May 01, 2006

Frittering Away the Harvest

One of the treasures in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery is Aleksei Gavrilovich Venetsianov’s painting The Harvest: Summer (mid 1820s). Venetsianov painted a number of scenes depicting rural life that idealize the peasantry and its connection to the land. Here he portrays a peasant girl in a moment of repose. The day seems endless, as do the expanses of Mother Russia. Yet the scene conceals the real labors of the Russian peasant — the backbreaking work in the fields. Peasant families depended on a good harvest to get through the winter. Otherwise they would have to go “begging for crusts” or adulterate their bread with unpleasant fillers like chaff, acorns, or bark.

The steps involved in getting a loaf of bread to the table were many. First, the land had to be prepared by breaking up the soil with shovel and hoe. Then the seeds were sown, usually by women, who broadcast them by hand along the rows. Another peasant followed behind to harrow the seeds into the ground. After the grain had ripened into a golden sea, the peasants kept a very close eye on it, because bad weather could ruin the harvest in an instant. A dry, sunny day was needed for bringing in the grain, which the peasants harvested with razor-sharp scythes by bearing down on it with a rhythmic swinging and slicing motion. Then they gathered the grain into shucks to take to the threshing floor, where they beat it with a flail to separate it from the straw — the dry stalks. This was extremely hot and dirty work. 

Sometimes the grain was put through a coarse sieve to eliminate the last of the straw. The final step involved removing the chaff — the outer husk of the grain. The best way to do this was to toss the grain into the air; the heavier grain fell to the ground while the chaff blew away. These whole grains could be boiled into tasty porridges, such as the ritual dish kutya, made of whole-wheat berries. In times of hunger, the peasants sometimes picked the grains before they were ripe, to boil into a less appetizing, and less nutritious, meal. 

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