Top ten food in Russian literature

Food is a tricky subject, as there are a lot of viable candidates for inclusion – so many that I toyed with the idea of doing a top twenty, but that’s a cop out, so I’ve had to whittle it down, and some exceptional works have missed the cut. I’ll say a bit more about the ones that didn’t make it at the end of the list. Before we start, a recommendation: Lesley Chamberlain’s The Food and Cooking of Russia (London, 1982), which is both an excellent source of recipes and information on Russian food, and offers an interesting perspective on Russian culture whether you’re into cooking or not.

The emphasis here is specifically on food, rather than eating, and I’ve excluded drinking, which will probably be the subject of a future top ten. But for now, my food list:

10. Pushkin, Evgenii Onegin. The description of Onegin’s meal in a Petersburg restaurant (chapter 1, verse XVI), which features roast beef, truffles, Limburger cheese, a Strasbourg pie, and pineapple, leaves us in no doubt he is a deeply Europeanized character:

Пред ним roast-beef окровавленный,
И трюфли, роскошь юных лет,
Французской кухни лучший цвет,
И Страсбурга пирог нетленный
Меж сыром лимбургским живым
И ананасом золотым.

The contrast with the Russian food on offer at the Larins could not be greater. A special mention also for the fabulous scene where Onegin lets Tatiana down after her declaration of love, whilst walking through the vegetable patch. Russian text

9. Olesha, Envy. Much of Olesha’s 1927 novel revolves around food, though not in an entirely good way. The central figure of Andrei Babichev, the sausage maker and champion of communal eating projects, cuts a fairly repulsive figure with his enormous, healthy groin, as we see his toilette through the eyes of Kavalerov in the opening scene, and he and his sausages never really recover from this grotesque depiction. Even more disgusting is the description of the widow Prokopovich, also a communal food provider – she cooks for a hairdressers’ collective, but what we actually witness is her feeding offal to the cats and the floor being covered in spittle. Russian text

8. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago. As you might expect, Gulag narratives are a great, if depressing, source of food scenes, but few are as memorable or remarkable in their symbolic resonance than the preface of The Gulag Archipelago:

Году в тысяча девятьсот сорок девятом напали мы с друзьями на примечательную заметку в журнале “Природа” Академии Наук. Писалось там мелкими буквами, что на реке Колыме во время раскопок была как-то обнаружена подземная линза льда – замерзший древний поток, и в нем – замерзшие же представители ископаемой (несколько десятков тысячелетий назад) фауны. Рыбы ли, тритоны ли эти сохранились настолько свежими, свидельствовал ученый корреспондент, что присутствующие, расколов лед, тут же ОХОТНО съели их.
Немногочисленных своих читателей журнал, должно быть, немало подивил, как долго может рыбье мясо сохраняться во льду. Но мало кто из них мог внять истинному богатырскому смыслу неосторожной заметки.
Мы – сразу поняли. Мы увидели всю сцену ярко до мелочей: как присутствующие с ожесточенной поспешностью кололи лед; как, попирая высокие интересы ихтиологии и отталкивая друг друга локтями, они отбивали куски тысячелетнего мяса, волокли его к костру, оттаивали и насыщались.
Мы поняли потому, что сами были из тех ПРИСУТСТВУЮЩИХ, из того единственного на земле могучего племени зэков, которое только и могло ОХОТНО съесть тритона.

In 1949 some friends and I came upon a noteworthy news item in Nature, a magazine of the Academy of Sciences. It reported in tiny type that in the course of excavations on the Kolyma River a subterranean ice lens had been discovered which was actually a frozen stream – and in it were found frozen specimens of prehistoric fauna some tens of thousands of years old. Whether fish or salamander, these were preserved in so fresh a state, the scientific correspondent reported, that those present immediately broke open the ice encasing the specimens and devoured them with relish on the spot.
The magazine no doubt astonished its small audience with the news of how successfully the flesh of fish could be kept fresh in a frozen state. But few, indeed, among its readers were able to decipher the genuine and heroic meaning of this incautious report.
As for us, however – we understood instantly. We could picture the entire scene right down to the smallest details: how those present broke up the ice in frenzied haste; how, flouting the higher claims of ichthyology and elbowing each other to be first, they tore off chunks of the prehistoric flesh and hauled them over to the bonfire to thaw them out and bolt them down.
We understood because we ourselves were the same kind of people as those present at that event. We, too, were from that powerful tribe of zeks, unique on the face of the earth, the only people who could devour prehistoric salamander with relish. (The Gulag Archipelago, trans. Thomas P. Whitney, vol 1, ix)

This also gives me an excuse to provide links to the translation, all three volumes of which are available for download on archive.org. The original is on lib.ru and undoubtedly elsewhere as well, but the OCR is a bit of a shocker. Russian text: vol. 1 | vol. 2 | vol. 3 | English text vol. 1 | vol. 2 | vol. 3

7. Bulgakov, Master and Margarita. Bulgakov’s diaries and letters, edited by Julie Curtis as Manuscripts Don’t Burn (London, 1992), give a very clear impression of how dire the food situation was in Russia in the 1920s, so it’s possibly no surprise that it plays such an important role in The Master and Margarita. The scenes at the restaurant of Griboedov House and at the hard currency store make very plain the abundance available to those in the right position and denied to the rest of the population. But my favourite moment is the conversation with the Variety Theatre buffet manager about the quality of his fare in part 1, chapter 18:

– Я извиняюсь, – заговорил ошеломленный этим внезапным нападением Андрей Фокич, – я не по этому делу, и осетрина здесь ни при чем.
– То есть как это ни при чем, если она испорчена!
– Осетрину прислали второй свежести, – сообщил буфетчик.
– Голубчик, это вздор!
– Чего вздор?
– Вторая свежесть – вот что вздор! Свежесть бывает только одна – первая, она же и последняя. А если осетрина второй свежести, то это означает, что она тухлая!
– Я извиняюсь, – начал было опять буфетчик, не зная, как отделаться от придирающегося к нему артиста.
– Извинить не могу, – твердо сказал тот.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Andrei Fokich, appalled by this sudden attack, ‘but I came about something else, the sturgeon has nothing to do with it…’
‘How do you mean, nothing to do with it, when it was spoiled!’
‘The sturgeon they sent was second-grade fresh’, said the barman.
‘Really, what nonsense!’
‘Why nonsense?’
‘”Second-grade fresh” – that’s what I call nonsense! There’s only one degree of freshness – the first, and that’s the last as well. If your sturgeon is “second-grade fresh” that means it’s spoiled.’
‘I’m sorry . . .’ began the barman, at a loss as to how to parry this insistent critic.
‘No, it’s unforgivable,’ said the professor.

A superb commentary on Soviet language, bureaucracy and supply chains. Russian text | English text

6. Chekhov, ‘Gooseberries’. I love Chekhov’s ‘Little Trilogy’ – it’s the stories-within-stories thing that awakens the narrative nerd in me – and Ivan Ivanovich’s story of his brother Nikolai dreaming of buying an estate with gooseberry bushes is an absolute gem. Nikolai finally achieves his dream, and when his brother visits, tucks into a bowl of hard, unripe, practically inedible gooseberries in a state of bliss, convinced they are utterly delicious. It crystallizes the meaning of dreams and self-delusion, and makes me crave (ripe) gooseberry fool. Russian text | English text

And at this point I’m going to take a break. Tune in next time to find out who makes the top five.

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