Vasile Ernu

În viaţă există lucruri mult mai îngrozitoare decît moartea BR Anna Ahmatova

În viaţă există lucruri mult mai îngrozitoare decît moartea
Anna Ahmatova

Modernization in the kitchen

E interesant că acest interviu Bucătăria lui Stalin – A existat oare o gastronomie comunistă? a apărut mai întîi în română. După care a fost tradus şi preluat de ruşi pe mai multe situri. După care am fost invitat să vorbesc pe această temă. După care mi s-a cerut dreptul să fie publicat în 2 cărţi de limbă engleză şi am deja 2 variante de tradueri în engleză: din rusă şi din română. A mai apărut în franceză, olandeză şi lituaniană. Asta e ultima variantă englezească făcută din rusă. Se pare că bucătăria sovietică interesează, mai ales după ce a dispărut. Aia cu “philosopher” e o glumă, fireşte.

Romanian philosopher Vasile Ernu talks to the author of “Catering” Irina Glushchenko.
Translated by Olivia Stevens

Dear Irina, to begin let’s tell those who have not yet read your book what it’s about. To what extent can the subject of this book be interesting to us, who have emerged from communism 20 years ago?
It’s simplest to say that the book is about exactly what is written on the cover: catering, Mikoyan, and Soviet cuisine. But I think that discourse about that is just one of the tools by which we can try to understand the Soviet era as a whole. I love the quote from Ilf and Petrov on the “big world” and the “small world”. Here is our diet, food – this is the “small world”, the same routine, home life, which is trying to dissociate itself from the historical cataclysms. And you can begin to understand that this takes place here in this “small world”. But suddenly it turns out that through the study of the “small world” you can understand something in the “big”.

The question is whether there was sausage in the Soviet Union, related to the issue, and if it has created the Soviet people? Moreover, the more I study Soviet everyday life, the more I understand that the observation in dashes of the “small world” leads to fundamental questions such as “Why did revolution occur in Russia?”, “Was industrialization neccessary?”
That’s it, no more and no less.

How did the idea come to you to write such a book?

It’s a funny story. Generally, I didn’t intend to write any books. Just one beautiful day in 2002 I rode the subway and looked over a hanging advertisement for the Mikoyan Plant: pictures of sausages, the Kremlin and the inscription “Mikoyan – the official supplier of the Kremlin since 1933.”  It didn’t refer to Mikoyan the person, but Mikoyan the plant, which was built in 1933 on the orders of the People’s Commissar Anastas Mikoyan for the food industry and has long been known as “Mikoyan”. I was surprised by this reference to 1933 – it was a frank appeal to Stalin’s time as a symbol of stability and prosperity. And the statement of continuity where “the Kremlin” refers to “the Kremlin” under Stalin.  And who was sitting in the Kremlin in 1933? Collectivization had only just ended, and after less than a year Kirov would be killed the Great Terror would begin.

I wrote an article about all of this in the newspaper «The Moscow Times», then forgot about Mikoyan and sausage. A year later one the drafters of the Texas Culinary dictionary wrote to me, she said she had read my post, was very interested in the figure of Anastas Mikoyan, and asked me to write about it. I agreed of course, but realized that I knew very little about Mikoyan. I began to read books in the library, met with his children and grandchildren, then began working in the archives. Then I went to the Mikoyan plant, read the factory newspaper of the plant… An article about the minister had long since been written, but then I discovered that the materials I had accumulated constituted a whole book. So I wrote it.

From the book I understood that Mikoyan played an important role in the origin of the food industry. What exactly was this role?

He created it. After all, before there hadn’t been any of the food industry in Russia as there weren’t many other industries. The creation of the food industry was part of the overall process of industrialization, which, in turn, became the main task of the Soviet state, despite the ideological rhetoric of building socialism and communism. Many people in the Soviet Union believed the system under which they lived was a socialist system. Although it is unclear why the construction of the mills is equivalent to the construction of socialism. After all, socialism – it’s still public relations. Historian Alexander Shubin, for example, calls the Soviet system “centralized industrial society with elements of the social state.” Soviet cooking reflects these aspects of social structure: the standardization of the declared equality and management from a single center.

