Summer 2011

Ingestion / Peoples’ Friendship Salad and Other Culinary Expressions of Brotherhood

The mayonnaise is the message

Elena Sorokina

“Ingestion” is a column that explores food within a framework informed by aesthetics, history, and philosophy.

The taste of ice cream interests you more than building communism!
—Joseph Stalin to Anastas Mikoyan

In 1936, Stalin commissioned a cookbook from Anastas Mikoyan, his Commissar for Food Industry. After a period of thorough study of the cuisines of the various Soviet republics and their appropriateness as proper nutrition for the builders of communism, the first edition of The Book of Delicious and Healthy Food was published in 1939. The book did not aim to give certain foods a fashionable aura. Instead, the emerging communist empire was concerned with an entirely different issue—educating its multinational citizens in rationally organized nutrition. But even more importantly, the book aimed at expressing the new Soviet identity-in-construction—the keyword for which was “friendship” between the constituent republics—in culinary terms. Through its countless editions, The Book of Delicious and Healthy Food tried to synthesize the experience of different peoples, presenting the union between them as the acme of historical evolution.

If Soviet Marxism declared itself the only truly scientific ideology, one based on the most advanced achievements of human thought, then Soviet cuisine was to be equally based on an explicitly scientific approach. Cooking was not considered an art but rather a kind of science. It was not undertaken in the pursuit of pleasure, but rather to afford moderate satisfaction and reasonable enjoyment, all in the service of optimizing the health of the hardworking new citizen according to scientifically determined guidelines. Simply put, food was part of the production process and had to be approached as such, rationally and pragmatically. The new bible of Soviet cuisine was thus overtly didactic, scientific, and educational: long passages on women’s liberation from kitchen slavery and a thorough analysis of vitamins, minerals, and calories preceded the book’s two thousand recipes. Strong political guidance was equally important: each chapter opened with a quote from Stalin, Molotov, or Mikoyan, praising the achievements of socialist industrialization, defining new far-reaching goals for meat and fish production, or reflecting on the importance of good packaging for vegetables. Recipes for soups, steaks, and omelets followed.

Going even further, we could speculate on parallels between the Soviet cuisine-in-construction and the structure of Soviet Marxism itself, with its influences from German philosophy, English political economy, and French utopian socialism. Similarly, approved Soviet food consisted of multiple influences—traditional Russian cuisine, local dishes from other Soviet republics, and a third element that presented a perplexing ideological problem, as it was neither socialist nor communist, and had no detectable traces of Marxism-Leninism whatsoever. This last strand was the influence of French cuisine, which was difficult to suppress even though the Soviet Union in the 1930s was, on the face of it, rather hostile toward Gallic cooking. French food was too emblematic of the exploitation of the working class, too related to the sinister tsarist past, and too tied to the decadence of capitalism. It ostensibly represented a set of values fundamentally opposed to those of the nascent Soviet identity. In fact, numerous books of the time, written by various directors of government food agencies, were highly critical of French cuisine, heralding instead new “emancipatory” ways of cooking, and trying to shield the soon-to-be-communist citizen from obsolete and contemptible bourgeois habits.

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