Arianna Afsari (Russian and Hispanic Studies, ’19)
Gastronomy is one of the most significant qualities that defines culture, for it possesses the power to narrate the history, and even the politics, of those who eat it. Given that nutrition is such an ordinary part of quotidian life, people rarely contemplate the deeper cultural implications that cuisine embodies, nor is much thought given to the politics of food. After conducting some preliminary research about the legacy of Soviet cuisine and the history of the Stalinist cookbook, The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food (1939), I went to St. Petersburg, Russia this past summer to further investigate my topic through interviews with various people in the food industry and everyday cooks at home.
Over the course of my six-week study abroad program organized by the Reves Center at William & Mary, I learned more about people’s personal experiences, memories, and nostalgia for Soviet cuisine, and subsequently, I recognized their understanding of the cookbook and of food as vehicles for promoting and securing Soviet propaganda. The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food was an essential tool for promoting the Soviet Union’s political agenda, and the same politicization of food still persists today in both the private and public spheres of modern day St. Petersburg.
I had the pleasure of taking my knowledge of Russian language to a whole new level by conducting interviews with various people in St. Petersburg. The documentation of these oral histories was paramount to my research as I spoke with a wide range of Russians, including host mothers, restaurant chefs, and even the brand manager of a chain of Soviet cafes. Despite the harsh Soviet reality of breadlines, persistent scarcity, and, at times, starvation, the cookbook still enjoys popularity today among Russians who are nostalgic for the Soviet Union, or at least for the various staple Soviet dishes that defined the era. I emerged from my research with a better understanding of the cultural amnesia that surrounds memories of food during the Soviet era. People have an inevitable tendency to bury unpleasant recollections in favor of happier ones, and consequently romanticize a past that was much harsher than the rose-colored version of it they wish to remember. At the end of my research I also concluded that food is more than simple alimentation; it is culture, politics, and identity.