One of the questions I often had to ponder during graduate school was “What is Russia?” This question isn’t as vague and esoteric as you might think. As a bit of background, my primary focus was Russian cultural history from roughly 1820 to 1930. Throughout both college and graduate school, I used Russian author Lev Tolstoy’s works to dissect certain oddities and contradictions within the Imperial system (I first wrote a thesis on Tolstoy’s peasant reform efforts and followed up with an analysis of his final novel in the context of Russia’s imperial incursion in the Caucasus). In simple facts, modern Russia is nearly twice the size of the US; it spans seven time zones, has 35 official languages, and is a part of two separate continents. This does not even account for the Russian Empire at its peak: as of 1895, Russia covered about 15-16% of the globe, spanning from Poland to Alaska (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_empires).
So the question is actually more complex than it seems: when someone says “Russia” or describes something as being “Russian”, what do they mean? There is a traditional – almost Orientalist-style – version of Russia in most of our imaginations: cold, snowy – bleak even, with ornate, onion-topped cathedrals, a cryptic Soviet past and an uncertain seemingly-autocratic future. “Balalaikas, bears, and borscht” – to use a bit of hyperbole. This is largely an image crafted from the Russia that has made its way into the media – Dr. Zhivago, The Hunt for Red October, James Bond films, and the like. It is a very Western image, but even that merits a bit of dissection; while the major cities of Russia are located on in Western Russia, the two cities couldn’t be more different culturally and historically. But this Western image of Russia is extremely limited – it would be like looking at Hollywood and New York and assuming that they represented all of America.
My interest in this is rooted in self-identification. My father’s side of the family is mainly Colonial American: most of them came to America from Western Europe in the 17th Century, worked in Philadelphia during the Revolution, and eventually moved to the suburbs. Believe me; I’m far too much of a history nerd to not be interested in that story as well. Perhaps I will approach that another time…
My mother’s side, however, was always simply referred to as “Russian” (except my grandmother, who is half Slovak) – a label which I came to realize meant more than just a border or a flag. The reality was much more complicated. Yes, they left a region known at that time as “Russia,” but their languages, their traditions, and even their names and towns of origin were by no means “Russian” – or at least “traditional” Russian. After a bit of research, I finally found the location of my great-grandfather’s village – a town called Ushcherp’e in Bryanskaya Oblast on the border of modern Russia and Ukraine. The town’s close proximity to the border, however, was also a problem: depending on the year, the village could have been either a part of Russia or a part of Ukraine. His immigration papers say, simply, “Russia” as it was part of the Empire at the time, but did that matter? Did he speak Russian or in any way relate to the Muscovites that controlled everything? The short answer is “probably not.” After all, nationality and cultural identity are already hotly-debated concepts usually reserved for revolutions and academic discussions. My great-grandfather – and those like him – was probably more concerned with famine and survival than with concepts like “cultural hegemony” or “imagined communities.”
Ok, but why am I bringing it up here? What does all of this confusing academic jibber-jabber have to do with tasty food?! There are two items that I would like to explore on this blog that directly relate to these concepts.
First, there is Russian food from the country itself. Russian food is normally thought of as fairly basic – lots of root vegetables and country-style preparations. Think of borscht for example: the primary ingredients are beets and cabbage, two vegetables that are fairly resilient in cold weather and more importantly, inexpensive. If meat is included, the choice is normally a braising cut – something like shank or shoulder that can be cooked for a while for a relatively low cost. This is a peasant preparation above all – a delicious one, I might add – but hardly all that Russia has to offer. Russian food further to the south is a totally different animal altogether: the food there was influenced by interactions – whether peaceful or forceful – with the Middle East and Mongolia and bears little resemblance to the peasant food of the north. Russia shares its largest border with China while the far eastern side of Russia is coastal – only a short distance away from Japan and Korea. The country’s climate ranges anywhere from cold and desolate to almost tropical in the far south. Their food, then, is much more than what meets the eye. My intention is to periodically explore the diversity of Russian food, highlight the classics, and hopefully, shed some light on the lesser known gems that the country has to offer.
In addition to this, there is the food I am even more familiar with – the food of Russian and Eastern European immigrants that I grew up eating. This is a cuisine of amalgamation, the result of placing several hungry immigrant cultures in the same place and asking them to coexist. This is “steel country” or “hunky” cuisine – a thrown-together interpretation of old country dishes in an emerging early-twentieth century America. Particularly in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, where my relatives settled, the food was a mixture of Russian, Slovak, Hungarian, Polish, Jewish – even Irish and Italian. Each group claims a given dish as its own even if no comparable dish exists in the mother country. In many ways, however, these groups have adopted these dishes and made them an integral part of their cultures. My goal is to periodically dissect the origins of certain “family” dishes (referred to as “Russian” regardless of their origin) and find their place in my life as a cook, and in the lives of the generations that find these dishes to be central to their understanding of their heritage.
These posts will most likely be sporadic at best – all of the above topics will require (even if only for my peace of mind as a former historian) a bit more research than me waxing fantastic about life in restaurants or in culinary school. As a result, they will probably be a slightly more academic read – I will try to cut down on the theoretical meandering though (if you want to read Benedict Anderson or Gramsci, I can happily send you a bibliography) as it will bore most of you to tears. Enjoy joining me on my mental wanderings into the Motherland and beyond!