I spend a lot of time reading recipes. I used to follow them, too, but not anymore. And I no longer read them literally. The surface—the ingredient list and description of technique—isn’t what interests me. Rather, I like to read between and behind the lines.
In pre-Revolutionary Russia, the defining cookbook was Elena Molokhovets’s A Gift to Young Housewives. First published in 1861, this book went through nearly thirty editions before being banned by the Soviets after 1917. Why should a cookbook have troubled them? Molokhovets’s recipes are benign, even prosaic. Consider the following one for scalloped potatoes (in Joyce Toomre’s translation):
Potatoes in Béchamel Sauce
Wash, boil, peel and slice potatoes. Grease a tin or silver saucepan with butter, add a layer of potatoes, dot with pieces of butter, and strew with grated cheese. Then add another layer of potatoes, butter, and cheese. Pour on béchamel sauce, that is, mix 1/8 pound butter with 1/2 glass flour and dilute with 2 1/2 glasses milk. Boil thoroughly several times and add salt. Beat in 2 eggs and add, if desired, greens. Pour over the potatoes and bake in the oven.
2/3 garnets potatoes
3/8 pound butter
1/2 glass flour
1 bottle milk
1/4 pound cheese
Russians are, in most people’s minds, intrinsically linked with potatoes. And yet the potato is a New World crop. This vegetable encountered resistance throughout Europe, but by the late eighteenth century it was established in most countries. Not in Russia. The peasants considered potatoes the devil’s food—after all, the tuber grew underground, in the domain of the unclean, and it had eyes. Not even royal ukases could make them plant the scary tuber, and as late as the 1840s peasants were still rioting against its forced cultivation. Finally, by the time Molokhovets published her cookbook, the potato was familiar enough for her to include numerous recipes. That’s the backstory.
But there’s more. Molokhovets suggests serving these potatoes with a classicFrench béchamel sauce. All things French were so in vogue among the Russian upper classes that they even used French as their language of choice. They imported private chefs who incorporated French cooking techniques and foodstuffs into the traditional Russian repertoire—so much so that the directions offered here presuppose a rather astonishing familiarity with technique (or at least ready access to an accomplished chef). If you have ever made béchamel, you know that if you were simply to take butter and blend it with flour, as Molokhovets instructs, then stir in some milk and only then put it on the heat to boil, you would have a disaster. Molokhovets does not bother to explain that the butter should be melted before the flour is stirred in, and that the mixture needs to be heated until golden to rid it of any raw flour taste. Nor does she mention that the milk must be whisked in gradually, and brought just to a boil. If the eggs are simply beaten in, they will cook and form unpleasant clumps. So you have to beat them separately and mix in a little of the hot milk to equalize the temperatures. This kind of unspoken kitchen wisdom can no longer be presupposed, which is why our contemporary cookbooks are so prescriptive.
Molokhovets’s recipe also reveals how affluent her readers were. Many were likely to have the silver saucepan she mentions. And the cheese that she calls for is anything but ordinary. Although Russian cuisine is known for its vast array of dairy products, the Russians never mastered the art of making aged cheeses, so the cheese for this recipe would have had to be imported, too, at some expense. Scalloped potatoes in nineteenth-century Russia were anything but prosaic.
The agility with which Soviet citizens could read between the lines of Molokhovets’s recipes is one reason why her book was banned by the Soviet authorities. At a time of chronic food shortages, her cavalier instructions seemed nothing short of subversive. A standard Soviet joke of the Brezhnev era even relied on a line from Molokhovets: “When unexpected guests arrive, send the servant down into the cold cellar for hazel grouse or a ham.” As if there were any hazel grouse or ham, let alone servants or cold cellars!
Recipes are windows into the ways people live, think, and aspire. Recipes carry cultural, historical, even political, baggage. The next time you pick up a cookbook, try inserting yourself between the lines. You’ll be surprised at how much you can discover there.