Monday, May 26, 2008

National Monotonous Diet.

May 26 ...

According to the Julian calendar (the one followed by the Orthodox Church), May 26 1799 was the birthday of the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin (his birthday according to the ‘new’ Gregorian calendar is June 6.)

My knowledge of Russian cuisine is next to nothing, and I certainly cannot read Russian, so his statement ‘Cabbage soup and barley. They’re Russia’s national food. Both excellent in their way, but a shade monotonous’ had me interested. Surely it is a sweeping generalisation? It would be expected perhaps from a man committed as he was to social reform - the two items reflecting the daily food of the poor folk, not the elegant tables of the rich and famous.

In the early nineteenth century one Western observer noted that the daily ‘Full Diet’ in the hospital in Galitzin consisted of ‘cabbage soup, one pound of beef, with boiled buckwheat a pound and a half of bread.’ As for the ordinary labourer, study of the situation in ‘a considerable portion of America and Europe’ in 1843 gave the basic diet of that of the Russian example as ‘rye bread, buckwheat, and sour cabbage soup, seasoned with salt and lard’. Yet another visitor to the large factories in Russia in 1828 enquired about the food of the ‘industrious children’ employed therein. He was pleasantly surprised as to their good conditions:

‘They rise in the first place uniformly at six o'clock, winter and summer ; and after prayers begin their daily labour. Half a pound of bread is sent round to them at eight o'clock, and at twelve they dine. For this meal and recreation an hour and a half in winter, and two hours in summer, are allowed. The dinner consists of plain or cabbage soup, (stchy) beef and kascha, and rye bread, five days in the week; and of fish, (sniatky,) in their cabbage soup, the other two days in the week. Kvass is their beverage ad libitum, according to the season of the year. They again work from half past one or two, till half past seven ; and at four o'clock receive a second half-pound of rye bread. Supper is prepared at eight, consisting of soup, and kascha of buckwheat, kroupa (grits), in winter, or milk in summer; recreation till nine.”

Not much variation so far, at least amongst the opinions of foreign visitors. As late as 1990 the typical daily prison fare in the USSR was reported by the Helsinki Watch Organization as:

Breakfast: Kasha, brown bread, tea and some sugar.
Lunch: Cabbage soup, mashed potatoes, bread.
Supper: Fish soup and bread.

As so often happens, relative poverty is not a barrier to hospitality, and although the cabbage soup of the ordinary nineteenth century Russian may have been monotonous, it was freely shared with unexpected visitors. One intrepid foot traveller in the 1820’s (John Dundas Cochrane) wrote:

‘On reaching the Asiatic side of the Ural chain, I could not help remarking that the inhabitants of all the villages were much more civil, more hospitable, and more cleanly dressed; and in no one instance would they accept of money for the food I had occasion to procure. I never entered a cottage, but shtshee (a cabbage soup), with meat, milk and bread, were immediately placed before me unasked; nor could any entreaty of mine induce them to receive a higher reward than a pipe of tobacco, or a glass of vodka (whisky).’

Thankfully, to fulfil our requirement of a recipe a day, another visitor described the method of making cabbage and barley soup – and includes the enrichments of the rich, proving that it was not solely fuel for the poor.

Cabbage Soup.
The cabbage-soup (shtshee) is the favourite national dish, and is variously prepared. Six or seven cabbages, chopped up, half a pound of barley-meal, a quarter of a pound of butter, a couple of pounds of mutton cut up, and a handful of salt, stewed in two cans of kwass, make an ordinary mess. The very poor omit the butter and mutton; the richer classes substitute broth for kwass, and enrich the dish with cream and other ingredients.
[Russia ancient and modern, By George Trevor, 1862]

I may not be able to read Russian, but I am not fooled by the reports of these visitors, who must surely have suffered from ethnic-blindness. Why did they not mention Coulibiac? Piroschki? Caviar? Blinis? …….. ?

Tomorrow’s Story …

From Russia, with recipes.

Quotation for the Day …

I would rather live in Russia on black bread and vodka than in the United States at the best hotels. America knows nothing of food, love or art. Isadora Duncan.


Rochelle R. said...

The mention of Cabbage Soup immediately made me think of the Cabbage Soup Diet. I also think of sturdy Russian Peasants. I guess that must be from all the bread :).

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Rochelle - I had forgotten that diet - it was eminently forgettable I think.

la petite gourmande said...

It's the diet that includes treats such as salo (preserved pork fat which is delicious slathered on black bread)! (

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