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Russian Food and National Identity

Russian Food and National Identity

Dr. Darra Goldstein of Williams College gave a talk on Russian national identity and cuisine from the earliest times to the present at MIT on Mar. 10, 2022.

Speaking in the context of the war in Ukraine, Dr. Goldstein began her lecture by saying: "Having spent my life studying Russia, trying to explain this place to Americans, it's really hard for me to talk about it in a celebratory way today." "But I feel it's important to share what I know about Russia and Russian culture," she added, addressing the audience of MIT students, staff, and faculty.

The author of six award-winning cookbooks, Dr. Goldstein has recently written a new book, “The Kingdom of Rye: A Brief History of Russian Food” (to be released in May 2022). In it, she explains that it’s not vodka or potatoes that are symbols of Russia. Rather, it’s rye, the grain that thrived in Russia, and rye bread that are inseparable from Russian identity.

“For all the terribleness that has occurred recently and throughout the centuries… the Russians themselves have suffered a lot and sustained themselves with this bread. Russian bread sustains in a beautiful way, but it also bespeaks a lot of hardship,” she explained.

Dr. Goldstein also named other authentic Russian foods: kvas (a slightly alcoholic drink made of rye bread), blini (Russian crepes), shchi (cabbage soup), buckwheat, honey, and caviar are all essential for  Russian cuisine.

She also pointed out that Russian cuisine is currently going through a renaissance due to a shortage of foreign produce. “What jump-started all this is the annexation of Crimea in 2014 because suddenly there were sanctions against Russia, and then Russia made counter-sanctions so that foreign food could not be imported. Russians really turned to their own, and they were brilliant making all kinds of things, especially different cheeses, that they’d never produced before.

One example is Boris Akimov’s LavkaLavka, an enterprise that connects farmers with consumers. “He really wanted Russians to start thinking about their own heritage produce, old techniques of doing things, and old recipes that were lost during the Soviet years,” said Dr. Goldstein.

At the same time, she noted that surprisingly few dishes from Russian cuisine made it further into the world. Kulebyaka, an authentic fish pie, has been adopted into French cuisine as Coulibiac. Beef Stroganoff, veal Orloff, kasha (porridge), and potato salad Olivye are other examples of Russian foods known outside of Russia.

Read more about Russian cuisine in “The Kingdom of Rye: A Brief History of Russian Food.” It’s available here.

Darra Goldstein is the Willcox B. and Harriet M. Adsit Professor of Russian, Emerita at Williams College. The founding editor of the journal Gastronomica, she is also the author of six award-winning cookbooks. She has consulted for the Council of Europe on using food as a tool for tolerance and diversity and has held distinguished fellowships in food studies at the University of Toronto and the University of Melbourne. Dr. Goldstein currently sits on the board of the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts and is a member of the advisory “Kitchen Cabinet” of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. In 2020 she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals.