Some time a year a go, I received a call from Davia Nelson, one of the famous Kitchen Sisters, whom I had met earlier while having drinks with our mutual friend Tom Luddy (yes, at Chez Panisse, of course). Davia wanted to do a whole program on the Soviet Kitchen, especially the Soviet kitchen as the locus of civil society in the late Soviet Union. I have heard their features before, and I loved them but it never occurred to me that something this colorful could be done with my "native realm." Although I like cooking and at a certain point in my life spent quite a bit of time learning Chinese and French cuisine, I had never thought about the kitchen and food as a significant subject in Soviet history, even Soviet cultural history. A good conversation piece, a cute object of ambivalent Soviet nostalgia, a subject for jokes, perhaps even a shibboleth for the Soviet cognoscenti, but an object of serious study?
Well, I scratched the surface and saw -- gold! I realized that my own and at the time inexplicable obsession with learning to cook Chinese, French and Italian dishes had to do with my deep desire to create a distance between my Soviet past and myself. Yes, my wife was an American, a New Yorker, I had been living in the US since the fall of 1971 and a American citizen since 1974, went to Cal, taught at Stanford since 1977, and yet I now realize that my migration had not been complete without a retreading, so to speak, of my alimentary tract with the tastes, flavors, and textures of non-Soviet cooking. I emphasize Soviet because I love Russian food -- caviar, lox, herring, various salads, bliny, milk products, pickled mushroom, cabbage, apples, and its Georgian/Armenian/Azeri iterations of the Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean dishes. To make a long story short, I started reading up on the history of Soviet food since 1917 and the origins of ОБЩЕПИТ (Communal Food Industry).
A whole new angle of the Russian experience began to come into view: what happened after a whole way of life was destroyed in the 1917 revolution and the civil war that followed, what replaced the tavern (кабак, трактир), the diner, the restaurant, how the kitchen evolved, how the scientific Soviet "diets" emerged, and how everything changed once again with the Stalin revolution of 1929 when all private and semiprivate little shops and eateries were shut down practically overnight, and the country moved toward centralized industrial American-style food production. It was so interesting that I started writing on the subject. Before long, Davia dropped by, and we spent a couple of hours talking about food and Soviet and Russian history and how it offered a fascinating view, but also the feel of what Soviet life was like. She had her tape recorder on. A year later, we got together for a breakfast of lox and bagels (not bagels but the "crackles" from the Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley) and listened to her incredible feature on the communal kitchens in the Soviet Union that she and her "kitchen sister" Nikki Silver produced.
Three cheers for the Kitchen Sisters! You can hear about the fabulous "Communal Kitchens" at this NPR URL.