Russia: knife, fork, and ladle

The Romanovs, Lenin, Gagarin – they all had their cooks.

Holodomor, Leningrad, Chernobyl, Afghanistan – sometimes there is nothing (safe) to cook at all.

For some people, like the Tatars, cooking is all you have left of home.

Others, like the Georgians, are proud of living in “the piece of Paradise God was going to keep.” And of their gardens and vines. They say Stalin only drank wine from home.

As far as Russian imperial power extends, the kitchen is where people sit and tell their stories. Witold Szabłowski’s Rosja od kuchni is a view of Russia from the kitchen. The cooks are who the workers, the soldiers, come to talk to. A cook can be a surrogate mum. But not all of them are. Some had Kremlin careers. Did Putin’s grandad really cook for Lenin and Stalin?

How much people know and how much they prepared to say to a foreign writer, are two different things. Szabłowski winkles the truth out of them in the best reportage tradition. (He’s won the Polish Press Agency’s Ryszard Kapuściński Award and the European Parliament Journalism Prize, to name just two.) He tells the story of world leaders – the Romanovs’ diet changed as the Revolution progressed, and on her visit to Moscow, Thatcher wolfed down the blinis. But the bits I loved were like Alexievich. That polyphony of ordinary people narrating their lives, together telling the big history. The subtitle of the book is “how to build an empire with a knife, fork and ladle.” The ladle is most interesting.

Reading these stories now, the voices of the Ukrainians resonated. Ukrainians remember the Holodomor with popup restaurants. serving what people could eat then. During the coronavirus pandemic, they moved this annual online. The menu is still up in English. What will they do next year? Szabłowski will be one of the first to know. He is very active on social media, updating on the situation in Ukraine.

Antonia Lloyd-Jones is translating this book into English, so if you don’t read Polish, you won’t have too long to wait. If you want a taste of the story right now, start with her translation of his earlier book, How to Feed a Dictator.

I read Rosja od Kuchni with the ITI Polish Network book club. If you do read Polish, and translate into or out of it, join us. In our discussion, we decided we would not want to cook the recipes at the end of each chapter. But each of us found a different way into the book, which made our whole reading experience much richer.

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