Tasting the Russian Past

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s class HST 374, A History of the Russian Empire, prepared classic 19th Century Russian dishes and brought them to class for a November feast.  Students then had to write a reflection paper about the exercise.  Below are five responses.


What is “Russian Food” and Can You “Taste the Past?”

By Mahaley Evans

There is a simple but loaded answer to the question, “What is ‘Russian food?’” It is simple because, as I propose, Russian food is just Russia personified. But it is as complex as the empire itself. When approaching this question, one must consider the conglomeration of ethnicities, religions, and nationalities that comprised the vast and diverse empire. Based on these characteristics, one must recognize the complexities, difficulties, and circumstances that defined Russian life; specifically, Russian peasant life. The peasantry made up the majority of the Russian empire’s population, therefore they represent the most affected body when it comes to agriculture and consumption. My experience making Clear Fish Soup served as a small window into peasant life.

The preparations for the soup were simple and efficient. The only necessary steps for this recipe were chopping the vegetables and fish, and boiling a large pot of water. After completing these preliminary steps, I had an hour to go about my business until the soup was done cooking. During this hour, I could have completed at least one homework assignment, watched an entire episode of Mad Men, or tended to the growing pile of laundry I’d been ignoring. Had I been a subject of the Russian empire during this hour-long window, I could have been just as productive. Considering the simplicity of this dish – both in ingredients and in preparation – I can definitely picture it on the hearth of a peasant home. Such a home could continue on in the daily duties of peasant life while the soup was cooking, without losing precious daylight. And after consuming their bland yet hearty dinner, they could take comfort in the fact that this soup would feed them for many days following. I understand that the popularity of Clear Fish Soup was not because of its quality or delicious taste, but because of its potential in quantity and accessibility. Potatoes, onions, fish are all presumably attainable or easily harvested crops, thus making this dish an excellent option for peasant cuisine.

I cannot confidently claim to have “tasted the past” while preparing the Clear Fish Soup. But I can attest to the feeling evoked during the preparation. Considering my twenty-first century status and a recently-acquired understanding of the Russian empire, my opinions and feelings have been aided by an unfair advantage. However, I used this to my advantage and imagined myself as a peasant woman making dinner for her family, keeping in mind all of the contextual details from class. In Allison K. Smith’s Recipes for Russia, she explains the complications and stress that accompanied obtaining basic sustenance under the Russian empire. She states that “peasant foods were often deemed most truly Russian, but observation of Russian’s elite made clear that Russia’s tables were a far more complicated place…”[1] This is because peasant food, with its scarce resources and repetitive ingredients, epitomized the harsh conditions of surviving in the empire. The nobility on the other hand, reflected an inaccurate picture of the empire as a whole. The various regions of Russia acquired under imperial conquest brought along various customs – one of these customs being food.

I found that “tasting the past” came more naturally when faced with a table full of different dishes. Ranging from sweet and sour beets to marinated mushrooms to Russian salad, I could finally form an all-encompassing view of Russian food. Before these dishes were presented in this manner, I couldn’t grasp a tangible representation of the Russian empire through food. I had formulated my own conclusions about peasant culture, but seeing and partaking in a feast of all foods Russian facilitated a more wholesome understanding. So yes, one certainly can “taste the past,” but what seems clearer and more important to me after this exercise is that one can feel and understand the past, where taste is just one contributing factor to the overall experience.

Despite its tumultuous timeline, and the constant tug-of-war between reforms and counter-reforms, tradition thrived throughout the Russian empire. Food is perhaps an unconventional way of illustrating this concept, but it does so effectively. While the state attempted agricultural reforms and asserted their authority to oversee production and consumption, tradition remained and the true character of Russia has not been lost. Allison K. Smith explains that “even modern Russia’s world of food seems so connected to the country’s history.”[2] Because of this prevailing tradition, foods can be nostalgic. Because of this prevailing tradition, “the meals dished out in basement library buffets—schi and a piece of dark bread, or perhaps a tasty pirog as a treat—bring to mind the peasant meals of days past.”[3] Because of this prevailing tradition, Russians take-out menus, with their diverse offerings, “bring to mind the linguistic and culinary stew of old Russian cookbooks, seeking as they did a new definition of Russianness to make sense of their changing land.”[4] Russian food, like the empire from which it comes, represents the coexistence between ingredients and ideas from far-reaching lands. By examining this relationship, one can taste and understand the complex history of the Russian empire.

