Eat Read Love: Russian Food in Literature

Drawing by Natalia Smolentceva
Russian literature is well-known around the world for the problems it addressed and the richness of its language. It also provides a glimpse into the Russian life, as it describes customs and traditions, the way people of certain epoch lived and, not least of all, the cuisine. We have gone through the most “yummy” of Russian classical books and collected some recipes – so that you can feel like a protagonist from the Russian literature, at least while having lunch.

Russian “bliny”

The first thing that comes to one’s mind when thinking of Russian cuisine (perhaps after Borsch) is pancakes or in Russian “bliny”. This dish is loved by Russian writers as well: bliny are on Tatiana’s table from Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin”, they are served to the Chichikov in Gogol’s “Dead souls” and are the central theme to a humorous short story by Chekhov.

Finally, the cook arrived with the bliny. At the risk of scorching his fingers, Semyon Petrovitch snatched up two of the hottest from the top of the pile and slapped them onto his plate with gusto. The bliny were crisp, lacy, and as plump as the shoulders of a merchant’s daughter. Podtikin smiled affably, hiccupped with pleasure, and doused the bliny in hot butter. Then, as if to tease his appetite, luxuriating in anticipation, he slowly, deliberately heaped them with caviar. He poured sour cream on the places the caviar left bare. Now he had only to eat, right? Wrong! Contemplating his creation, Podtikin was not quite satisfied. After a moment’s thought, he topped the bliny with the oiliest slice of salmon he could find, and a sprat, and a sardine; then, no longer able to hold back, trembling with delight and gasping, he rolled up the two bliny, downed a shot of vodka, wheezed, opened his mouth – and was struck by an apoplectic fit.

From “On Mortality: A Carnival Tale” by Anton Chekhov (1886)

Drawing by Natalia Smolentceva
Drawing by Natalia Smolentceva

Goose stuffed with apples

Food is one of the main themes in Goncharov’s novel “Oblomov”. In this satirical tale, the author depicts the typical life of a Russian nobleman of 19th century who rarely leaves his room and is incapable of making any important decisions. One of the main concerns of the protagonist, however, is food.

In fact, the supervision of food was the first and the principal domestic preoccupation of Oblomovka. What calves were not fattened for the year’s festivals! What poultry was not reared! What forethought and care and skill were not devoted to the consumption of comestibles! Game fowls and pullets were set apart solely for birthdays and other solemn occasions; wherefore they were stuffed with nuts. For the same reason geese were caught several days beforehand, and hung up in bags until wanted, in order that, being restrained from exercise, they might put on the more fat. And what a roasting and a pickling and a baking would some- times take place, and what mead and kvass l were there not brewed, and what pies were there not compounded!

From “Oblomov” by Ivan Goncharov (1959)

Drawing by Natalia Smolentceva
Drawing by Natalia Smolentceva

Russian fish soup (“Ukha”)

Russia’s best-known fabulist Ivan Krylov suggests that a writer should not praise himself too much or his “prose and verse will be to every man no less repulsive than the fish soup of Demyan”. The phrase “Demyan’s fish soup” (“Demyanova ukha”) has become a common expression, but it does not make the soup itself less tasty, especially when served with a shot of vodka!

“Some soup, good neighbor of mine?
Dine well, and I’ll be grateful!”

“Good neighbour, I am full to bursting.”
“Never mind, you’ll not decline another plateful.
Delicious soup, I’d say the best soup in your life.”
“That helping was my third!”

“Now, now, no mathematics!
It’s willingness that matters.
Let’s see the bottom of your plate!
When did you ever contemplate? 

Such amber fat – so thick you almost need a knife!
Oblige me, my dear friend!
Now stir it, there’s bream here, innards too.
Look, there’s a piece of sturgeon!

Just one more spoonful, please!”

From “Demyan’s Fish Soup” by Ivan Krylov (1813)

Drawing by Natalia Smolentceva
Drawing by Natalia Smolentceva

Tea

It is not a secret that Russians enjoy drinking tea. In the morning instead of coffee, after dinner with sweets, even with the meal – all forms of tea-drinking exist in this country. Tea-drinking has become a habit that cannot pass unnoticed by Russian writes, including Alexander Pushkin.

Day faded; on the table, glowing,

     the samovar of evening boiled,

     and warmed the Chinese teapot; flowing

     beneath it, vapor wreathed and coiled.

     Already Olga’s hand was gripping

     the urn of perfumed tea, and tipping

     into the cups its darkling stream —

     meanwhile a hallboy handed cream;

     before the window taking station,

     plunged in reflection’s deepest train,

     Tatyana breathed on the cold pane,

     and in the misted condensation

     with charming forefinger she traced

     “OE” devotedly inlaced.

From “Eugene Onegin” by Alexander Pushkin (1833)

Drawing by Natalia Smolentceva
Drawing by Natalia Smolentceva

Pears and apples compote

Food preserves – salty cucumbers, jams and fruit compotes – are loved by Russians. Made at the end of autumn after the harvest, these symbols of grandmothers’ love are carefully opened during the winter to remind one of the sunny days at his dacha. Compote forms an important part of the idyllic life in the Gogol’s short story “The Old World Landowners”.

– What are you groaning about, Afanasy Ivanovich?

– God knows, Pulkheriya Ivanovna, it’s as though my stomach is aching a bit. – Afanasy Ivanovich would say.

– Perhaps you should eat something or other, Afanasy Ivanovich.

– I don’t know whether it would be a good thing, Pulkheriya Ivanovna, but what I could eat?

– Some sour milk, or some weak compote of dried pears.

– Well, perhaps I might just try some – Afanasy Ivanovich would say.

A sleepy maid would go off and rummage in the cupboards, and Afanasy Ivanovich would eat a small plateful, after which he usually said: – It seems to have got a bit easier now.

From “The Old World Landowners” by Nikolai Gogol (1835)

Drawing by Natalia Smolentceva
Drawing by Natalia Smolentceva
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