Begging for Crusts | Darra Goldstein

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.

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Hunger Artists | Darra Goldstein

I recently wrote a paper for a conference celebrating the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Nikolai Gogol’s death, and I found myself caught up in his world of culinary excess and delight. Gogol is the nineteenth-century Russian writer best known in the West for his novel Dead Souls and his short story “The Nose,” which Dmitri Shostakovich turned into a popular opera. Gogol’s wild imagination fills his stories with characters like the nose that a Saint Petersburg barber discovers in his breakfast roll. Dressed up in a fancy uniform, the nose travels throughout the city by coach, putting on airs. Gogol’s imagination extends to the realm of food; it’s hard to find more evocative descriptions of eating anywhere than those he offers up to his readers. The narrator’s famous digression in Dead Souls comments on the prodigious appetites of Russians who

at one post-house order ham, at the next, suckling pig, at the third, a sturgeon steak or sausage with onions, and then, quite as if they had not eaten all day, will sit down at any time you like and tuck into a bowl of sterlet soup with burbot and milt, which hisses and sizzles between their teeth, served with sheat-fish pastry or pie—just to watch them makes your mouth water.

Gogol uses food lavishly in his works, always describing it with passion and knowledge. His four-cornered fish pie, for instance, is legendary, with its sturgeon cheeks, spinal marrow, buckwheat, mushrooms, onions, sweet milt, and brains, the pastry golden brown on one side, slightly less done on the other, so that the juices soak into the crust, making it melt in the mouth like snow. Gogol’s narrator smacks his lips as he describes this pie; many of his readers do, too.

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