Mayo-Drenched and Heroic

A tribute to the home cooks of the Red Empire, who turned mass production, propaganda, and want into a cuisine.

Book of Tasty and Healthy Cuisine; Courtesy Anya von Bremzen
Book of Tasty and Healthy Cuisine; Courtesy Anya von Bremzen
Book of Tasty and Healthy Cuisine; Courtesy Anya von Bremzen

Nobody minds the lines at Moscow's Stolovaya 57 -- it's all a part of the Soviet-throwback experience. 

Nobody minds the lines at Moscow’s Stolovaya 57 — it’s all a part of the Soviet-throwback experience. 

This clever reprise of a USSR-era canteen, with its sprawling retro interior, opened a few years ago on the third floor of GUM, an upscale department store by the Red Square better known for blingy shrines to Hermes and Armani. At lunchtime, everyone’s here: well-dressed GUM salesgirls, biznesmen, a taxi driver or two — all bussing their own plates, nostalgic, apparently, for the days of a "classless society." Here misty-eyed babushkas swoon over fluffy bitki (meatballs) in sour cream and that sine qua non of proletarian repasts, herring "under a fur coat" of beets and eggs. Their Putin-era grandchildren gawk in glee at the clunky Soviet-issue soda machine and primordial conical juice fountains. It’s a campy vision of Sovietness, cooked up by Bosco di Ciliegi, a pseudo-Italian, actually-Russian importer of global luxury brands.

Watch: Author Anya von Bremzen and her mother Larisa prepare classic Soviet dishes

For years, Soviet cuisine was remembered mainly for its most ignoble attributes: the soul-destroying reek of stewed cabbage, the suspicious faintness of sour cream diluted with buttermilk, then diluted with milk, then diluted with water. Now, suddenly, places like Stolovaya 57 and Gastronom No. 1, a faux-Soviet supermarket also at GUM, replete with a marble "Stalinist-baroque" interior, are selling a far more delicious culinary revision of the scarlet empire. In this new USSR aglow with commodified post-Soviet nostalgia, the buttermilk is creamy and wholesome, the sausages rosy — the salesladies smile

The truth about Soviet cuisine, of course, is that it was neither the rotten-potato hell of its bashers nor the cheery, comforting idyll of consumerist memory-mongers.

Yes, Soviet foods included the gristly beef stroganoff and the desolate brown dried-fruit compote of state cafeterias. But there was also the spicy Georgian chicken, in a complex, creamy walnut sauce that my father made for special occasions, the bright vegetarian borsht my mom magically conjured out from old beets and a can of tomato paste, the festive Salat Olivier — a colorful potato salad with pickles made all the tastier for each hour spent waiting in line to snatch a precious can of imported Hungarian peas.

The official version of Soviet cuisine was born as a grand state project, manufactured out of both the utopian aspirations and the practical realities of the socialist empire. This was the Soviet cuisine that cursed us with the gluey brown industrial podliva (gravy). But authentic Soviet home cooking was another thing entirely: at its best, poignant and heroic, a monument to the daily feats of improvisation and bone-weary resilience spawned by a life of infamous shortages.

Flash back to the mid-1930s. The official Soviet food canon — created to supplant bourgeois Russian cuisine with its luxurious fish, Frenchified sauces, and class-enemy-type ingredients like sterlet and grouse — was being concocted almost from whole cloth by one man: the Armenian-born Bolshevik Anastas Mikoyan. In 1934 Mikoyan was appointed Stalin’s food supply commissar. His task: to reform, modernize, and standardize the food industry across the 11 time zones and 15 ethnic republics of the one-sixth of the world’s land mass that was the USSR.

An obsessive micro-manager (and a foodie), Mikoyan taste-tested each new food product, approved recipes and label designs. These being the terrible years of the Stalinist purges, he also signed arrest orders for "wreckers" and "saboteurs" — scapegoats blamed for damaging socialist industry and punished by Gulags. Ever-practical, Mikoyan showed no qualms about learning from the capitalist West, and — these still being the internationalist years — neither did Stalin. In 1936, The Leader dispatched his commissar on a cross-country tour of America. Mikoyan and his foodie squad toured Wisconsin dairies, Chicago slaughterhouses, and California fruit farms. They studied corrugated cardboard and metal jar lids. They ate intently at self-service cafeterias. ("Here," Mikoyan later wrote, "is a format born out of the bowels of capitalism but most suited to communism.") 

