In the 1930s, after a disastrous famine killed millions of Soviet citizens, Joseph Stalin made an abrupt turn in his approach to food. He ditched the idea that his countrymen could live on bread alone, and decided they should eat more joyously instead. The result of this campaign was The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food — one of the only cookbooks to exist in the Soviet Union. This week, our friends at 99% Invisible bring you the story of that cookbook, so universally known that it was called simply “Kniga,” or “The Book.” It included glossy pictures and lavish recipes for lentils and crab salad, not to mention decadent dollops of mayonnaise and plenty of dill. But it was much more than a book of recipes—“The Book” was part of a radical Soviet food experiment that transformed Russian cuisine forever.
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Johanna Mayer, Tracey Samuelson, and Jared O'Connell.
Music courtesy of 99% Invisible and Swan Real. Additional interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Enigmatic Rhodes" by Stephen Sullivan
- "Secret Handshake" by Hayley Briasco
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.
Edward Geist: It’s been made the same way since the 30s. You know, it's like — it's basically the Russian equivalent of Hellmann's, but it's like this classic Soviet thing.
Edward Geist: And so when Russians are — like when they think mayonnaise, well, that's kind of the platonic ideal of mayonnaise that most of them have, is this stuff that's actually like a formula that Mikoyan supposedly, personally, approved. Because when he was commissar of the food industry, that was one of the things that he did. He had to sign the official Soviet recipe for every kind of mass-produced food.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful. It’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show, we obsess about food to learn more about people. This week, we got a story to share with you. It’s from our friends at the podcast 99 Percent Invisible, which is a really great show about design and architecture. Each episode explores some overlooked object that has a big impact on the world. Sometimes the object is an airport carpet, or a revolving door. This one is about a cookbook, one that came out of a revolution, and changed the course of Russian food forever.
Dan Pashman: Here’s 99 Percent Invisible producer Lasha Madan, who’ll be joined by host Roman Mars. I’ll let Lasha and Roman take it from here:
Lasha Madan: Hi, I’m Lasha. And This is Babushka.
Roman Mars: Trust me — she’s about to be your favorite Russian grandma.
Lasha Madan: If there’s one thing you need to know about Babushka, it’s this: If you exist in her orbit, she will make sure you are fed.
Lasha Madan: Even if you show up at her home unannounced, Babushka will find a way to assemble a table full of offerings. Because, like many emigrants of the former Soviet Union, her small apartment is brimming with enough food and supplies to last months. You know, just in case.
Lasha Madan: Babushka’s full name is Yelena Shuyer and she is the grandmother of my partner, Mark. At 83, she’s got this boisterous laugh. And she’s unwavering in her love for bread, though technically it’s been years since her doctor has allowed her to eat any.
Lasha Madan: What kind of foods did you grow up eating? Like what kind of meals do you remember eating?
Babushka: I'm born in 1938. In 1941, start second war.
Lasha Madan: Yeah.
Babushka: And we leave Ukraine. I go to Kazakhstan, like refugee.
Lasha Madan: They could only grow one thing in that dry Kazakh soil: melons. For a time, melons were Babushka’s only source for anything sweet.
Babushka: We don’t have nothing. I don't see sugar. It's very bad time. It's very, very bad time.
Lasha Madan: Mm-hmm.
Lasha Madan: Babushka doesn’t consider herself much of a cook, but she’s always sharing her recipes with me aloud — while we’re in a car, on a walk, at the table. She tells me how many hours to boil beef tongue before pulling it off the stove — the answer is three — or how she makes her farmer’s cheese, and the honey cake recipe she learnt from her mom.
Babushka: In Kazakhstan, was really practically.
Lasha Madan: Over the years, crossing the Bay Bridge to visit Babushka in San Francisco has become a kind of ritual, and food is always central. If we weren’t meeting over a meal, at the very least we were talking about one.
Lasha Madan: When the pandemic arrived and we had to put those shared meals on pause, Mark and I wanted to try making Russian food ourselves. So one day, Babushka sent us off with a book, a Cookbook, one that she pulled off a shelf where it sat untouched for years. It was heavy like a textbook, a teal-colored hardcover. It was one of the oldest books in her possession, literally falling apart at the seams. But stunning, at the same time.
