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The Foods of Mother Russia

The new Russian cookbook, Please to the Table (Workman, 1990) by Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman shares poignant childhood memories of the wondrous central market in Moscow.

Accompanied by her grandmother, an architect, Anya would sometimes spend whole days in the market, transfixed by a veritable babble of ethnic languages and barter of exotic fruits and vegetables.

A fascinating source that the authors of Please to the Table dipped into is the 1870’s Russian classic A Gift to Young Housewives by Elena Molokhovets. Successfully codifying the Russo-French and traditional Russian recipes of nineteenth-century cuisine bourgeoisie, the book was never republished by the Soviets (it was printed in Russian in the United States), and it became a kind of underground Soviet hit.

The most quoted passage offers pre-Russian Revolutionary instructions concerning the correct behavior should guests turn up unexpectedly (which they do as much today as they did in Tolstoy’s time): one should dispatch the maid to the cellar, bidding her fetch leftover veal, a few dozen eggs, a jar of caviar. . . and so on. The niceties of nineteenth-century propriety would be rehearsed around a cramped Soviet dining table, against a background of bellowing laughs and elaborate mock preparations. A Gift to Young Housewives includes descriptions of food and eating by Chekhov, Tolstoy and Gogol.

Russians in America are homesick for certain foods, report Von Bremzen and Welchman. Fresh sour cherries, fresh currants (red and black), lingonberries, wild strawberries, and tart gooseberries—all so familiar in Russia—are not readily available here. The tart tke-mali plum is so greatly mourned in some emigre communities that those with a backyard grow them at home.

Please to the Table is a beautifully published book, a perfect resource for Armenian, Georgian, Baltic, Russian, Ukranian and even Central Asian cuisine.

Here, adapted from the book, is a classic Russian recipe, a must for the hot days of August.

1. In a large pot, bring the beets and water to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium low simmer, covered, until the beets are tender, 25 minutes or more, depending on their size.

2. Using a slotted spoon, remove the beets from the liquid and cool until manageable. Peel and grate the beets.

3. Stir the beets back into the liquid. Add the lemon juice, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper. Simmer for 15 minutes more. Adjust the amount of sugar to taste. Cool the soup, then refrigerate until ready to serve, at least 2 hours.

4. In a large bowl, toss together the potatoes, cucumbers, radishes, eggs, and herbs to mix well.

5. Ladle the soup into bowls. Either spoon about 2 Tbs. of vegetable and egg mixture into each bowl or, as is the custom in Russia, serve it separately in a decorative dish. Serve sour cream on the side.