The food world is abuzz with catchphrases these days: locavore, food justice, food security, sustainability. Most are pronounced as though they were high moral concepts, but how can morality be measured in carbon units and shipping miles? The other day I was rereading “Oysters,” one of Anton Chekhov’s early stories. Perhaps the greatest observer of the human condition, Chekhov unfailingly focuses on the individual. In “Oysters” he uses the point of view of an eight-year-old boy to describe the desperation of the boy’s father, unable to find work in Moscow. The father is reduced to begging, and yet he is unable to ask any passersby for money, so great is his shame. Through this picture of a boy and his father Chekhov decries capitalist society, in which some people will inevitably be out of work and hungry, without any safety net.
Society’s obligation to provide a dignified way for the hungry to be fed was something that Russian peasants, in their tight-knit communities, knew all about. For them, hunger was always a specter, due to failed harvests or drought. They found various ways to cope, most obviously by observing a strict cycle of fasting, in which they avoided all meat and dairy products for nearly two hundred days every year—a practice that made them feel spiritually better off than their wealthy countrymen, who did not follow the letter of religious law. The enforced opportunity to practice virtue brought them closer to God—and also spared them such conditions as obesity and gout.
But there was another social mechanism built into nineteenth-century Russian life, and this was the custom of “begging for crusts,” in which every peasant family inevitably engaged at one time or another. It was a practice of last resort in the winter or early spring, when all other sources of food had run out—even the coarse, unwinnowed “chaff bread” that pricked the mouth. “Begging for crusts” is a bit of a misnomer, since it involved no actual begging. Children and elderly men and women (and, in the worst years, the younger, able-bodied ones) would sling a sack over their shoulders and set out on foot or in carts for neighboring villages where food was more abundant, to receive crusts of bread from families who had some. There developed a subtle etiquette to this practice, which was quite distinct from simply asking for a handout. Without actually articulating it, the Russian peasants knew that it was better, better for everyone, if hungry people did not have to plead. And nearly everyone was impoverished—few families had enough grain to last from one season to the next. The extraordinary thing about this custom was how deeply ingrained the sense of communal responsibility was. In Letters from the Country, 1887–1872 the exiled Russian chemist Alexander Engelgardt describes the system of support: a peasant “arrives as if he happened to stop by for no special reason, by chance, as if to warm up, and the mistress of the household, taking pity on his shame, will give something to him imperceptibly, as if by chance … No one will die of hunger, thanks to this system of providing mutual aid through giving out crusts of bread.” If a family was left with a single loaf of bread, they would give a crust to any person who came asking, then set out themselves to request help in turn from others who might still have bread remaining. If they received more than they needed, they dried the extra bread in their great Russian stoves, to turn into rusks for hungry days ahead or to hand out to others in need.
The grace of this custom lies in its tacit acknowledgment of common experience, as well as its recognition of the importance of dignity. We would do well to think about the Russian peasant approach to hunger. Shame and indignity are corrosive as well as cruel. During the Depression, hungry people would knock on back doors, offering to perform chores in exchange for food. Today, with so many Americans out of work, we need to make sure to provide a dignified way for the hungry to be fed—through soup kitchens and food pantries that make them feel welcome rather than humiliated or marginalized. When we condescend or fail to recognize that one day we too could be in a position of need, then we isolate ourselves within the illusion that we are not akin to the hungry.