In those latter-day memoirs, the unsmiling but urbane Mikoyan could barely restrain himself from gushing about America’s foodways as the model of industrialized efficiency for Stalinist Russia. He was particularly smitten with burgers. "Very convenient for the busy man," he marveled. Mikoyan even imported burger grills to the USSR — but then World War II intervened, burgers lost their buns, and Soviet citizens got hooked instead on kotleti (bunless meat patties). Of course, Russians cooked kotleti at home before Mikoyan, but it’s the commissar who turned these into a mass-produced Soviet icon. Even Russian ice cream, our national pride, that vanilla plombir we all licked at 30 degrees below zero, resulted from American technology imported by Mikoyan. (The savvy Armenian also tried — and failed — to wangle the syrup recipe for Coca-Cola.)

Mikoyan was the man responsible for the modern, industrialized fruit juices and frankfurters served up today. Mikoyan’s commissariat also, in 1939, issued a grand tome that codified Soviet cuisine for the home cook. Produced by a committee of scientists, ideologues, and culinary professionals, The Book of Tasty and Healthy Cuisine would remain the socialist Joy of Cooking until the empire’s end, selling over 8 million copies in more than a dozen editions.

In its Stalinist heyday, the hefty, lavishly illustrated volume offered more than just recipes. The Kniga (book) was a socialist-realist landmark en par with the Moscow Metro, featuring invocations of "mankind’s centuries-old dream of building a communist society," quotations from Stalin (deleted in later editions), extravagant photo spreads of lavish foods — oysters! — never seen in stores, and lectures on nutrition and table manners. While the oysters and the 11 kinds of booze in the photos represented an outlandish socialist utopia — a sales brochure of the ever-promised, but never realized, Radiant Future — many of the recipes and simple practical tips taught generations of Soviets to cook.  

Now decades after I left Brezhnev’s Russia as a child, I still love leafing through the gravy-splotched pages of the iconic 1952 edition with its embossed dark-brown cover. Here are the mayonnaise-drenched composed salads and fish in aspic that anchored Soviet festive tables across the years. Here are the dozens of kotleti varieties and bracing soups still made at homes all over the former USSR. The book also includes serviceable recipes for traditional Russian dumplings, blini, and pirozhki (savory pastries). And to relieve the Slavic blandness, the book introduced colorful dishes from our "exotic" fraternal socialist republics.

Multiculturalism was one of the tastiest abiding aspects of Soviet cuisine. Even pre-1917, Russian cuisine reflected the span of an empire. Mikoyan’s efforts sovietized this diversity by folding ethnic dishes into an all-Soviet canon, bringing it into our homes through the book while promoting the mass-market products and convenience foods of a newly-industrialized state, Over the years, through the ongoing government fanfare about the future Leninist sliyanie (merging) of fraternal Soviet republics, our cuisine, too, was fusing into its own Eurasian pan-Soviet melting pot. By the time I grew up in the late 1960s, state restaurants across 11 times zones served Azeri lulya kebab (meat kebab), Tatar chebureki (fried meat pies), Ukrainian borscht, and crisp-fried Georgian chicken tabaka (chicken cooked in a heavy skillet). Muscovites with the means to dine out ate at restaurants named Uzbekistan or Minsk or Baku. Meanwhile, singularly Soviet hits like Salat Oliver and herring "under a fur coat" lent socialist kitschiness to Kazakh weddings and Karelian birthday parties. For special occasions, my own mother, Larisa, prepared an Uzbek pilaf redolent of cumin and barberries while my dad labored over Georgian red beans loaded with spices and herbs.

It’s true that such occasions were rare. Mostly my mom fried up simple kotleti, scraped together impromptu "guest at the doorstep" apple charlottes when people stopped by, and perfected frugal pirozhki dough: water, yeast, and a stick of socialist margarine. Were they culinary masterpieces? Well, maybe not — but they reflected an authentic and vital food culture that deserves to be recognized. And here’s the thing: These improvised treats prepared at homes in an era of shortages possessed an emotional weight that Stolovaya 57’s slickly delicious replicas can’t hope to match. In Russia today, USSR nostalgia has become a brand, commercial and political, garnished with calculated warm, fuzzy childhood signifiers. But depleted of existential pathos and the aura of eternal scarcity, the newly-hip Soviet cuisine is just another marketing retro-fad, one more balm against Putinland’s petro-dollarism and the invasion of globalized pizza and sushi.

Then again, I like Stolovaya 57 as much as the next Muscovite. What’s wrong with a lunchtime junket to an idealized version of a past from which we were all exiled when the USSR was deleted from maps? Here in New York, my ferociously anti-Soviet mom still makes kotleti three times a week. And when I feel blue, a festive bowls of Salat Olivier is just the right comfort food. Because Soviet cuisine was actually tasty. If not entirely healthy.

<p> Anya von Bremzen is a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure magazine, author of five cookbooks, and the winner of three James Beard awards. Her latest book is Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: a Memoir of Food and Longing (Crown). </p>

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