Food in Russian History and Culture

By Shostak, Natalia | Canadian Slavonic Papers, March-June 2003 | Go to article overview

Food in Russian History and Culture


Shostak, Natalia, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Musya Giants and Joyce Toomre, eds. Food in Russian History and Culture. Indiana-Michigan Series in Russian and East European Studies. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997. xxvii, 250 pp. Illustrations. Index. $39.95, cloth. $17.95, paper.

Paying tribute to the fast growing discipline of culinary history, the Russian Research Center (now Davis Center for Russian Studies) at Harvard University held a conference in 1993 on food in Russian culture and history. As a result of this undertaking, the present volume came into being, offering "fresh insights by looking at the availability and consumption of foods at different periods in Russian history" as well as an analysis of "Russian attitudes toward food and its... symbolism"(p. xii). Like many publications born out of conferences, this collection presents thematically diverse papers, some more methodologically sound and intellectually engaging than others. Contributors to the volume deal with foodper se, food as metaphor, food representations and food practices in the perspectives of folklore, literary studies, history, and art history. Historical periods covered range from the time of Russia's early chronicles to the Soviet perestroika of the 1980s.

Snejana Tempest opens the volume with an essay on perceptions of the stove in traditional Russian peasant society and the rituals of its construction. The author considers selected folk songs, proverbs, and tales to illustrate the stove's symbolic functions, its being a channel between the world of dead and the world of living, and its healing and restorative powers. Horace G. Lunt'sgoal in his essay on food terminology used in Rus' Primary Chronicle is "to register words referring to food and drink ... and to assess the information they provide, presumably for the early twelfth century" (p. 21). The author lists various foods of the ancient Rusians-kutia, kvas (a bread-based fermented beverage), pivo (beer) and others-and discusses the changing meanings of food terminology throughout history. In his interesting, well-researched and detailed description of food practices in eighteenth-century St. Petersburg, George E. Munro turns to food consumption of the Russian elite under Catherine the Great, when dining practices were to a great degree combined with an element of theatricality. The author describes banquets of the rich, with fountains spouting red and white wine, food staples of the poor, and foodstuffs available on local food markets at the time.

Fasting and vegetarianism as dietary practices of the Russians arethe subject matter of the three next articles. All three papers look at abstinence from food in relationship to spiritual and ideological doctrines of a time. Cathy A. Frierson begins the discussion with a descriptive commentary on Russian populist Aleksandr Engelgardt's depictions of Russian peasants' diet published from 1871 to 1887 in "Notes of the Fatherland." By outlining the discoveries Engelgardt made about the rational diet that peasants followed in their daily lives, the author introduces the Western reader to the almost scientific (according to Engelgardt) rationale peasants followed in their choices of food. Food was to be eaten on a particular day and was measured against the energy levels it could produce in view of labour (light food for light labour, heavy food for heavy labour). Leonid Heretz's contribution on the practice and significance of fasting in Russian peasant culture at the turn of the twentieth century continues the discussion of peasant diet, albeit from a different perspective. If Frierson refers to the peasants' calendar as a "calendar of hunger" (p. 52), Heretz reminds us that this is also a Christian calendar of fasting, for 180 days of Russian Orthodox calendar were fasting days (p. 69). This is a well-balanced and interesting discussion on the meaning of fasting as practised by the peasants, at the intersection of popular belief and Christian theology, emphasizing that the peasants' zeal for fasting often went beyond the requirements set by the church.

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