September 01, 2006

The Soviet Table

It is 1956. Khrushchev delivers his “secret speech” at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party. The Soviet Union invades Hungary. And the first issue of USSR hits U.S. newsstands, in an effort to show Americans what Soviet life is all about. USSR appeared monthly until the mid-1960s, when it became Soviet Life, which was transformed into Russian Life following the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

To celebrate this, Russian Life’s 50th anniversary year, I had hoped to find some archival recipes to share with readers. But, to my great surprise, not a single recipe was printed in the early issues of the magazine. Because the Russians have long acknowledged the importance of food in their culture, the lack of recipes or even commentary on food is less a reflection of food’s significance than a tacit acknowledgement of the problems that plagued food distribution during the Soviet years. Still, I wanted to find some sort of culinary trajectory to parallel Russian Life’s evolution. So I turned to three editions of the classic Soviet cookbook, The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, corresponding roughly to the magazine’s various incarnations. 

Seasonality has always been important to the Russians, who wax rhapsodic over their ephemeral fresh fruits and vegetables. During the Soviet era, this appreciation conveniently served a political purpose as well: by celebrating the native and the local – Russia’s own treasures, people implicitly celebrated the nation. Thus, the 1952 and 1964 editions of The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food offer many recipes for widely available berries, stone fruits and apples, with an occasional recipe for fruits such as quince and oranges from the southern reaches of the USSR. But there are no recipes for tropical fruits like bananas and pineapples, which were a rarity during the Soviet years. Yet, because this cookbook was also intended to educate, both editions provide a sidebar that explains just what pineapples and bananas are:

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Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

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