One of the key moments in the history of Mikoyan and the emergence of the Soviet food industry is related to his trip to the U.S. Reading different authors from Walter Benjamin to Ilf and Petrov (especially their travel notes “Single story America”), I have long felt this great similarity between these two systems. To what extent has the American food industry influenced the Soviet?

It influenced it. Specifically in the sense that American industrialization was taken as a model. We always competed specifically with America, not India, for example, that it would be more sober. And then America in those years was considered very positively. But we must remember that “the miracles of American technology, brought forward on the Soviet soil,” according to Mikoyan, gave an amazing, unique fruit! So, as in America, it still did not succeed, but we got something of our own, unique.

Mikoyan, for example, was simply shocked by American hamburgers. He suddenly saw in them just what you need to Soviet citizens, who came to the park, to the stadium – a hot meatball, placed in a bun. Tasty, affordable, and nutritious. He even purchased samples of the equipment, but hamburgers put into production in the Soviet Union were prevented by the war. But the idea of ready-made meatballs, apparently, was firmly stuck in the head of Anastas Ivanovich, and mass production of standard meatballs was still established. These, of course, weren’t hamburgers, but those famous meatballs for six kopecks, which the whole nation knows as “Mikoyan”. So our meatballs – they’re hamburgers, entirely immature!

It is very interesting that Mikoyan, Ilf, and Petrov went to America about the same time. Mikoyan was fascinated by what he saw in the field of nutrition, and saw in the American food industry a huge potential for the food industry, able to serve the young Soviet state, while Ilf and Petrov were very critical and they did not like anything of what they saw in the field of nutrition. Why do their approaches vary so?

They have different objectives and different views of problems. Ilf and Petrov – they are aesthetes, gourmands. They would sit in a Parisian restaurant, cut luxurious meat into small pieces and sip their red wine. But Mikoyan had a need to “feed the working man.” Feel the difference? The pace differs, and the principles are completely different. Ilf and Petrov did not like frozen food, didn’t like the “tasteless”, but a beautiful dish in the cafeteria. And for Mikoyan – it is sacred. After all, do not forget that the whole way of life in the country has radically changed. Millions of peasants became workmen. People who have fed themselves become consumers, for whom food needed to be provide. All questions needed to be solved very quickly and on an unprecedented scale.

Take the same mythical sausage. Its mass production was just the result of industrialization. Earlier in the national consumption of the product didn’t exist. The shortage of sausages later arose from the fact that this product is strongly advocated, the mass consumption of sausage taught to the country, and as a result, there was not enough.

One of the main themes of the book is the definition of what is called the “Soviet cuisine”. Can we talk about “Soviet cooking”? Does it really exist? This is a very important question, because if this project existed and was put into practice, then through analyzing this “project”, it may be possible to see what happened to the “new man” and the “Soviet project?

It existed to the extent to which the Soviet Union and Soviet person existed. More than that, I would say that the existence of Soviet cooking is something more real and tangible than the authenticity of the first two items. Soviet cooking has survived the context of its creation. I consider the Soviet cuisine, not only in terms of recipes, not as a collection of various foods and dishes, but in terms of the so-called “consumer practices”, as culture experts love to say. And here we have an entirely unique phenomenon. Take my favorite sandwich. The word is German, but in Germany they do not understand it. In the Soviet period, there was a whole culture of the cooking and consumption of sandwiches. A thick slice of white bread, which at first is slathered with butter, then put on this a thick piece of sausage or cheese, it only exists in Soviet culture. I remember being in New York- I terribly wanted a sandwich with cheese. My American friend grabbed his head. “French cuisine? – He said. – It is very expensive. ”

In the appearance of the food industry in the USSR it is interesting that in one and the same process, it joined production and consumption, individual tastes and the collective effort. Public and private spaces were intertwined in unexpected ways. The recipe was proposed as an official standard, influencing the cooking in the workers’ canteen, and in the home kitchen. Across this vast country, people began to eat the same thing. The individual kitchen becomes a factor of social integration. It merges with the ideology – and not just because the “Book of tasty and healthy foods” has quotations from Stalin and Mikoyan, but also because the recipes themselves laid down certain ideological views, a certain system of values. During one debate after my book, I was told that the Soviet cuisine could not exist, because cooking should be either national, or social. But the fact of the matter is that the Soviet Union managed to create a cuisine that was neither social nor national. It was sort of a revolution, and not only in cooking.