Babushka: [SPEAKING RUSSIAN]
Lasha Madan: As an adult, Babushka tells me, she moved to Moscow and got married. And that’s when this book came into her life. It was a wedding gift. Officially titled The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, it was known simply as “Kniga” - “The Book,” because it was one of the only cookbooks to exist in the Soviet Union.
Lasha Madan: Babushka, do you remember the last time you opened The Book of Tasty and Healthy food before giving it to us? Like had it been years?
Babushka: [LAUGHS AND RESPONDS IN RUSSIAN]
Roman Mars: Ah, love that laugh.
Mark: [TRANSLATES] No, I don’t remember.
Roman Mars: Okay, so who’s that?
Lasha Madan: Oh, that’s Mark, he’s translating in the background.
Babushka: [SPEAKS RUSSIAN]
Mark: Lentils appeared one time. And I had no idea how to cook them. So I crawled into the book to figure out how to cook them. You know how to cook them, but I don't!
Lasha Madan: In Moscow, Babushka had been a librarian. She’d amassed an enormous quantity of books. And, when she finally fled the Soviet Union as a Jewish refugee, she had to leave boxes of those books behind. And yet, here’s a book she chose to bring with her, one that she’s rarely ever used.
Lasha Madan: The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food is peppered with glossy photographs of really lavish looking spreads. And it’s dense with text. There are recipes for lentils and crab salad and how to cook buckwheat nine different ways.
Roman Mars: But this book was meant to do so much more than show people how to make certain dishes. It turns out, this was the cookbook of the Soviet Union, for decades … a Stalinist document that was created to address one of the most fundamental problems of the U.S.S.R: hunger.
Lasha Madan: And The Book was at the vanguard of a radical Soviet food experiment, that despite its numerous obstacles transformed Russian cuisine.
Roman Mars: Today, what’s usually served in Russian homes and restaurants is Soviet food. Food that’s generously dolloped with ingredients like mayonnaise and dill.
Lasha Madan: But Russian food before the Soviet Union — that was another story.
Edward Geist: Well, it depended on where you fit into Russian society.
Lasha Madan: Edward Geist is a historian who studies the Soviet Union.
Edward Geist: What people of different classes ate in pre-revolutionary Russia differed enormously.
Roman Mars: The Russian diet also varied a ton because the Russian empire was so large.
Edward Geist: You don't expect people living in the Siberian Arctic to eat the same thing as someone in Odessa or someone in the Caucasus.
Lasha Madan: Czarist Russia had both extreme poverty and extreme opulence. Most of the population, though, like 95 percent, was living on the edge on a very basic diet.
Darra Goldstein: The basic Russian diet consisted of a lot of fermented foods. The Russians really love the taste of sour.
Lasha Madan: Darra Goldstein is a food scholar. She’s been tracing the evolution of Russian food since the 10th century.
Darra Goldstein: There were all kinds of mushrooms and berries that they foraged ... Wonderful dairy products and cabbage soup. So that's basically what they ate. And it was pretty monotonous, but it wasn't horrible in terms of nutritive value. It's just that they often didn't have enough and didn't even have enough bread if the harvest was bad. The aristocracy, on the other hand, are fabulously wealthy.
Edward Geist: It's like enormous quantities of caviar. But there'd be things like — we'd have this borscht. This borscht that literally has like 30 or 40 different ingredients in it. It has like seven different kinds of meat.
Lasha Madan: And, for a couple hundred years, that’s how it went. Most Russians were subsisting off the land, and when the crops would fail, which they did with some regularity, things would get dire. In a way, the problem of food superseded all other problems in Russia.
Roman Mars: During WWI, food riots broke out between merchants and peasants because of high prices and food shortages. These battles, largely over grain and sugar, kept resurfacing.
Lasha Madan: And then, in 1917, revolution swept through Russia, and it gave way to a grand, new country: the U.S.S.R.
