January 01, 2006

A Soup for the New Year

Yelena Ivanovna Molokhovets was the author of Russia’s most famous cookbook, A Gift to Young Housewives, first published in 1861. Little is known about her life. Born in 1831 into a military family in the far northern city of Arkhangelsk, she received a good education at a school run by the Imperial Educational Society for Noble Girls. With her husband, an architect, she had ten children. He seems to have been an enlightened spouse who was supportive of her writing. Molokhovets’ old age coincided with the turmoil surrounding the 1917 Russian Revolution. She died in St. Petersburg in 1918.

Her cookbook, however, lives on. A Gift to Young Housewives went through 29 editions before being deemed too bourgeois for publication under the Soviet regime. Yet families who had a copy of Molokhovets’ tome continued to treasure it, and by the 1950s the author had become almost a mythical figure — so much so that she was immortalized in a disparaging poem by the poet Arseny Tarkovsky. During the late Soviet years, when faced with food deficits, the joke-loving Russians often quoted Molokhovets’ prescription to go down to the cellar and fetch a joint of meat to serve unexpected guests. Only in the late 1980s, under perestroika, were Molokhovets’ recipes finally reprinted, and a new edition of her book appeared in 1991. 

Until Molokhovets published her book, the only popular cookbooks were those written by Katerina Avdeyeva, who had published four of them between 1842 and 1848. A Gift to Young Housewives differs from Avdeyeva’s volumes in that it goes beyond culinary matters to emphasize domestic life. Molokhovets equates an efficient household with a good family life and makes it clear that the responsibilities of a woman are moral as well as domestic. She guides young housewives through the pitfalls of domestic life, and her sympathetic understanding of the daily dilemmas of kitchen management endeared her to her readers and likely accounted for the enormous popularity of her book. 

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