In discussing the communist project, and specifically the “project of the USSR ” it is often found that these things are understood as different things. For some, it is an absolute evil, which comes down to the dictator, the keeping of people in concentration camps, for others – a place where they lived, where they ate “the very same” ice cream and drank “the very same” sodas, and for someone – just the battle between the two systems in which Coca-Cola won over soda, and “Snickers” was victorious over the Soviet “bar”. After reading your book, I realized that we know very little about what actually happened in the Soviet Union on the lower levels – the base of society. How do you think: the development and implementation of the “Soviet cooking” project- is it a good area for studying the integrity of the “USSR project”?

Is it possible to assess any historical epoch individually? I write about the tragic duality of those times: on the one side, repression (including that in the food industry), on the other – the enthusiasm and conscious and slightly naive participation of people in the creation of a new society. The drama of the era is precisely in the combination of the exorbitant price that had to be paid for progress, and the extent of achievements, the fruits of which we still use today.

Now a stereotype has formed, where it is impossible to discuss the Soviet past seriously: any attempt to peacefully reflect on that era is regarded almost as an attempt to rehabilitate totalitarianism. But at the same time we have a mountain of literature that attempts to whitewash Stalin, to prove that terrorism did not exist.

But the understanding of history comes when we stop drawing cartoons of the past or engaging in its praise.

With regard to “the lower levels,” I do not think that they can be identified as such outright. Historians are interested in how Stalin directed the construction of the Palace of Soviets. But they are much less interested in how soap was made in the Soviet Union. And suddenly it becomes clear that both cases were roughly the same. Stalin not only personally studied the architectural projects, but also smelled different kinds of soap. Mikoyan told about it with enthusiasm, like the sample that must be followed by a director. It turns out that in society there is no minor task. And the negligence of the director shown during the manufacture of soap may result in his death.

The way of your immersion in the subject seems to me to be totally remarkable. You talk about food, keeping the entire set of factors: a mechanism for the modernization and industrialization of the country, the role of ideology in this process, the means by which the state instrumentalized catering for the purpose control and domination over the population, etc. Is this process inherent in modernity in general or specific only for the Soviet space?

Of course, all the traits of the industrial and mass society were not unique to the Soviet Union. Another thing is that it is in the USSR particularly that many of these traits were expressed particularly clearly and consistently, and sometimes brought to the grotesque. An essential feature of the Soviet is, of course, the presence of ideology in the various spheres of life. This does not mean that in other societies, there was no connection between ideology and way of life. But in the Soviet Union, this relationship was declared. And as a result of the discrepancies between the life and ideology were detected at every step.

Let’s talk about “the bible of Soviet cuisine”, which you call “culinary orthodoxy:” The Book of healthy and delicious food. ” It played a very pertinent role, because a generation of Soviet citizens was raised on it. But on close reading you quickly realize that in the first place it is an ideological book, and only then a cookbook. What is the essence of this book, what is its function in Soviet society?

First of all what strikes me is that it is a normative document. I do not accidentally call it “culinary codex” or “culinary bible”. Stalin merges all the writers’ organizations into a single Union of Writers, which should have one creative method. The same happens with the architects, painters, composers. And exactly the same way the cookbook was created. One for the whole country, for all peoples. Architects were urged to “study the heritage”, and the cookbook synthesizes the kitchen of the Soviet peoples with European cuisine, and it’s not just a synthesis. Our cooking should be the top of world cuisine, taking from all the best and uniting them for the benefit of the Soviet man. Of course, this is utopia. The real diet was very far from the ideal depicted in the book. Many of the products were simply not available in everyday life. But on the other side, they were still real. At least once in a lifetime someone saw something like that somewhere, and maybe even tried it.

How was Soviet cooking introduced to the people? Was there more intense propaganda of this cooking?