Roman Mars: Picture a region encompassing 11 time zones, 15 republics, a 6th of the world’s land mass. This was the Soviet Union. And in the spirit of uniting all its disparate parts under socialism, it’s plan was this: We will share one constitution, one national anthem, and one cuisine.
Lasha Madan: New foods, it was decided, were needed to help define the new empire. All ties to aristocracy needed to be broken. This was a revolution, after all!
Roman Mars: Under Lenin, who was Soviet Russia’s first leader, the Bolsheviks were looking for a way to feed everybody, separate themselves from decadence, and embrace the modern era.
Lasha Madan: No more foraging for berries or mushrooms from the forest. No more following grandma’s recipes or cooking from scratch. All of that, dear comrades, was a waste of time. The now-old-fashioned Russian food was declared ideologically unfit.
Roman Mars: It was clear that something about food needed to change, but there was no blueprint to get there.
Lasha Madan: No one had ever prescribed what a communist revolution should ` like. There wasn’t some passage in Marx that said buckwheat is meant to be the food of the socialist future. Lenin had tried setting up state-run canteens, a place where workers could fuel up with the appropriate amount of calories. But the canteens were run by amateur cooks who, churned out terrible food.
Roman Mars: In the mid 1920s, Lenin died, Stalin came to power, and the Soviet Union was still a starving country.
Lasha Madan: With the chaos of Stalin’s forced collectivization policies, he starved the countryside to feed the cities. At times, organized teams of policemen would break into peasant households, taking everything edible. All this led to a major Soviet famine which killed at least 5 million people, mostly across Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Hungry peasants roamed the countryside, desperately searching for anything to eat. Corpses piled up along the roads.
Roman Mars: It became clear that Stalin’s policies were pushing the country deeper into crisis. He desperately needed to turn things around.
Lasha Madan: Lenin had promised the people the basics: land, peace, and bread. But Stalin decided bread wasn’t enough. People needed to feel like they had a sense of luxury in their lives. They needed a reason to still believe in the Soviet Union.
Anya von Bremzen: There was a sense that the country was exhausted, that the country made huge sacrifices, and Stalin sort of reintroduced some of the, you know, bourgeois values.
Lasha Madan: Anya von Bremzen is a food writer, who was born in Soviet Russia.
Anya von Bremzen: It was understood that people needed some kind of relief and reprieve and that the Soviet food industry needed to, you know, get its shit together and give something to the people.
Roman Mars: The revolution was still young, the country in crisis, and Stalin was desperate to give the people symbols of joy.
Lasha Madan: And so, just a few years after that disastrous famine, Stalin was like, forget bread! People need champagne! And chocolate! And caviar!
Darra Goldstein: In this campaign to make life more joyous, which is literally what Stalin said in a 1935 speech, he made it allowable to indulge. So part of your responsibility as a good Soviet citizen to build a perfect socialist state was to participate in the good life, too.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, Lasha and Roman meet the man tasked with making Soviet food more joyous. And to do that, he looks for inspiration in a very unexpected place. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. In last week’s show, I go to the home of legendary chef and teacher, Jacques Pepin. He cooked for three French presidents, but he’s spent most of his career demonstrating basic cooking tips to regular folks. These days he does it on Instagram, making videos about peeling asparagus or, as he told me, sharing his secret for the best Spam:
CLIP (JACQUES PEPIN): It's funny because I remember Spam during the war. In France, we got can. My father was in the resistance. Occasionally, I guess he could get some can of a sardines or whatever from American soldier or wherever we could get it. And certainly, my mother would do a lot with when kind of spam. She would extend it with a cabbage or potato or to make her a lot about a little bit of that type of protein. So there I did some steak of Spam by putting a mixture of a bit of honey, maybe ketchup. Sugar to glaze it into the oven. It's good.
Dan Pashman: Jacques also shows me his books of menus, which list what he’s served at dinner parties going back more than 50 years, with each menu signed by the guests. A beautiful tradition for someone who’s spent his life in the kitchen. My conversation with Jacques Pepin is up now, check it out.