[1] Smith, Allison K. Recipes for Russia: Food and Nationhood under the Tsars (Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois Press, 2011), 179.

[2] Smith, 180.

[3] Smith, 180.

[4] Smith, 180.

Mahaley Evans is a senior History major


Tasting the Past

By Heidi Hetterscheidt

I thought that this project was really interesting and I really enjoyed making the Guriev Kasha with my other group members.  After going to Russia, I was not sure that we could ‘taste the past’ by making certain dishes, as I had tried them while abroad and that thought never crossed my mind.  After learning more about the historical context of the food, reflecting on my time in Russia, and reading Alison K. Smith’s article, not only do I believe that you can taste the past by cooking traditional dishes, but also it can be revived with a modern twist and we can learn a lot from the food.

Firstly, I think that our group did a good job of cooking the kasha.   We were all able to our part so not just one person was stuck with the cooking and it turned out well, I really enjoyed eating it.  It was a simple dish to make, so it’s easy to see how Russian peasants would have been able to make large amounts of it for their families.  I noticed that all of the ingredients would have been very easy to obtain as well, with the possible exception of the fruit.  This factor of availability seemed to have an impact on the other dishes that were brought to class as well.  From looking at them, it seemed like most of the ingredients were produced on farms or in fields, such as beef, bread, or a dairy product, besides the Tsarina’s Cream and Lemon Soup.  These are not normally things that one thinks of while eating, I know I did not while I was there, but now I wish I had paid more attention to the different ingredients in the meals that I ate.

In addition to the availability of the ingredients, Smith brought up some interesting points as well that helped elaborate on the historical context.  In her article, Smith points out some important historical context that shapes majority of Russian food, and helps us understand why their dishes are the way they are.  The explanation she provides is so simple yet makes perfect sense.  The Russian diet mainly consisted of starches, carbs, and protein, or at least the dishes made for class were.  This diet ensures that the population will not starve since the dishes are so hearty and can feed a large group in one sitting.  One of the paragraphs in Smith’s paper says that, “the state, during the first half of the nineteenth century, set up a series of institutions and promoted a series of agricultural reforms meant to make sure that its population would never starve (178).”  Thinking back to the beginning of the semester when we focused more on serfs, it is obvious why they would want to have meals like this, especially if they are working all day in the fields. A diet such as this replenished energy and gives people strength to finish their hard labor.   This observation still seems to be true today as the “classic” Russian foods that I was told to try were very filling and kept one full for a while.  Not only was this a factor, but so were outside influences and the upper class.  Smith writes that, “by 1760, outside influences had begun to appear, as Peter the Great’s reforms turned Russia’s elite forcibly toward the West, and the tsar’s successors continued more or less on that path.  But during the next century, the overarching authority of “tradition” was shattered by a series of opposing figures who abrogated that authority to themselves with varying degrees of success (177).”  This may not seem important at first, but if you think about the different foods that are most popular in Russia today, they are mainly from surrounding countries.  For example, if they had not adopted outside culinary aid, Beef Stroganov would not have been invented as a French chef created it, and Borsch soup might not be so popular, as that is a traditional Ukrainian dish.  Even the small things in history can have a large impact, even if it’s on something we might not typically associate with history, such as a culture’s food.

Overall, I thought that this project was beneficial and I truly did learn a lot.  Analyzing food from a historical perspective rather than a culinary perspective was something I have never done before, but I believe that I learned more about Russian culture and history in doing so.  Alison Smith’s article was also beneficial to read, as it gave me another way of looking at the past.

Heidi Hetterscheidt is a junior majoring in International Studies and Russian.

