Food does much more than feed us — it tells the story of who we are. And in the former USSR, that story is full of shortages, public cafeterias, party leader feasts and herring. And quite a bit of mayonnaise.
In The CCCP Cookbook: True Stories of Soviet Cuisine, Moscow-based food writers/historians Olga and Pavel Syutkin present classic dishes of the Soviet era, depicted in the hyper-saturated, almost baroque images of the era: Picture a 1970s Better Homes and Gardens spread, heavy on the aspic, and you get the idea. Each recipe reveals a chapter of life under Communism — from the flavors of the outer republics brought in on shashlik skewers, to the swapping of capers for tinned peas in Salat Olivier, to the aristocratic heritage that gave its name to beef Stroganoff. This is a land of cold winters and short growing seasons, where vegetables were few and spices fewer.
But despite some culinary shortcomings, the dishes that mark the Soviet era still have a strong pull on Russian sentiment (if not stomachs).
We talked with Pavel Syutkin about the project, and their work to capture, catalog and celebrate the oft-maligned food of the Soviet era. Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity
What characterizes the food of the Soviet era?
The word "Soviet" evokes very controversial emotions. On the one hand, all these fruit punches, fur-coat herrings [a layered salad of herring, potatoes, beets and mayonnaise], chicken salads and soup with pickled cucumbers are from our childhood. That is why they are colored with very tender and warm feelings. But at the same time, people who lived in that era would never forget other Soviet features: total shortage of food and goods, ideological dictates, suppression of any human initiative. Today our official propaganda cultivate the idea that former USSR was an ideal society where the people and the authorities lived in full harmony and abundance. The reality was far from this fairy tale.
How did the Soviet state affect cuisine?
One of the most debatable Soviet ideas was standardization. Nowadays, it seems unimaginable to have the same menu for public catering all throughout the USSR. But in 1920-30s, it made some sense. In a country where most people even didn't know the word "sanitary," where the trade system was ruined, this was a way to control everything. So standard goods, foods and recipes were implemented everywhere for easy control of technology and quality. But by the end of the 1970s, the system had become inadequate. The real variety of Russian cuisine was replaced with a short list of public catering menu. It paid no attention to national specialties, local dishes, seasons, etc.
When were food shortages at their worst? How did people respond?
It's curious, but in the USSR there were different systems for food distribution. Most common and democratic was the state trade, with a lot of shops and stores. It was most vulnerable for food shortages. Then there were distribution systems for large plants, railroad ministry and the army. Dozens of "secret" cities with military production facilities had their own channels of food deliveries, and special food quotas. The Soviet upper class (high-ranking party and state officials — nomenclatura) had their own serene life. The worst situation with food shortage was in small cities and in the country.
As in any country, there was a difference between home cooking and banquet cuisine. Of course, food shortage made housewives show more imagination in plate serving. There is comical advice in a cookbook of 1989 — an era of total food deficiency. The author instructs cooks to serve canned sprats on a plate, placing the fishes like a sun's rays, and decorating with carrot slices. The recipe was in a "Holiday Dishes" chapter. The book was issued when Communist party banquets were full of sturgeon, pigs and caviar.
Explain the Soviet love of mayonnaise.
Mayonnaise features profusely in Soviet cookbooks! It was a creative way to make dishes more filling, and mixed salads with mayonnaise are an organic part of Soviet cuisine. By the end of the 1970s, food shortages were evident in many cities and regions, and [mayonnaise helped] get some variety of tastes with a very short list of available vegetables, sausages, eggs. [Mayonnaise was also an industrial product of the state, and it has the benefit of a long shelf life.] It's difficult to imagine, but even onions practically were absent in state stores and shops from February until May every year. At the same time, in public state-ruled catering, mayonnaise helped to disguise the quality of some ingredients.
Are any of these recipes still on your table?
Yes, sure. Pasta a la Navy [a simple dish of noodles mixed with minced meat sauteed with onions] — one of the most democratic dishes of home cooking. It could be prepared with minced meat (farce) of corned and canned beef. Rassolnik — the soup motivated by food shortage, which combines the old Russian tastes of pickles with pearl barley. And Napoleon cake [layers of pastry and custard], which was created in 1912 to mark 100 years of victory over the French emperor. It turned, during the Soviet époque, into our classic New Year and Christmas dessert.