For nineteenth-century Russian writers, you could argue with gusto, food was what landscape (or class) was for the English, war for the Germans, love for the French—a subject encompassing the grand themes of comedy, tragedy, ecstasy, and doom.
Perhaps, as contemporary author Tatyana Tolstaya suggests, this “orgiastic gorging” in our authors’ pages was a substitute for literary taboos on eroticism. But a treacherous kind of substitute, for Russian writers display a peculiarly Russian propensity for moralizing while ogling the foodstuffs.
Rosy hams, amber fish broths, blini as plump as “the shoulder of a merchant’s daughter” (Chekhov), such literary deliciousness often serves to show up gluttons as spiritually bankrupt philistines—or lethargic losers such as the alpha-gobbler Oblomov. Why this moral trap, I keep asking myself.
Why are we enticed and lured to salivate by these glorious texts just to be made to feel guilty? I can’t say. But it’s sure hard not to salivate. Chekhov, Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy—they all devote some of their most fetching passages to the gastronomical. Here are some of my favorites—served guiltlessly.
Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov
When he isn’t luxuriating on his couch, Russian literature’s most indolent hero gorges on delicacies both Russian and Western. In a famous chapter called “Oblomov’s Dream” he harks back nostalgically to the Slavic feasts at Oblomovka, his childhood estate. “What calves were fattened there for the holidays! What fowl were raised! The turkeys and chickens . . . were fattened with nuts. The geese . . . hung motionless for several days in a sack . . . so they would swim in their own fat. What stores of jams and pickles and cookies there were! What mead!” Little surprise that Oblomov ends up having a stroke.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
For a moralizing vegetarian, Tolstoy certainly didn’t stint the food scenes. In Anna Karenina the eternal Russian Slavophiles versus Westernizers debate plays out during a lunch date between Oblonsky and Levin at a posh St. Petersburg restaurant. The hedonistic Westernizer Oblonsky smacks his lips as he orders oysters, turbot, capon, roast beef, and Chablis. Meanwhile, the Russophile Levin (Tolstoy’s alter ego) pines for iconic peasant Russian fare: shchi (cabbage soup) and buckwheat kasha.
“The Siren” by Anton Chekhov
“The kulebiaka must make your mouth water, it must lie before you, naked, shameless, a temptation. You wink at it, you cut off a slice, and you let your fingers just play over it. You eat it, the butter drips from it like tears, and the filling is fat, juicy, rich with eggs, giblets, onions . . .” So waxed Anton Pavlovich Chekhov about a legendary Russian pie called kulebiaka in his delectable short story “The Siren.” Chekhov’s satiric encomium to outsized Slavic appetite is also a gourmand’s adulation—and a lover’s rapturous fantasy.
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
Besotted with eating both on and off the page—sour cherry dumplings from his Ukrainian childhood, pastas from his sojourns in Rome—scrawny little Gogol could polish off a gargantuan dinner and start right in again. No wonder he anointed the stomach as the body’s “most noble organ.” No less than eighty-six kinds of edibles, according to one scholarly count, appear in Dead Souls, a chronicle of a grifter’s trek from dinner to dinner in the vast mid-nineteenth-century Russian countryside. Among the more memorable foods: nyanya (a gargantuan Slavic haggis), and an equally epic four-cornered pie seemingly stuffed with everything edible. So how did Gogol die? By committing a slow suicide rich in Gogolian irony—he refused to eat.
Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
Food descriptions and actual edibles dwindled considerably after the 1917 revolution. Mikhail Bulgakov’s long-suppressed satirical masterpiece from the 1930s, Master and Margarita, is a delicious exception. Half-starving, writing as a semi-underground figure, Bulgakov nevertheless conjures a delirious tour de force of feasting at a restaurant modeled after the canteen of the Soviet House of Writers (still in post-socialist existence). Sturgeon in a silver pan layered with crayfish tails and caviar . . . oeufs en cocotte with mushroom puree in little bowls . . . breast of thrushes with truffles. As the rest of country struggled and starved, in the novel this decadent fare is consumed by hack writers who’d sold their souls to the devil of the Soviet regime.
About the Author
ANYA VON BREMZEN is one of the most accomplished food writers of her generation: the winner of three James Beard awards; a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure magazine; and the author of five acclaimed cookbooks, among themThe New Spanish Table, The Greatest Dishes: Around the World in 80 Recipes, and Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook (coauthored by John Welchman). She also contributes regularly to Food & Wine and Saveur and has written for The New Yorker, Departures, and the Los Angeles Times. She divides her time between New York City and Istanbul. Visit the author online on Twitter @vonbremzen.