Tasting the Past

By Henry Leaman

Tsarina’s cream. Stroganoff. Fish soup. An assortment of Russian cuisine laid before us. As we stared at the food questionably, our minds began to wander. “How does this relate to history?” I wondered, eying the glasses of kvass on the table. There was not a packet or textbook in sight; just a variety of unknown foods. Rather than dissecting arguments, we would be dissecting courses. Rather than analyzing contemporary influences, we devoured stacks of bubliki. However, this was still an intellectual pursuit, despite its non-scholarly approach. Rather than seeing the past, we had a chance to taste the past. And not only could we taste the past, but this assignment allowed us to explore a unique way of understanding history.

What made this assignment unique? Typically, history students are chained to primary sources. Diaries, art, and memoirs, all which serve as evidence of the past. They all seem to act as windows, which allow us to peer into what the past used to be. But, these windows only present us one view, one image, one angle of the past. We can dissect it, analyze its parts, and isolate individual things in our view, but no matter what, we are still just looking through one window. Food allows us to step through that window and interact with the past. Historian Joyce Toomre, a Fellow at the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University, speaks on this idea in her introduction to the book Classic Russian Cooking: Elena Molokhovets’ ‘A Gift to Young Housewives’, “Recipes are rooted in time and space; essentially static, they function as snapshots of a culture.” (Molokhovet︠s︡ 3). This is why our feast of bubliks, soups, and meats gave us a unique view into history. Rather than just studying what was eaten, we were able to step into a set of Russian shoes, and understand an angle that traditional scholarly sources couldn’t cover. When we left the realm of journals and poems, we studied the past in a different way; we tasted the past.

But how? In what way could we better understand the past? The two parts of our assignment, cooking and eating, each gave us a better glimpse into how Russian society operated.

Through cooking, we got a better understanding of the past by physically preparing the dishes. Tsarina’s Cream, a light dessert that we were tasked in creating, involved using heavy cream that was personally whipped into a light fluff. That would be combined with gelatin, and stored cold. Although making the dish was a cinch -thanks to modern appliances- the sheer amount of cream that was required to make such a small dish reveals the incredible challenges pre-Soviet Russians faced in making delicate desserts. History students read about the trials and tribulations of cultures and civilizations, but rarely do we get a hands on chance to experience those challenges. While the level of difficulty between the past and now is dramatically different, cooking allowed us to feel difficulty with our hands, rather than reading it out of a source packet.

In eating the dishes, we got a better glimpse into Russian culture by looking at the ingredients. Take a look at the recipe book we used for our feast, A Taste of Russia: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality. Author Darra Goldstein included short descriptions and background information for each dish that was assigned. In the description for “Berries and Cream”, Goldenstein writes “Russians have a penchant for berries, the glorious fruits of a summer season all too brief in the northern climate. During the summer, they flock to the countryside for wild strawberries, raspberries, blackberries…” (Goldstein 89). Since the picking season is so short, Goldstein explains why berries are used in sweet dishes. This reveals many things; since picking season was so slim, berries could not be considered a reliable crop. This makes berries a commodity; a sweet delicacy to be enjoyed by the nobility. In fact, the scholarly value of “tasting the past” is well documented. Goldstein even recognizes that value herself, in that she is the founding editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, which explores food studies in different societies. Eating Russian food is not only a unique way to explore history, but it’s a well-founded one as well.

This assignment required us to, literally and figuratively, dig into the material. Through cooking and eating these Russian dishes, we were able to expand our understanding of the past, and push beyond the traditional limits of reading and analyzing. Only through experience- experiencing the work and experiencing the taste- could we ever get a fuller picture of the pre-Soviet Russian life style. We tasted the past, and its flavor will linger on our scholarly palates for days to come.

Henry Leaman is a junior History major.

