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."
Yes, my wife was an American, a New Yorker, I had been living in the US since the fall of 1971 and have been an American 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 the 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 the centralized industrial, American-style food production. It was so interesting that I started writing up 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 breakfast of lox and bagels (no bagels but the "crackles" from the Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley) and listened to the 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!
Next week the NPR Morning Edition will be running a follow–up feature, "The Dissident Kitchens," that I very much look forward to. In the meantime, you can hear the fabulous "Communal Kitchens" at this NPR URL:
"Dissident Kitchens" broadcast of May 27 is here:
20 and 27 May 2014