Dan Pashman: Okay, back to our show, which this week is a story by Lasha Madan and Roman Mars from the podcast 99 Percent Invisible. In the 1930s, Josef Stalin took a new approach to food in the Soviet Union. He thought citizens should have delicious and luxurious food. And if they did, he'd figure they’d trust the government more.
Lasha Madan: And in his quest to create this joyous and indulgent Soviet diet, Stalin decided to enlist the help of a guy named Anastas Mikoyan.
Edward Geist: Anastas Mikoyan was one of the most fascinating figures of the Soviet epoch. Because he came to power as one of Stalin's guys.
Roman Mars: In the mid-30s, Stalin made Mikoyan the People’s Commissar of the Food Industry.
Edward Geist: And so the Soviet food industry is basically set up according to what Mikoyan felt that it should be like.
Lasha Madan: Mikoyan was a mustachioed Armenian. He eventually became one of the most significant statesmen in the Soviet Union. He somehow survived decades of purges, always managing to stay on the good side of whoever was in power. He was a pragmatist, but also a dreamer. And he loved food.
Roman Mars: Stalin tasked him with a seemingly insurmountable problem: figure out how to feed a starving country and keep the food riots at bay. And ultimately, unite the Soviet bloc under a new and happy cuisine.
Lasha Madan: To Mikoyan, the solution was clear. His new cuisine would be cheap, high-calorie, mass-distributed and pre-packaged. And for that, naturally, he turned to the most un-Soviet place imaginable.
Roman Mars: A place that caters to the need for instant gratification better than anywhere else in the world. The U.S. of A.
Edward Geist: Well, what do they eat in America? It's like, well, they eat ... they eat a lot of meat. They eat things like, you know, hot dogs and hamburgers. You know, they have processed breakfast cereals. Like they have all this sort of industrially produced convenient, sort of calorically dense food.
Lasha Madan: It turns out, American food, and specifically its innovations in mass-production at the time, checked a lot of boxes for Mikoyan as he looked to makeover the Soviet diet.
Roman Mars: At the time, most of Russia’s food production was small-scale and artisanal. It wasn’t scalable in a way that could feed the whole country. Mikoyan was interested in the factory lines that were feeding the workers in America.
Lasha Madan: The idea being — it’s not capitalism we’re interested in, it’s modernity! We can import these American products and machines and turn them socialist.
Edward Geist: It's socialist because it's being made in like a state owned factory. The fact that it looks, you know, exactly like the American original that we copied it from, it's like, well, that just makes it modern!
Lasha Madan: And so in 1936, Stalin sent Mikoyan to the U.S. He gave his food commissar a mission: to scour America for the secrets of capitalist food manufacturing. On an August morning, he and his wife landed in New York, and from there, they toured 12,000 miles across the country.
Roman Mars: Officially, Mikoyan was tasked with buying industrial equipment for the Soviet food industry. But he got a little carried away. Mikoyan quickly became fascinated by things like orange juice and frozen fruit. He visited canning factories and slaughterhouses. He studied metal jar lids and corrugated cardboard.
Lasha Madan: As he toured the country, Mikoyan inspected every aspect of the production line. His memoirs are full of awe for the things he ate. Like hamburgers. Mikoyan wrote, “For a busy man, it is very convenient.” In the burger he saw a cheap and filling snack, great for workers on the go.
Roman Mars: Mikoyan could picture it all in his head: here were some of the foundations of what would become Soviet cuisine. A plan to feed the masses. A way to save the U.S.S.R. from its food crisis.
Lasha Madan: Mikoyan came back to the Soviet Union and started to build. His hamburger factories were built to churn out 2 million patties a day. And within a year, Mikoyan’s meat plant — called Mikoyanovski — produced over a hundred kinds of sausages. He oversaw the production of canned fish and corn and peas, cheeses and meats, juices and popcorn, corn flakes and champagne … I could go on. And of course, a high calorie condiment that could go in every salad: mayonnaise.
Edward Geist: And it’s been made the same way since the '30s. You know, it's like —it's basically the Russian equivalent of Hellmann's, but it's like this classic Soviet thing.