Sensing the Past

By Cecilia Simon

“It has taken an ideological revolution to turn the tables and recover a full-bodied understanding of culture and experience. It has taken a sensual revolution.”[1] Sensory studies leader David Howes here refers to a renewed focus on the interaction of the senses. If the senses were valued equally, trying to taste the past might be a big part of historical research methods. Because many cultures tend to place an emphasis on seeing and hearing more than touch, taste, and smell, the benefits of what Howes calls “intersensoriality” is sometimes lost. Our understanding of the past is constructed through what little materials survive over time. Food itself cannot last, but recipes and traditions can. Eating engages all five senses, so we would presumably benefit our cultural understanding by cooking old recipes. There are certainly limitations, as we cannot know how far our ingredients, method of cooking, and palates take us away from the past. But the attempt is crucial because it takes us one step closer to a more complete picture of Russian history.

The question of whether or not it is possible to taste the past is not well explored, ironic considering that every living being is connected by a need to consume food. One explanation for neglecting taste is that it does not inspire the same authority as the other senses. Furthermore, societies tend to associate the senses with status: “The dominant group in society will be linked to esteemed senses and sensations while subordinate groups will be associated with less valued or denigrated senses.”[2] Gender, race, and class can all be elements in categorizing the senses. Undermining any one sense is not conducive to accruing knowledge about culture and society, as they are the tools that allow us to experience life.

The senses are involved in everything, so their value is unquantifiable. Additionally, consider the importance of the senses in cultural dynamics. As Alison K. Smith points out, the types of food consumed in a culture reveals a lot about power. For centuries, imperial Russia faced the threat of famine and at times the state strove to control the type and frequency of available foods. Thus, it is pertinent to ask what qualifies as classic Russian cuisine and who was behind the cooking and consuming of the dishes. In Smith’s words, “any period of great cultural change will be a time of sensory confusion, for social revolutions are always sensory revolutions.”[3] Religion was another major determiner of mealtime culture, as “food consumption was in principle guided most strictly by the Orthodox Church and its fasting rules.”[4]

With the luxury of modern appliances, the experience of cooking a classic Russian recipe was not all that different from any meal preparation. My classmates and I made a simple lemon soup that did not require any unusual ingredients or complicated cooking. The true experience occurred when everything was brought together during our class meal. Each dish originated in imperial Russia and was common enough to be included in a cookbook. It was interesting to see how everyone reacted to the sight, smell, and taste of the food. Some of the dishes were familiar, although many I had never encountered before. Since taste is predicated by sight and smell, the food I gravitated towards resembled most closely whatever I consume on a regular basis. So while I was willing to try the chicken cutlets and beef stroganoff, I stayed as far away as possible from the clear fish soup. I concluded that while my limited palate prevented me from trying everything, it is clear that imperial Russian cuisine is not unappealing or even unfamiliar.

As a result of the experiment, I have a new appreciation for Russian culture that I would have been unlikely to find from reading and writing about it. We are unfortunately limited by our inability to travel back in time and enjoy a meal prepared by those who actually lived in imperial Russia. The next best thing is to try and replicate it to the best of our ability. Luckily, mealtime traditions pass on through generations and sometimes bear a lot of resemblance to the original practices. We are one step closer to the past when each sense is engaged. Tasting the past allows us to learn about culture, but also take it one step further and experience it for ourselves.

[1] David Howes, Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader (Oxford: Berg, 2005).

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Ibid., 11.

[4] Alison K. Smith, Recipes for Russia: Food and Nationhood Under the Tsars (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2008).

Cecilia Simon is a senior majoring in History and American Studies

Trying to Taste the Past: Imperial Russia’s Lemon Soup (Liminnyi Sup)


By Emily Walton

Is it possible to taste the past? This is the question we attempted to answer through our hands-on food project in History 374: History of the Russian Empire. The class was split into groups and assigned a recipe originating from the time of Imperial Russia. My group—including Sam, Cecilia, and myself—was assigned lemon soup (liminnyi sup). As a Russian, East European, Eurasian Studies major I was surprised when I received this recipe and had not seen it during my previous travels to Russia and other states of the former Empire. In order to find out if it is in fact possible to taste the past, I channeled my inner-babushka and got to work in the kitchen with my group.

My group coalesced at Kroger to gather the necessary ingredients for our lemon soup recipe. Luckily, there are not many ingredients involved to make this soup. After a brief shopping trip lasting no more than 15 minutes, we headed to Cecilia’s kitchen with a jug of clear chicken broth, a carton of half and half, a small bag of rice, two lemons, and a tiny package of parsley for a total of $9.94.

