July 01, 2004

Gastronomic Excess

Gastronomic excess is well documented in travelers’ accounts of Russian life, so it’s not surprising that Russian literature is also filled with scenes of gourmanderie. One of the most memorable features of Chichikov in Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls is his capacity for blini, which he dips three at a time in melted butter. Such immoderation followed naturally from an abundant land with black, rich soil (the famous chernozem of Ukraine). In an autobiographical sketch, the artist Kazimir Malevich, an early practitioner of Futurism in Russia who subsequently founded the abstract Suprematist movement, vividly describes a typical Ukrainian market from his youth: 

Oh, the whole glorious town of Konotop glistened with fat! At the market and at the station, behind long rows of tables, sat women called ‘lard-sellers’ who reeked of garlic. Heaped on the tables were mounds of lard of all different kinds – smoked and unsmoked with a good rind. There were rings of sausage: Cracow-style, stuffed with large chunks of meat and pork fat, blood sausage, and grain sausage with a smell so strong it inflamed a man’s glands. There was ham rimmed with fat, kasha cooked thick with lamb suet and cut into rounds to resemble buns, and country sausage with gristle. The lard-sellers glistened in their greasy clothes, reflecting the rays of the sun. In Konotop, among this Ukrainian fat and garlic, I grew...

Such marvelous abundance can easily slip into grotesquerie. The onetime Futurist poet Benedikt Livshits tells of his 1912 visit to Chernyanka, the estate of the Burlyuk brothers in southern Russia near the Black Sea. There he, David, Nikolai, and Vladimir Burlyuk created the Futurist association “Hylaea.” They were soon joined by Velimir Khlebnikov, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Alexei Kruchenykh, ultimately the greatest poets and theorists of Russian Futurism. Chernyanka’s bounty astounded Livshits. Upon arrival, as he tells it in his memoirs, he found himself an “object for fattening up.” Livshits’s resistance to this “baconization” was overcome by the local veterinarian, who was called in to prescribe “some kind of powders in doses capable of easing not only peristalsis, but quieting once and for all the rumbling of drainpipes.”

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