapusta, the mild sauerkraut that is a mainstay of the Russian diet, providing a wealth of vitamins otherwise unavailable during the cold season. Kvashenaya kapusta is also a crucial ingredient in shchi, Russia’s national soup. So important is sauerkraut to this cabbage soup that, when fresh cabbage is used the soup is known as lenivye shchi, or “lazy cabbage soup,” because no effort has been made to brine the cabbage first. At least the chopping also had some immediate rewards: any cabbage left over from the brining barrel was turned into a delicious cabbage pie — also known as kapustnik.

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