Well, it was introduced liked that. “The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food ” contributed more than a little. More intensive propaganda is hard to imagine. Especially when it was supported by such grandiose, graphic material! Remember those pictures -they stagger the imagination to this day. Also the fact that they portrayed a kind of IDEAL, so generally all the propaganda was based on this. The boundaries between myth and reality of Soviet life, were not only pre-arranged, but also flexible. The picture of Soviet life included what must be, what is and what will be, and all that exists simultaneously. A utopian dream is embodied in practice, and utopia becomes a reality. And from that moment it ceases to be a utopia. Utopia all the time dissolves into reality and is itself constantly evolving.

Was it a dominant or alternative cuisine? What is its relationship to traditional cooking? As in the West, many have lost their everyday practice in cooking and started to buy pre-prepared products, etc.

That is predominant, of course. In Soviet society in general there was something bad about alternatives. But above all, Soviet cooking swallowed Russian cooking of course. With regard to traditional cuisines, such as Caucasian, I suppose, they were very different from the Soviet. Another matter that dealt with similar products. And Soviet cooking assimilated some of the dishes of national cuisine – barbecue, soup kharcho, pasties – averaging and simplifying them to such an extent that they have lost their original connection with the traditions of national cooking.

I noticed something that amazed me. Within the renovation of food industry, this popular culture with various circles (drama, music, literature, film, journalism), has developed around the factories in which workers were involved. In the study of this, what was written and put on stage, it becomes apparent that a special type of mass authentic culture was produced in addition to an element of propaganda, the grotesque and incredible kitsch. Reading the letters from readers in the original factory paper, we even see the appearance of a special type of an authentic relationship to things. People were arguing, fighting back, they had their own opinions. Today it is very difficult to understand and imagine these mechanisms, especially in countries like ours, where the state industry has almost entirely disappeared, and private industry has not appeared. How do you see and interpret the type of social, cultural and political life, which was claimed by this social class?

You mean, in particular, the performance of “Abundance”, presented at the Mikoyan plant in the mid 30-ies? Oh, it’s a terrific story. Imagine this: workers will not only produce sausages, but also play them on stage, that is, immersion in the image, which Stanislavski could only dream of! In the factory newspaper a note was published from participants in a play where they tell us how to work on the role of hot dogs … And what about the text of the play in verse: “We Soviet sausages, widely infiltrated the masses…” and couplets about tea sausage and salami! So figure it out in this epoch.

The soviet industry was trying to not just produce, but to some extent can shape and can even “produce” the working class. Managers are constantly working on the consciousness of the governed. The effect was twofold. On one side, communion of knowledge and culture happened. In the end, when the workers are involved in amateur theatricals, they acquire an aesthetic experience. But on the other side, everything is closely associated with the introduction of official ideology, with the formation of the people of precisely those values and habits that suit power. For example, the same performance of “Abundance”. It clearly mimics the aesthetics of the Baroque, although the workers and the words are not aware of this. The new Stalinist aesthetic was conservative, and asserted the idea of greatness of the state as a classical baroque.

Taste – it’s a bourgeois idea and a relic from the standpoint of the Puritan Bolshevism, sustenance has its function and should not bring pleasure. Mikoyan appears, brought up in the Caucasus, and declares that the food should have taste. How did Mikoyan solve the issue of taste?

I’m not sure he could SOLVE it. But he really wanted to. Remember, Astrid Lindgren in “Kid and Carlson”: “Why is food healthier, when it is not tasty?” Soviet dietitians were adamant. The main thing is to get the required amount of fats, proteins, carbohydrates. How they will be packed, is an uninteresting question. In addition, for some reason they thought that any spicy spices excite, food must be calm and neutral, plenty of boiled, mashed, stewed … As if for children … to Mikoyan, a Caucasian man, this was certainly distasteful. Wherever he could, he was trying to implement something tasty, spicy and expressive. He defended the title “Books of tasty and healthy food”, because originally they wanted to call it “Book of useful and healthy food.” He said: “Taste needs to be developed.”

There is the same problem as with all Soviet planning. Soviet industrialization initially struggled with quantitative indicators the establishment of a mechanism responsible for quantity. But, in the words of Shubin, “coping with the quantity, the Soviet economy was losing the battle for quality.” The centralized system of Soviet industry could quickly solve simple issues. But as soon as issues become more complex, problems arose. The question of taste, which cannot be measured by formal indicators is very characteristic.

