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To Russia With Love

Cookbook author Darra Goldstein gets to the heart of Russian cuisine

Leah Koenig
February 10, 2020
Courtesy Penguin Random House
From 'Beyond the North Wind'Courtesy Penguin Random House
Courtesy Penguin Random House
From 'Beyond the North Wind'Courtesy Penguin Random House

When Darra Goldstein was a doctoral student at Stanford in the 1970s, her advisers dissuaded her from writing her dissertation on food in Russian literature. In their estimation, the topic was not serious enough for academia. Thank goodness their critiques did not dampen her interest—or spirit. Since then, Goldstein, now a professor emerita of Russian at Williams College, has authored six cookbooks and become a leading scholar of Russian language and culture.

Her latest book, Beyond the North Wind: Russia in Recipes and Lore, out this month, is quite serious in its exploration of Russians’ deeply held ties to the land and its bounty. But the book is simultaneously lovely, and warm, and eminently cookable. It is filled with tales from Goldstein’s own travels to Russia over the past three and a half decades—about a secret outdoor picnic held during the depths of winter, or a skillet of buttery fried potatoes prepared by a cardiovascular surgeon in a homely communal kitchen. Goldstein also peppers the book with historical essays covering everything from the central importance of the samovar and birch trees to Russian life, to the abundant zakuski, or “little bites”—caviar and smoked whitefish, pickled mushrooms and pumpernickel triangles—that serve as a prelude to Russian meals.

Goldstein’s recipes introduce readers to potentially less familiar (to American audiences) delights like sea buckthorn, a tart, sunset-colored berry that Russians juice and drink as a tonic. “I’m obsessed with them,” Goldstein told me. Meanwhile, the book charms with delightfully recognizable dishes like mashed potatoes and parsley root, and sour cream honey cake.

Beyond the North Wind is not focused on Jewish cuisine; Goldstein typically writes about Russia more broadly, not through the prism of Jewish experience. And yet, people who love Ashkenazi food will find plenty in the book’s pages—kasha, stuffed cabbage, half sour dill pickles, and rye bread, to name a few dishes—that feels deeply familiar. Recently, Goldstein spent some time telling me about her lifelong love affair with Russian culture.

I love the story in your introduction about finding a painted wooden cup in your parents’ closet when you were a child, and how this simple object sparked a curiosity about your family’s Russian heritage. What was it about the cup that captured your imagination?

Darra Goldstein (Photo: Barry Goldstein)
Darra Goldstein (Photo: Barry Goldstein)

It is partly because I was quite close to my maternal grandmother. She came from Belarus—she actually grew up with Marc Chagall in the same shtetl. Her family came to America for the same reason so many others did: because life was hard. When I was growing up, there wasn’t really a word spoken about their life before. I knew my grandmother spoke with a Yiddish accent, but that was about it. Seeing that cup somehow encapsulated all of my ideas of what that place had been for her. Of course, when I later found out that the cup had actually been made in the USSR [which formed after my grandmother’s family left Belarus], that whole dream shattered.

But thankfully your curiosity remained.

When I started studying Russian, and especially when I decided to go to the Soviet Union, my grandmother was really upset. She had come to this country and struggled. And then her daughter, my mother, went to college and had this nice life. I could have been anything in the world, so to go back to the old country—she was just horrified. And when my parents came to visit me, on one of the trips my mother was in this deep state of anxiety the entire time that something would happen or she wouldn’t be able to get out. So even if I didn’t have conscious knowledge about my family’s experience, there was some emotional trauma that got transmitted.

You write about the countryside as Russia’s metaphorical heart. Can you elaborate on that from a culinary perspective?

In the United States we have words like motherland and fatherland, but we don’t really use them. There isn’t the same concept of the land as something that has given birth to us and which nurtures us. For Russians, it is not just a figure of speech—the words for land and soil are both feminine. The connection to the land is embedded in the language. Even Russians who live in massive cities like Moscow go to visit the countryside on suburban trains that take you there. They need that groundedness. They need to plant potatoes—particularly the older generation—to make sure they get through the winter. It is more psychological than anything. But it isn’t just going out into the environment to forage or plant. For them nature isn’t something you insert yourself into. It is more integral than that.

What does this book do that makes it distinct from your other cookbooks?

I wanted to immerse myself in the Russian land and remember and reflect on what it gave to people. This is a place with a short growing season and long winter, but there are absolute riches in the waters. There are mushrooms and berries with flavors we can’t even begin to imagine because ours don’t get that same midnight sun. I wanted to go back to elemental foods and connect with the land.

What is something you took away from the research for this book, which I know spans many years of scholarship, visits to Russia, and interactions with people there?

There is a willingness of the people there to take risks for hospitality, and to share what they have—even if it’s minimal. They know how to have a gathering around the table and a sense of joyousness even when things are bleak. Americans have a hard time spending time with friends like this because we are workaholics. But we could learn something from that culture of commensality.

Where did the recipes come from?

A lot of them are things I’ve tasted over the years, so they aren’t tied to one person. And the ones that are, I give credit to the source—like the grated apple cake recipe from my friend Sasha. It is really easy to make, but crazy because there is no liquid batter. Instead, the dry ingredients, which include farina—we call it Cream of Wheat—are layered with grated apples, which soften everything as the cake bakes. Russians make a bunch of apple cakes, but I chose this one because it was so different.

There are so many dishes in the book that cross over into the American understanding of “Jewish” cuisine because Jewish people brought them here. In your research, have you come across any contributions that Jewish communities made to the larger Russian cuisine?

I so wanted to make that discovery. But honestly, it wasn’t there—or I haven’t found it yet. There are a few dishes that the Russians took from Jewish communities, like a jellied carp dish that is identified as “Jewish style.” And the Jewish community did tend to have a more sweet-and-sour palate, which distinguished it from the Russian one. The Russians love both sweet and sour, but don’t tend to mix them in the same way. Their savory food tends more toward straight piquant and burning.

Did you eat Russian or Jewish foods with your family growing up?

We had it every week on Shabbat: sweet-and-sour meatballs, stuffed cabbage, some kind of pot roast. In my first cookbook I talk about a beef stew my grandmother made that had horseradish. And rugelach. That is what I primarily associate with her. It was Ashkenazi food with a Russian connection.

You do not explicitly write about Jewish food, but because of the crossovers between Russian and Jewish cooking, you often get pulled into discussions about Ashkenazi cuisine. How do you feel about it?

I’m so Jewish all of a sudden! It is astonishing and feels like I have come full circle. … I was bat mitzvahed and was a true believer for many years, until I wasn’t. We brought up our daughter Jewish even though my husband is a lapsed Catholic, and it is culturally a big part of my life. But to be working with Jewish food is emotionally really meaningful to me. Because I didn’t go seeking it—it kind of overcame me.

The Recipe

Sasha’s Grated Apple Cake

Sasha’s Grated Apple Cake