June 13, 2000

Role of Women in Russian Cooking


Role of Women in Russian Cooking

In Russian folk tradition, the humble stove was considered to be feminine. This was because of the baking of bread, essential to Russian life, that took place in the stove; exclusively by women. The stove provides both warmth and food. These are common traits associated with a woman; wife and mother.

As early as the 1700's, in St. Petersburg, there were eating establishments known as kharchevye. These were humble eateries frequented by the peasant class. Roughly translated into English, kharchevye means grub. These unremarkable restaurants were scattered throughout the city and usually located on ground floors or basement in residential areas. Roughly 75% of the kharchevye were owned by peasants who rented building space for their business. About one-third of these building owners were women and 80% of them widows. The kharchevye served only food, no drink. Women building owners rented out space for the kharchevye as a means of acquiring respectable income. There were few opportunities for this in eighteenth century Russia.

In the mid to late nineteenth century, there was a movement towards vegetarianism. Orthodox Russians were already part-time vegetarians. The Church has roughly 180 days a year designated as days of fasting. This meant abstinence from meat was required roughly half of the year. Based on this alone, cook books rich with various meatless dishes and meals is not surprising. One of the most popular was Elena Molokhovets' A Gift to Young Housewives. The recipes are divided between feast-day (with meat) and fast-day (meatless) menus. Elena went one step further to add a section called The Vegetarian Table which caters to a growing part of Russian society which saw vegetarianism as a more healthy and moral diet.

Possibly the most extreme example of vegetarian persuasion was Natalia Borisovna Nordman-Severova (1863-1914). She was an outspoken advocate for the liberation of the housewife from the kitchen and the abolition of hunger. Vegetarianism was the cornerstone of her message. More than enough produce could be grown to feed the masses, if the land was not take up by grazing herds of livestock. Likewise, vegetarian meals were much easier and less time consuming to prepare. Natalia went beyond the general understanding of a meatless diet to exclude all dairy products. She, herself, eventually ate only raw foods and, in her most extreme phase, ate only grass and hay.

The Bolsheviks waged war on both the privately owned kharchevye and women's labor in the kitchen. The first was based on the need for a more fair distribution of food to all. The second campaign was in the name of emancipation of women. Thus, the communal kitchen, or state run cafeteria, came into being. This system was intended to insure everyone got their share of available food and liberated housewives from their kitchen chores. The Bolsheviks went so far as to state that the family, the household, was merely a means by which women were oppressed. Cooking was not the only domestic duty to fall to the communal system. Communal nurseries and laundries, also, relieved women of the burdens of domesticity.

As time passed, the idealistic communal kitchen failed to provide adequate meals for the public. Shortages and insufficient deliveries from the cooperatives forced many housewives to fall back on old resources; namely the peasant market and the garden plot. Another development that drew women back to the family kitchen was the success of Soviet industry. The perfecting of canning equipment, availability of sugar, etc., encouraged housewives to perfect the art of home canning. One other event was the successful education of Soviet women in the areas of personal hygiene and nutrition; especially as it was related to expectant mothers and children. Once again, the focus was brought back to the housewife and the very domestic duty of the proper nurturing of the children.

A popular woman's magazine of the early Soviet era was Rabotnitsa. Initially designed to enlighten the new working Soviet woman, it soon turned into a domestic resource of tips on housekeeping, cooking and sample recipes. Soviet woman had begun to see the communal kitchen as a direct threat to the family and the institution of marriage.

The recipes and menus, offered in Rabotnitsa, were designed to help the housewife and mother prepare healthy meals for her family, in such a manner as to raise the family's spirits. The foods suggested were, for the most part, in short supply and required extensive preparation. This only added to the burden of the modern working woman. For example, a child's diet was to include milk, eggs, fresh fruit and vegetables. Menus for adults included homemade sausage, roast pig, cakes, pudding and appetizers.

Getting back to the communal kitchen, which raises the question of , who was doing the cooking here? Ironically, the same women the communal system was supposed to be liberating from the oppression of the kitchen! Instead of cooking, doing dishes and washing laundry for just her family, she was now doing it on a mass scale. Pay for these jobs was pathetic and, in a majority of cases, she could not afford the price of the very communal services she was an employee of. So, after a long day of work, she was still faced with her own family's cooking, cleaning and laundry, when she got home. So much for emancipation.

Today, the wonderful, hearty and traditional recipes and meals of the Russian table can be attributed to the efforts of Russian women to provide sustenance and nurturing to their families. As in many European cultures, so to in Russia, the kitchen and the meals, warmth and love provided there, is the true center of the home. International Women's Day is a holiday set aside to honor, congratulate and show appreciation and affection for the contributions of women to their country, home and families.

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