What could make Mikoyan in this situation? The same thing that Stalin did – to intervene in detail and deal with personal quality control. A kind of oppressive subjectivity, which turned out to counterbalance the bureaucratic formalism. As a result, an individual subjective taste, which will take the attention of the industry, is the personal taste Mikoyan. It embodies the interest of consumers and his tastes become the tastes of millions.

It affects the method through which at the highest level certain decisions were made on banal issues. I would never have believed that such a question as assortments of sausages or canning labels were discussed at the highest level. It seems an impossible scene, when Mikoyan brings to the Central Committee a few samples of soap, and Stalin with his team sniffs, probes, and even tastes the products, choosing the best option for the Soviet people. This scene – like a cross between Ilf and Petrov with Ionesco. How did they come to the decisions? Why did Stalin involve himself at the level of taste, smell and other seemingly minor details? Have the tastes of Stalin and Mikoyan become our tastes? To what level have their food preferences influenced the daily lives of several generations of Soviet citizens?

An episode with soap- it’s not folklore, but cited from Mikoyan’s speeches in the 30’s. He would never have allowed himself to think about Stalin what Stalin was not. Such despotic style of leadership was accepted and welcomed in the country. The episode, which now seems grotesque and almost unbelievable, did not cause the listeners even the slightest irony. Besides that, mind you, the people didn’t believe in their own power. In fact, how you can trust the people for whom the instructions: “Do not spit on the floor in the house.” were written. Understand, if this needed to be specifically taught at the state level, it means that the majority spat and considered it totally normal. So, in talking about “Russia, which we lost,” we need to in the first place remember not the gentry and the intelligentsia in Russia, but the people who were illiterate and had to be taught elementary things … Power serves not only as a meticulous manager who does not miss a single detail, but also as an educator. And it is impossible to tell where one ends and another begins.

And so, something else that occupies me. How do you reckon, to what extent did the method (pragmatic or not pragmatic), which was established for the catering industryaffect our privacy, our private kitchen – a “sacred place” for the Soviet citizen?

At some point we already stopped thinking about these products or these practices someone has designed and implemented. For the next generation of Soviet people, they become natural. More than that, in the 60’s, when many of the hardships of the Stalin era were past, and a few elements of utopia realized. After all, it was understood that Stalin’s “abundance” was nothing more than a slogan. But three decades later, some features of Soviet life resembled that which for the 30’s could only be ideal. The same “Book on healthy and delicious food “, because of its huge success is related specifically to the 60’s.
But people already wanted something different. They wanted to go beyond the Soviet household routine. And now everything is past, and we suddenly feel nostalgic. We remember the Soviet mythological products: Esquimo, Zephyr, “the same tea” with an elephant, ham sausage, and we complain that the taste is not the same … And advertising is struggling to prove that everything remained as before.

Last question: Did soviet cooking die together with the Soviet Union? Did it become a museum exhibit? Or, does it develop even today in different ways?

I once joked that the Soviet food is saved in closed structures: kindergartens, hospitals and prisons. In general, the places where people are fed daily (here sometimes added to lunch), hot meals, with lunch also consisting of three defined dishes. Well-known first, second and third: soup, meat or fish with side dish, and fruit compote.
Perhaps it persists in some sanatoria and rest homes, but has a blurred form.

The current “catering” combines new dishes and the traditional. Like in exotic countries there is the local cuisine, and sometimes also “European”. And in our cafes: along with new dishes, without which young people already can’t imagine a diet is Soviet vinaigrette and herring “under a fur coat”.

As for homemade food, it is more conservative. But in a strange way, the method of cooking, in particular for children … Mashed potatoes, broth, meatballs, porridge, – all this is a rather childish diet.

In the GUM there is the so-called “57th dining room”, styled after the Soviet type. In fact, this is, of course – a kind of ideal Soviet dining room, I would say, enriched and highly embellished. The combination of the achievements of the Soviet system with capitalist abundance. It’s own kind of utopia.


6 June, 2011
in: Blog, Noutati   
1 comentariu


One Response to “Modernization in the kitchen”

    May 19th, 2014 @ 4:59 am

    On va te dire que ce n’est guère erroné !!!

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