Lasha Madan: Right. Everyone knows the bottles.
Edward Geist: Right. And so when Russians are — like when they think mayonnaise, well, that's kind of the platonic ideal of mayonnaise that most of them have, is this stuff that's actually like a formula that Mikoyan supposedly personally approved. Because when he was commissar of the food industry, that was one of the things that he did. He had to sign the, you know, the official Soviet recipe for every kind of mass-produced food.
Lasha Madan: Through it all, Mikoyan was a dogged micromanager. He taste-tested every new product, approved every last label design, and he named a lot of the products after himself. To many Russians, Mikoyan was just a brand name for the meat products he developed.
Roman Mars: He was like some mythical old uncle, a Soviet Chef Boyardee.
Lasha Madan: Behind the scenes, though, Mikoyan was churning out product after product. And since the average Russian rarely left the country, it required special permission from the state to leave. A lot of people had never-before-seen some of the foods he was mass-producing. When things like oranges and hard cheeses and corn flakes arrived, some found it weird, or just confusing.
Edward Geist: There were certain cases where people really just didn't know what to do with some of this stuff because it was not the sort of thing that Russians had typically seen before.
Lasha Madan: As these weird new foods started to spread, Mikoyan found himself touring villages to give food directives. He urged Soviets to embrace a “spicy aromatic condiment” that he said, “every American housewife keeps in her cupboard.” Ketchup!
Roman Mars: He proclaimed tomato juice as the Soviet national drink. He advised people who had never heard of corn flakes to try putting them in their soup, like crackers. He gave how-to’s on eating oranges.
Edward Geist: And so, like they get an orange and they try to just bite into it with the peel on it. And of course, it tastes disgusting because they're eating the peel. And they had to be told that it's like, well, they're supposed to peel it first.
Lasha Madan: Mikoyan realized people needed to know about these foods in order to be willing to eat them. They needed to become “cultured” Soviet citizens. And despite all his travels telling people what to eat and how, it was impossible for him to educate everyone. He needed a new way to reach the masses. How could he spread a single new food culture to over 150 million people?
Roman Mars: And so, in 1939, he decided to publish a book.
Lasha Madan: The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food. The one that landed in my lap by way of Babushka. This book became the official blueprint on how to eat Soviet food.
Roman Mars: Written by a team of food scientists and spearheaded by Mikoyan, The Book provides nutritional guidelines, advertisements for pre-packaged foods, and hundreds of recipes. And the Soviet state cranked out millions and millions of copies.
Lasha Madan: How many copies of the book do you have?
Edward Geist: Looking at my shelf I have ... There's one, two, three, four, five...
Lasha Madan: In total, the book has over 1,400 recipes spanning 400 pages. It also has descriptions of Mikoyan’s industrial progress, and advice on things like proper food storage and table manners.
Edward Geist: So the recipes are all in the middle and the sidebars will contain all sorts of descriptions, often just descriptions of all these interesting new industrial food products that the Soviet Union is producing.
Lasha Madan: On each page, banners above or below the recipes celebrate Mikoyan’s products, like Soviet soy sauce and frozen pelmeni. And in the sidebars are descriptions of industrial progress, like the various attempts to grow pineapples in the U.S.S.R.
Lasha Madan: The Book offers aesthetic tips, too. “Each dish should be delicious and have visual appeal,” it reads. And the images, of course, are gorgeous.
Darra Goldstein: The first thing that struck me were just the photographs, which are fantastic. I mean, fantastic in both senses of the word.
Lasha Madan: The inside cover shows tables crowded with silver and crystal, platters of bread and fruit, boxes of chocolates and trays of caviar nestled between intricate tea sets and slices of cake. A whole suckling pig sits in the center. It represented all the luxury that Stalin had envisioned.
Darra Goldstein: They have this vintage look to them. Beautiful colors and conveying this sense of abundance. That was the primary thing, like endless food, endless variety.
