Food as a way of life

Every Soviet family had at The Book of Healthy and Tasty Food at home. Children grew up leaving sticky fingerprints on it while studying the pictures.

A 'sweet' page of the Book of Healthy and Tasty food. Source: Press Photo

The Book of Healthy and Tasty food is not just a cookbook; it’s a guide to understanding nutritional values of food, working out a meal plan, cooking – including preparing food for people with illnesses – and setting a table. It’s a book that every Soviet family had at home, and one that every kid grew up leaving sticky fingerprints on while studying the pictures.

The goal of the book was to explain to every Soviet woman everything she needed to know about food. According to the introduction, the book was created after homemakers asked for a book to help them understand how to cook the newly available pre-made ingredients to make healthy and tasty dishes for their families.

It’s clear that the authors of the book saw food primarily as a source of nutrition – they explain how food is key to good health, increasing work productivity and a longer life. The authors also say that the aim of the new socialist assembly lines, which produced many of these new ingredients, was to liberate women from the “hard and thankless” work of preparing meals.

I asked my grandmother, Elena Moiseeva, whether she felt “liberated” by the arrival of these new foodstuffs. She laughed and said “yes, as my mom did most of the cooking.” This was a side effect of the living arrangements in the Soviet Union – my grandmother lived in the same apartment as her mother with all their other family members until her mother died at the age of 105. For about 30 years of that time, they shared an apartment – and one kitchen – with six other families.

The book goes on to say that modern working women value their time and don’t want to waste it spending hours at the cook-top or wood-fired stove. They’d rather work, experience culture and spend time with their children. For these reasons, according to the book’s authors, there should be more pre-made, easy-to-cook food; more cafeterias; and more places to pick up prepared foods.

 “There used to be no food in shops,” Elena Moiseeva said. “There were ready-made food departments in restaurants where you could buy something. Each workplace had a cafeteria where the employees had lunch, and some places had a fridge with food that would get distributed among the workers. Towards holidays we could pre-order food, but there wasn’t always enough, and when there wasn’t there would be a lottery -  the lucky ones would end up with grains, red caviar, tea, cookies and salami.  There were ‘distribution points’ in special establishments like KGB or the Central Committee – my husband’s friend worked in the Central Committee and he was able to get him vobla (sun dried fish). We would wonder around shops trying to find anything during work hours – our boss didn’t mind, in fact she said: if you find anything, get some for me,too!”

In the Soviet Union, the purpose of food was to provide Soviet citizens with the nutrition they needed to build a better future, and preferably take as little time as possible to prepare. The enjoyment of food or its preparation was not a priority.

My attitude towards cooking and food (and that of many other young and not-so-young!) Russians today is quite different.

I often choose to spend hours in the kitchen, doing the “hard and thankless” work of preparing a few meals for my family and friends. I do sometimes use canned products, but when I do, I try to hide the empty cans by the time my guests arrive, since I think it is slightly embarrassing. I certainly try to use mostly fresh ingredients and am proud when I spend time making something on my own that I could have bought ready-made. The fact that I don’t have to share my kitchen with six other families no doubt helps.

The first few pages of the book make me hopeful that I will make the meals quickly and will then have time to work, educate myself and spend time with my friends’ children. I can’t say that has been my experience in making traditional Russian food so far, but we will see. I should make a promise to read something educational every time I buy ready-made ingredients. I might end up a lot more educated by the end of this project!

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