Communism Destroyed Russian Cooking
Reason‘s December special issue marks the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. This story is part of our exploration of the global legacy of that evil empire, and our effort to be certain that the dire consequences of communism are not forgotten.
In August 1936, Josef Stalin sent his commissar of food, Anastas Mikoyan, to the United States on the SS Normandie for a working holiday. The long-serving party member and diplomat was a natural fit for the expedition: He’d formerly served as trade commissar, and he took great pains to publicly profess his loyalty to Stalin, who rewarded him and Mrs. Mikoyan with the opportunity to travel from coast to coast sampling all sorts of luxurious American fare—popcorn, ice cream, hamburgers, bologna, cornflakes, and corn on the cob. The Soviet crew visited Midwestern dairies and slaughterhouses, fascinated by everything from meat processing plant capabilities to the griddles used to cook burger patties. Mikoyan soon became enamored with tantalizing new kitchen appliances and advances in refrigeration that had recently begun to proliferate in the U.S.—all inconvenient evidence of the splendor and efficiency brought by capitalism.
Over the course of the ’30s, Stalin’s government went to great lengths attempting to create, often through Socialist Realist–style propaganda, a cohesive national identity that could bind good Soviets together in service of the party. Part of the aim was to reimagine Russian home cooking via standardized, party-approved recipes.
Three years later, The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food was born. It was the fruit of Mikoyan’s grand adventure and an attempt to show comrades just how good they had it. The thick book, filled with glossy, full-page illustrations, was an exhaustive-seeming compendium of recipes organized by category. Its implicit message was that those who were loyal to the party would have access to the abundant delights depicted therein.
The food the recipes produced, however, was often neither tasty nor healthy. And for most residents of the USSR, it was not even attainable—a great irony which did not go unnoticed. “The foodways described in this text bore scant resemblance to reality, promising culinary abundance in a land stalked by famine,” writes historian Edward Geist in Cooking Bolshevik. Most people didn’t have access to the many ingredients needed for a recipe, let alone all of them at the same time.
For example, the cookbook’s beef stroganoff, a savory winter dish served on a bed of fried potatoes, calls for 500 grams, or roughly 1 pound, of beef, plus potatoes, sour cream, “yuzhni” sauce, onions, flour, butter, and some parsley or dill for garnish. Yuzhni sauce, which would most likely be store-bought, has been described as sweet, sour, and a bit spicy; sometimes it included tomato, other times soy sauce for added umami flavor.
As lovely as this dish might seem on paper, most Soviets in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s—plagued by food rationing and unpredictable shortages—would not have been able to make it consistently, if at all. Recipes calling for such large amounts of beef and dairy would not have been realistic.
The book was replete with recipes, nutrition facts, and tips for menu planning and hosting successful dinner parties. But although it was meant as the quintessential Soviet guide to delicious food, the regular citizen wasn’t hosting dinner parties inside the home—unless you count forced group living as one giant, interminable dinner party.
Still, the state promoted it for decades to come, updating editions regularly and disseminating it widely. Regular people, not just party members, kept copies in their homes, some even bringing it with them when they later fled.
In 2013’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, Anya von Bremzen describes her mother’s childhood in Russia in the ’30s and ’40s, her own birth in the ’60s, and their subsequent emigration to the United States. “Mom gasped at the trove of fantastical photos” in Mikoyan’s book, she writes. “Tables crowded with silver and crystal, of platters of beef decorated with tomato rosettes, of boxes of chocolate and wedges of frilly cake posed amid elaborate tea sets.” Von Bremzen contrasts this fare with tales of waiting in bread lines for bread that had been stretched through the addition of mashed peas and with memories of kolbasa or kotleta (basically small hamburger patties, eaten without bread) or eggs for protein.
No Russian was under the impression that The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food was an accurate representation of what was available under Stalin’s rule. The grim reality was that communism ruined local cuisine and culinary habits; corroded the communal dining experience by transforming the country’s kitchens and dining rooms into havens for snitching and spying; and decimated the nation’s food supply, leaving millions to starve. In place of comfort, kinship, flavor, tradition, and abundance, Stalin’s regime provided only a propagandistic fantasy of lush meals inspired, ironically, by a visit to the United States.
In one sense, bad cuisine was the least of communism’s atrocities. In another, the entire arc of communism’s failure is visible in its effect on food.
Abolishing the Family Table
In the ’20s and ’30s, Stalin seized land and forced millions of people away from their agrarian lifestyles into dense communal living situations.
His stated goal was to reshape Russian society. The state
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