Lasha Madan: The Book incorporated dishes from across the Soviet republics. Plov from Uzbekistan, borscht from Ukraine, although the origins of these foods were not always disclosed. Mikoyan was showing that we are all Soviet, and hey, any simple worker or teacher or doctor can now buy a bottle of champagne, or cook a lobster in white wine sauce, as shown on page 144. Life is good.
Roman Mars: Over the years, The Book kept getting revised and republished to match the Soviet Union’s changing ideologies. All specific references to a dish being Jewish or American, for example, eventually disappeared.
Lasha Madan: But throughout all the editions, one thing was constant: The Book evoked a peculiar optimism. It took on an almost aggressive cheeriness. And, by the 1950s, it became a staple in people’s homes.
Roman Mars: Anya von Bremzen has studied a lot of cookbooks that have come out of dictatorships, from the Francoist regime in Spain to fascist Italy. She says: there’s just nothing else like The Book.
Anya von Bremzen: It was a way of acculturating people who previously didn't have access to anything like, you know, let's say peasants or workers to become cultured Soviet citizens who knew how to use the right fork. It's kind of just this amazing, amazing document.
Lasha Madan: With the help of this book, at first gradually, but then faster and faster, Mikoyan’s foods became Russian foods.
Anya von Bremzen: But what's interesting is that they were very patriotically packaged. To generations of Russians, this was our food. So to ... for me to read it and to learn this, oh, my God, if looked at American, he basically copied American. Or, you know Frankfurters. Russians love Frankfurters, "sosiski". That was actually a German recipe. So the origins of so many of these patriotic, you know, beloved items are, in fact, foreign.
Lasha Madan: Many foods eventually became altered, Russified versions of the American food that inspired it. Like those hamburgers Mikoyan had encountered with such wonder? They turned into a meat and bread patty called kotleti, which became a Soviet staple. The Book features multiple recipes on how to make it, and it’s a dish that’s still super popular today.
Lasha Madan: But there was one dish that really took off, maybe more than any other. It’s all the way at the back of The Book. You have to flip past the soups and meat dishes, until you reach the desserts. Ice Cream. It was the ultimate success of the Soviet food project.
Anya von Bremzen: Our ice cream was the best ice cream. We were always told that, and in fact, it was, like, really good.
Edward Geist: Wealthy Russian aristocratic types, well they ate ice cream before the revolution, right? But not in any sort of great quantity.
Roman Mars: At the time, the idea that any Soviet citizen could buy ice cream from someone off the street for a modest price was unheard of.
Lasha Madan: But that changed when Mikoyan started mass-producing ice cream in the way he had observed in the U.S. In fact, he lobbied so hard for it that Stalin once joked that Mikoyan must have loved ice cream more than communism.
Roman Mars: The Soviet Union’s first ice cream factory reached a total volume of 46,000 tons of ice cream a year.
Lasha Madan: Under Mikoyan’s leadership, a completely new culture around ice cream started to form. All ice-cream vendors wore special uniforms — white caps, aprons, and overcoats. People would go out in the dead of winter and hang around just eating ice cream in their winter jackets.
Lasha Madan: Here’s Babushka again.
Babushka: In Russia — cold. It's very, very cold, and people go with ice cream on the street. You can understand this?
Lasha Madan: I can picture it, but it's hard for me to understand!
Babushka: Nobody can understand it. But in Russia, it's true.
Lasha Madan: Why? Why do you think so?
Babushka: I don't know! I don't know! We like ice cream!
Roman Mars: The Book features a number of different ice cream recipes and details about their nutritional information. And then it goes, “In terms of taste and quality, ice cream made by the food industry always surpasses ice cream that is produced at home.”
Lasha Madan: As in, here are a handful of recipes, but don’t bother trying them. And, maybe that was the whole point. The Book was a cookbook, yeah. But having people make its recipes wasn't the goal. More so, it was meant to show you what was worth desiring, and that socialism would get you there, eventually.
Lasha Madan: But the truth was much more grim. In fact, most of Babushka’s memories are not of lavish spreads and homemade desserts, but of food scarcity.
