May 01, 2003

An Aristocratic Appetizer


ne of the most famous scenes in Russian literature takes place in Chapter 10 of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, when Levin, a salt-of-the-earth character, and Oblonsky, an urbane sophisticate, meet at the Angleterre, a chic St. Petersburg restaurant. Levin is highly uncomfortable in this milieu. Not only does he see a “painted Frenchwoman” and learn that Prince Golitsyn is dining privately with a lady, but the menu confounds him. Oblonsky orders an extravagant French meal of fresh oysters, potage printanier, turbot with sauce Beaumarchais, poularde à l’estragon, and macédoine de fruits, and suggests that they wash it down with Champagne and Chablis. Tolstoyan character that he is, all Levin really wants is some cabbage soup and kasha, and he says so. Oblonsky famously counters that “The aim of civilization is to enable us to get enjoyment out of everything.” 

Oblonsky’s motto could just as well be St. Petersburg’s, a city that from the first was designed for aesthetic delight, at least for its wealthy residents. When Peter the Great took up residence there in the early 18th century, he decided, among other indulgences, to expand the Russian palate, and so he hired Russia’s first foreign chefs, from Austria, Bavaria, and Saxony. Still, Peter’s taste was not particularly refined. He was known to appear suddenly in any odd corner of Petersburg, drop into a house at random, sit down at the table and enjoy the simplest meal. At other times he contentedly stayed at home with his favorite Limburger cheese, which he apparently measured with a compass before eating. Peter did not especially like to host ceremonial feasts and generally left grand entertaining to his favorite, Prince Alexander Menshikov, who staged magnificent dinners at his palace on the embankment of Vasilevsky Ostrov. Menshikov’s kitchen was equipped with a large, open hearth with a spit for roasting—a real innovation in Russia, where most houses still relied on the massive Russian masonry stove for cooking. 

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