January 01, 2005

Tolstoy's Table

As cold weather sets in, we invariably turn to hearty and warming foods. Nowhere is this truer than in Russia, where even a simple glass of freshly brewed tea does wonders to warm both body and soul. It’s a little more time-consuming to make the best foods of winter, when there are no garden-fresh vegetables to toss in a salad or steak to throw on a grill. Slow cooking is needed to coax the flavor from gnarly root vegetables and to tenderize tougher cuts of meat. But if we think we’re pressed for time in our modern lives, we might consider what the cold season was like for Lev Tolstoy’s wife, Sofia, who had to oversee a household of thirteen children in addition to her cantankerous, vegetarian husband. 

Each day, Sofia worked hard to compose nourishing menus. The Tolstoys’ cook, Nikolai Rumyantsev, had formerly been a flutist in Prince Nikolai Volkonsky’s serf orchestra, but when he lost his teeth to decay, he was unable to continue playing, and the Tolstoys took him into their employ as a cook. At first, Nikolai was a disaster in the kitchen. From Sofia’s diary entries, we know that his initial cooking efforts were less than successful (his beignets were as tough as the soles of shoes). But eventually he proved as talented in the kitchen as in the orchestra, making beignets so light that the family dubbed them “Nikolai’s Sighs.” This name was not just metaphorical – as the battercakes swelled on the griddle, Nikolai would blow air into the corners to puff them up even farther, then quickly fill them with jam.

The Tolstoys kept to a strict routine, with lunch served at one o’clock for everyone except the master himself, who arrived just before the table was cleared at two or two-thirty. At lunchtime, the children were spared their father’s rigid meal, which each day consisted only of oatmeal and a small pot of prostokvasha, a soured-milk product like yogurt. Dinner was served promptly at six, with two servants presiding. Their presence troubled Tolstoy to no end, but he apparently yielded to his wife on this point. At dinner, the entire family enjoyed four courses of vegetarian foods, followed by coffee. Evening tea was much more informal. The family gathered in the parlor to enjoy cookies, jam, honey, and tea from a steaming samovar.

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