Babushka: [SPEAKS RUSSIAN]
Mark: [TRANSLATES] My mom knew I always wanted to share everything …
Lasha Madan: Here’s Mark again, translating Babushka’s Russian. Babushka has always had this impulse to feed others. But when she was a child, it was tough for her mom to watch Babushka give away food, because they didn’t have much at all.
Babushka: [SPEAKS RUSSIAN]
Mark: [LAUGHS] She says when she was little, she would get sick and her mom would cook her chicken broth. And she would — there were boys, just like outside in the courtyard of the house or whatever, in the yard, and she would feed them through the window with her spoon.
Lasha Madan: What??
Lasha Madan: They would just be standing outside your window with their mouth open?
Babushka: [SPEAKS RUSSIAN]
Mark: Yes! She's said, like little baby seagulls.
Lasha Madan: These are funny stories now, but that kind of hunger, Babushka say, it’s difficult for us kids to imagine.
Babushka: [SPEAK RUSSIAN]
Mark: It’s impossible to imagine. I wish for you never to know that and never to see it.
Lasha Madan: It is hard to imagine. Especially as I flip through pages of The Book. Because even as Mikoyan was implementing his cuisine and revising this cookbook, and certain foods were indeed taking off, his successes were papering over a dark, underlying reality, that hunger was still the primary struggle.
Roman Mars: Because it turns out, many of these foods that Mikoyan’s factories were churning out day after day were rarely ever available for purchase.
Lasha Madan: Even though everyone knew about these foods, the grocery shelves were mostly empty. For decades, outside of a handful of stores in the big cities, there weren’t many places you could just plunk down your rubles and buy this stuff.
Roman Mars: Most of the food, it turned out, had been disappearing into networks of privileged elites, long before it even reached the shelves.
Lasha Madan: Everyone tried to befriend a butcher. You’d smile extra hard as you walked in the store. You had to, if you had any hope of getting a good piece of meat, or any meat at all.
Anya von Bremzen: Yeah. I mean, food was the object of constant longing, desire, anxiety. It was really pretty much the focus of our lives. Like, you know, I literally had a banana maybe like four times in my life.
Lasha Madan: Because food supply was unpredictable, Anya told me that any time she left the house she’d carry a mesh bag crumpled in her pocket. The bag was called “avos’ka,” which means “what if.” As in, what if I stumble upon a store with food inside it today?
Anya von Bremzen: So there was this kind of chase. The unpredictability. Oh, you know, you pass a store and there's a long line for something, some people just will get into the line without even asking what it was for.
Lasha Madan: Meanwhile, at home, The Book offered salivating images of the kind of food you were supposed to be able to eat.
Anya von Bremzen: So we looked at those pictures. You know, I think there's one picture of, you know, suckling pig and there is one picture of oysters. And it's kind of like, okay, if we never I've never seen it, we don't know what this is. But, you know, it's ... It was advertised.
Roman Mars: Every cookbook sells a fantasy, of course, but it’s the discrepancy between the abundance on the pages and the absence in the shops that makes The Book so jarring. The Book suggested everyone adopt a four course lunch, but much of the population would batch cook for the week with whatever few ingredients they had on hand.
Lasha Madan: It's clear who The Book was written for. “To the Soviet housewife.” it reads, in bold typeface on page 1. But for many Soviet women, The Book often lived on a shelf, somewhere out of reach.
Babushka: [SPEAKS RUSSIAN]
Lasha Madan: Back in Babushka’s apartment, I wanted to try cooking something from The Book together. I was curious how these recipes held up.
Lasha Madan: That good!
Mark: Yeah, they're getting better.
Lasha Madan: The first couple are always throwaways.
Mark: Yeah, well, I also added milk and kept stirring it.
Lasha Madan: We were trying to make blini — a thin, Russian pancake made with leavened wheat batter.
Lasha Madan: Hmm.
Babushka: Best you see what, blini a little, little ... hole.
Lasha Madan: Yeah, they're see through?
Lasha Madan: They're so thin that you can see through them?
Mark: They're translucent. Yeah.
Lasha Madan: Yeah. Yeah, we're not quite there yet.
