January 25, 2023

Food, Dance, Poets

“The urge to share one’s table, no matter how meager, is a national trait that endures despite wars and political upheavals that create desperate shortages,” Darra Goldstein assures us. The Williams College professor emeritus of Russian (and former Russian Life food editor) neatly conveys information about customs, habits, kitchens, and restaurants with quiet, restrained, occasionally personal commentary in a book that is part of the California Studies of Food and Culture series that she oversees. (Goldstein also authored the recent cookbook Beyond the North Wind: Russia in Recipes and Lore [2020].)

An American with non-Russian readers in mind, Goldstein considerately explains and clarifies what a native author might take for granted: “The Russian language uses two very different words for food. Food in general (which can also be a meal) is eda. But then there is pishcha, food that can be elevated to metaphor (food for thought, food for the soul, food of the gods) while simultaneously indicating something absolutely basic and essential. Sourdough rye bread, for instance, is pishcha; white bread is not… Tellingly, the adage ‘Cabbage soup and kasha, that’s our food’ uses the word pishcha, and not merely for its sibilant effect.”

Constructing The Kingdom of Rye on a chronological and thematic framework, Goldstein begins and ends the survey with rye: “So ingrained was rye in the Russian diet that by the late nineteenth century, 30 to 60 percent of the country’s arable land was annually planted in this crop.” The nutritious and hearty rye has unfortunately lost its predominance to wheat: “Beginning with the push for mechanization in the late 1920s, collective farm workers found that combines had trouble harvesting rye, which grows considerably taller than wheat. So, when possible, they cultivated wheat instead. Already in Soviet times, some commentators were ruing the disappearance of rye as Russia’s predominant grain, believing that it eroded Russian national identity in a country that for centuries had defined itself as ‘the kingdom of rye.’”

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