A much celebrated author and food scholar, Darra Goldstein has devoted her career to interpreting Russian culture, and presents a new look into how Russian cuisine has developed in response to economic hardship and political oppression. Her newest book, The Kingdom of Rye, takes readers on a vivid tour of history and culture through Russian cuisine. This concise and engaging story demonstrates how national identity is revealed through food—and how people know who they are by what they eat together.

With the ongoing, horrific Russian invasion of Ukraine, The Kingdom of Rye offers readers context on the culture, history, and politics of Russia. As Darra explains:

The Kingdom of Rye: A Brief History of Russian Food represents forty years of my thinking about Russian culture, cuisine, and national identity. I explore how Russians, mainly through peasant ingenuity, created a rich culinary culture, despite struggling with hunger, a difficult climate, and a history of political hardship. While the ongoing atrocities in Ukraine make it impossible for me to feel jubilant at this moment of publication, this book offers valuable insights into Russian society.”

Darra Goldstein joined Editor Kate Marshall to discuss how she became interested in Russian food, and what the book reveals about Russian national identity.

You are an esteemed Russian literary scholar, the founding editor of Gastronomica, and a cookbook author. Can you tell us a little about how you became interested in Russian literature and at what point in your career your intellectual interests merged with your passion for food? 

I had always loved studying foreign languages—in high school I took German, French, and Spanish. When I started college I decided to add Russian. In those days language learning wasn’t proficiency based. We were taught grammar before being gradually introduced to literature. Two of the first Russian authors I read were Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov. My language skills were still weak, and I didn’t understand everything I read at the time. But, as I wrote in the preface to The Kingdom of Rye, when I happened upon a passage describing food, the words somehow magically opened up to me. I became captivated by the degree to which food appeared in Russian literature, and when I entered grad school at Stanford, I announced my intention to make the topic of my dissertation. After all, what and how people ate in the novels and stories I read communicated a great deal about their character. Even more important, food illuminated class and gender issues, religious and domestic practices, and political calculations.

Unfortunately my professors didn’t consider food worthy of study and wouldn’t support my plan. I ended up researching the poetry of the modernist poet Nikolai Zabolotsky, which I don’t regret. But as I studied for my comprehensive exams, I squirreled away notes on all the food that had been mentioned in Russian literature over the course of two hundred years. That research became the basis of my first cookbook, A la Russe: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality, which was published in 1983.

The Kingdom of Rye details a food culture born from hardship and scarcity. We also learn how fermentation, salting, and curing foods help extend harvests through long winters. Today, it’s not uncommon to see fermented or cultured food on menus at hip restaurants. Why do you think these traditional cooking methods are in vogue?

Author’s photo of kulebiaka.

In the US, the trendiness of fermented and cured foods has largely to do with their health benefits—besides being full of antioxidants and having anti-inflammatory power, they’ve been proven to restore gut health. People also like the DIY aspect of making many of these foods at home, and it’s hard to resist the pungent tang of many fermented foods. In the past, of course, Russian peasants knew nothing about the probiotics we tout today. They simply knew that to feel strong and healthy, they needed their black bread (from fermented sourdough) and kvass, a lightly fermented drink made from stale black bread. Not to mention their lacto-fermented cucumbers and cabbage, and their sour cream and prostokvasha, a yogurt-like dairy product made by souring milk.

Do you have favorite Russian dishes that you make at home? 

Yes! It all depends on how much time I have. One of my go-to recipes for a quick breakfast or supper is for the farmer’s cheese pancakes known as syrniki. Served with a dollop of sour cream and some raspberry or blueberry jam, they’re divine. When I don’t have time to salt cucumbers the traditional way, I often make quick pickles with garlic, dill, and a splash of vodka. They take only 20 minutes and taste pretty close to the real thing. If I have more leisure, I like to make kulebiaka, a classic layered fish pie that Chekhov described as “appetizing, shameless in its nakedness, a temptation to sin.” I often make medovik, a multilayered honey cake filled with whipped sour cream. And I always keep a bottle of horseradish-infused vodka in the freezer.

You have spoken on social media about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As someone who has spent four decades working in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe, what do you want people to understand about the current crisis?

Horrific, heartbreaking, devastating—these are some of the first words that come to mind, and I struggle daily to reconcile what is valuable and beautiful about Russian culture with what Putin has done. His blockade of grain exports from Ukraine immediately brings to mind Stalin’s tactics during the campaign for collectivization in the early 1930s, when grain was seized from even the poorest farmers. Rather than being distributed, it was left to rot, resulting in the Holodomor, one of the greatest man-made famines in history, during which millions of Ukrainians died or were forcibly deported from their land. Now that history is being repeated; this time the famine threatens to affect people worldwide.

The war is destroying Ukraine. Though there are fewer news reports about the domestic situation in Russia, it’s fair to say that the war has already destroyed that country, too—if not physically, then morally. It will be impossible to speak or write positively about Russia for generations to come. And although the media emphasizes how many Russians support the war, we rarely hear about are those who are taking great risks to oppose it. Even those Russians who are not activists have been cast into an isolation that, as one friend put it, “has thrown us back into the Middle Ages.” I despair of any positive outcome. Yet, despite the monstrosity of Putin’s actions, I hope people will be able to see nuance and not cancel Russia entirely. As I recently wrote in an essay for The Brooklyn Rail: “’Russia’ and ‘Russian’ hold intrinsic meanings that carry the weight of centuries, evoking rich history and culture as well as manifold instances of evil and cruelty. These words and their associations belong to our collective legacy, as well as our reality. Remembering them represents what Putin wants to obliterate, which is not just beauty but truth.”