Lasha Madan: I do consider myself a good cook, but the truth is, I was skeptical of how this would turn out. The Book’s recipes have incredibly vague instructions. Instructions like, “Put meat in oven until cooked. Then serve.” There are no meal preparation times, no serving sizes. The most frequent instruction in The Book is to open a tin can of some kind.
Lasha Madan: As I mixed the batter together, Babushka flipped through The Book, and I peered over her shoulder.
Lasha Madan: We landed on a couple recipes that caused her to chuckle — recipes she thinks no one would have followed. Meals that called for real crab meat or fresh figs or game birds. It all made me think that this cookbook was useless. But, Anya told me, The Book, despite its flaws, did have its uses.
Lasha Madan: Anya remembers noticing how the copies of The Book she saw in other people’s homes would be heavily annotated. People would write over the recipes, or write in the margins. It became a way of taking the kitchen back. Taking something that was produced by the Soviet Union and making it your own.
Anya von Bremzen: It was almost like this repository of this private knowledge, because the book is like very much represents the Soviet state. But people sort of, you know, made accommodations with a totalitarian regime by personalizing these documents.
Roman Mars: After the Soviet Union collapsed in ‘91, there was a lot of hunger and anger again. A lot of people lost everything. To many, these foods conjure up nostalgia from that terrible time. And these Soviet food brands endure today. People love them.
Lasha Madan: And perhaps, if you knew how to use it, The Book was actually useful. Maybe not always in its recipes, per say, but it did offer practical guidance in making the most of whatever was at hand. With advice like, adding mayonnaise to your food is a great digestive aid, and advice on how to portion out meals so it looks like there’s a lot on your plate, it did help cooks adapt to the occasional lack of even the most basic produce.
Lasha Madan: Babushka, Mark, and I finally sat down to eat the blini.
Lasha Madan: Okay. So Babushka, what do you think of the blini?
Babushka: I don't know ... I don't know. [LAUGHS]
Lasha Madan: Be honest.
Babushka: Huh? No. Sorry, no. It's ...
Lasha Madan: [LAUGHS] Sorry, no. It's ... it's not blini.
Lasha Madan: It’s a little embarrassing — the blini is far too thick and yeasty. But we eat it anyway, with sour cream and smoked salmon and dill. At the table, Babushka looks at the spread and says, "You know, The Book also tells you how to properly set a table." "Oh yeah?", I say, "Are we doing it right?". She shakes her head.
Babushka: Fukusna. Fukusna. Tasty.
Roman Mars: Any cookbook has the potential to shape a person’s diet or habits, or sit on a shelf unused. And the same can be said about this one.
Lasha Madan: But one thing is clear — whether you loved it or hated it or just let it sit on your shelf — over time, The Book became uniquely and authentically ... Russian. Or at least Russian enough that, despite all its flaws, when Babushka finally left the Soviet Union, she lugged it with her. This thing that was produced by the state she was fleeing. And when she got to San Francisco, she unpacked her boxes, pulled this book out, and stood it up on a shelf. Years later, she dusted it off, and handed it to me.
Dan Pashman: That’s Roman Mars and Lasha Madan of the podcast 99 Percent Invisible. You can check out all their episodes at 99PercentInvisible.org.
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show, I sit down with comedian and actor Michael Ian Black. We have a lot of fun together, but the conversation also turns more serious when we discuss a topic he wrote a whole book about: masculinity. Like, why is a steak perceived as more masculine than a salad? That’s next week.
Dan Pashman: While you wait for that one make sure you check out last week’s show with legendary chef and teacher, Jacques Pepin. And please follow or subscribe to our podcast in your podcasting app! Thanks.
Roman Mars: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Lasha Madan and edited by Christopher Johnson and Joe Rosenberg. Mix and tech production by Ameeta Ganatra. Music by director of sound Sean Real. Delaney Hall is the Executive Producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. Liz Boyd did the fact checking. Max Krivosheyev helped with translation. The rest of the team includes Emmett FitzGerald, Vivian Le, Chris Berube, Sofia Klatzker and me, Roman Mars.