March 01, 2006

Kapustnik: More Than Cabbage Pie

The Russian word kapustnik (кап≈устник) has always meant cabbage pie. Yet few non-Russians know that it also has another, non-culinary meaning. In the 19th century, lovers of cabbage pie and witty entertainment decided that the former had something in common with the latter, and they started calling virtually all theatrical parodies or humorous sketches kapustniki.

There is no perfect translation for this culturally-laden term. English has a few similar words – vaudeville, variety, skits or concert parties – but none have either the aftertaste of cabbage or the comedic ingenuity of this thoroughly Russian word. A kapustnik is simply a funny variety show incorporating dance, music, parodies, satires and lyrical literature – a mix of radically different numbers brought together into a many-layered cabbage pie.

Actually, the contemporary meaning of kapustnik is not that far removed from the peasant tradition of communal labor, festivities, and hospitality. As early as the 18th century, a kapustnik or kapustka in Vladimir, Ryazansk, Yaroslavl and other regions referred to harvesting and processing cabbage at the invitation of one’s neighbors (see Cuisine, page 57). When the work was done, everyone sat down to a meal, surely to be followed by singing, fortune telling and skits.

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