At Cecilia’s kitchen, our group initially struggled with the vagueness of the recipe’s directions. We were unsure whether to boil the rice in water or chicken broth so we decided to do what resourceful college students do when in doubt: we looked it up on Google. After figuring out that we were supposed to boil the ¼ cup of rice in the chicken broth, we got into the swing of things. We had to wait some time for the saucepan to heat up and boil the rice so we enjoyed light conversation. Cecilia and Sam asked me about my journeys to Russia and to describe Russia’s people, culture, and food.  Over the course of thirty minutes, we added subsequent cups of chicken broth to the boiling rice until we used 4 ½ cups of chicken broth. The recipe called for heavy cream, but alas Kroger did not supply a carton of heavy cream, so we substituted that with half and half. We poured ½ cup of half and half into the saucepan. Next, it was time to add the lemon. Because the recipe was vague, we bought two lemons and used one for juice and the other for slices of garnish. Cecilia squeezed the lemon into the saucepan, squirting lemon juice all over the stove and vicinity in the process. We took the soup off of the burner and let it cool. Since we would not serve the soup until the next morning, we held off on adding the slices of lemon and the parsley garnish until right before it was to be served. Sam was the first to taste test the soup. Sam said the soup was “good” and tasted like “cream and chicken broth.” When I tasted the soup, I experienced a similar taste. I thought it was interesting how there was such a small amount of rice in the soup and noted how its texture affected my perception of the soup as a whole. Cecilia joked that because this soup was so easy to make, it would be the food dish she will bring to upcoming holiday parties. We let the soup cool and transferred it from the saucepan into a plastic container in order to transport it to class. I took the soup home with me and stored it in my refrigerator overnight.

The next morning when I opened my refrigerator, I was surprised to find the soup was still in liquid form. I thought it would become gelatinous with all of the fat and oil in it. The recipe said the soup could be served chilled but that a layer of oil would have to be skimmed off the top. On my way to class I received many strange looks from my peers on campus, probably due to the fact that I was carrying a vat of bright yellow liquid.

In class, the other groups started arrived with their recipes. Some definitely looked and smelled better than others. After taking a swig of kvas it was time to taste test the other dishes. I tasted almost every dish except the fish soup and the beets because they smelled horrible (for ten o’clock in the morning) and I have had them in Russia so I was not missing out. In the conclusion of Recipes for Russia: Food and Nationhood Under the Tsars by Alison Smith, the author states, “even modern Russia’s world of food seems so connected to the country’s history.”[1] Indeed, most of the dishes brought in to class for the project are dishes still eaten today in Russian and other areas of the former Empire.

After taking the time to make my own dish and also taste the dishes made by the other groups, I came to the conclusion that it is not possible to taste the food in exactly the same manner as it would have existed in Imperial Russia. Though the dishes brought to class were similar to those included on the royal table of the Imperial Russian Tsars, the entire process of making the dishes is entirely different today than it was during the time of the tsars. There was no grocery-like store in the Russian empire where one could buy all the necessary ingredients in one place. If the tsars wanted lemon soup the lemons would probably have to be imported from the southern edge of the Empire and it would probably take a long time for the lemons to be transported to the northern capital city. The heavy cream and chicken broth would have to have been made from scratch through the effort of peasants milking cows and slaughtering chickens (and would have been GMO free). The rice would have had to be grown in fertile lands. A dish like lemon soup, simple as it may seem to us in today’s modern world, would have required actual effort to acquire the ingredients. It would not have been cooked over an electric stove with Calphalon cookware and plastic utensils but probably over a fire in an earthenware or metal pot and stirred with a wooden spoon. This project taught me that it is important and useful to try to understand the past with all five of the senses and that cooking and tasting food is a valuable way to learn about history even if it cannot be exactly replicated.

[1]Alison K. Smith, Recipes for Russia: Food and Nationhood Under the Tsars (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2008), 180.

Emily Walton is a senior majoring in Political Science and Russian Studies.

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