What is Darra Goldstein’s latest book, The Kingdom of Rye: A Brief History of Russian Food, about? The simplest answer is bread. And Salt. Saltness. Rye Bread and Saltness (Khleb da sol’).
The concept of using bread and salt to communicate hospitality is so important that even under the most severe circumstances, such as famines, during which the only ingredients available were chaff, sawdust, cellulose, tree bark, acorns and maybe a little actual rye, these ingredients were made into bread.
This is not simply some ancient ritual. In 1975, when Americans and Russians jointly ventured into space, salt tablets and crackers were used in the actual spaceship of the Apollo-Soyuz mission to express hospitality and hopes for success.
A narrative history of food in Russia (and Russian food), The Kingdom of Rye is a compendium of sorts to Goldstein’s previously published cookbook Beyond the North Wind. Despite outside influences that during periods of nationalist rallying were often denounced as not “our food,” Russian cuisine developed over hundreds of years based on a small number of ingredients coaxed from a harsh environment, and these foods came to define national identity. According to Goldstein, Russian cuisine is characterized by
- the sour taste of fermented foods, found in pickles, brined fruits, rye bread, kvass, and cultured dairy products like sour cream
- the earthy flavors of wild mushrooms and buckwheat groats
- the zesty bite of horseradish and mustard
- soups soured with kvass and pickle brine
- the tart tang of Antonov apples and sea buckthorn
- the sweetness of honey and milk baked to caramelized sweetness
There’s so much in the book about how food was grown, made, procured, and eaten that any culinary enthusiast will want to try making at least a few of the dishes mentioned. Some are actually meticulously described, including how and why the beloved Russian rye bread was sliced in a certain manner – as on the cover of the book itself.
In fact, the title of the book comes from an expression translated from the Russian that means “the tsardom of rye,” but I think we can all agree that The Kingdom of Rye better suits the English language. Rye was sacred, a bountiful crop that could subsume memories of eating famine foods. A small piece of bread represented both talisman and community. And it very often was the difference between life and death.
The Russian kingdom of rye was one in which “begging for crusts” was a ritualized practice, something well known to serfs who could easily starve to death if their supplies ran out.
But the book is also about fermentation and the beloved tang of sourdough and fermented cabbage and beets and kvass, made from stale rye bread. As Goldstein notes, the Russian expression for “living hand to mouth” – as most people have lived throughout history – is living “from bread to kvass.”
This book is a trail of bread crumbs left over hundreds of years by writers and workers and peasants and the landed gentry and soldiers, reminding us that food and comfort and freedom are often controlled substances, often weaponized, or used as a beadle for religious compliance, or manipulated to encourage or enforce a state mandate or a politician’s ambitions.
The first thing I look at is the index of a book. Other than hospitality, the most indexed topic is food insecurity and famines, something Russia has a long history of confronting. Woefully, not all of the starvation periods during Russian history were the result of nature, or anything that a devout believer could be convinced was the result of divine retribution.
As Goldstein notes, famines and starvation are frequently the results of “cynical political determinations.” Such decisions are immediately relevant today, as Russia destroys farms and ravages farmlands, steals grain, and destroys the equipment and Ukraine’s capacity to grow more, thus potentially starving millions of people around the world.
Putin has done this before. Very recently, in fact, when hundreds of thousands of tons of food imported from Western countries and the EU were destroyed in mobile crematoria in response to the rage against sanctions imposed after Russia invaded and annexed Crimea.
But, these bread crumbs also lead to a very special kind of place where “kitchen dissidence” occurs: “The kitchen table defied the constraints of a life defined by scarcity, as abundant vodka and food invariably appeared on the table. Friends crowded in, sitting on stools and laps, often with a dozen adults and children crammed into only five or six square meters. The impromptu meals of hearty black bread, tins of canned fish, and home-salted mushrooms pulled from the stash under the bed, accompanied as they were by a lively exchange of ideas, represented an undeniable triumph over diversity, a genuine, loving communality.”
Goldstein claims that The Kingdom of Rye is an historical and ethnographic addendum to Beyond the North Wind.
It’s also a review of Russian literature that includes lush, evocative details about specific foods. As Goldstein states: “Writing about food calls for an appreciation of food’s sensory qualities, whether it’s the heady fragrance of Antonov apples in autumn or the visceral smell of pig’s feet simmering into the meat aspic called studen’. What equivalences are there between an aristocratic table, laden with flowers and shimmering with candles à la russe, and a peasant family’s rough board, upon which a communal pot of wild mushroom and barley soup has been set? Where but in Russian literature can you find that nineteenth-century prototype, the superfluous man, bemoaning the emptiness of life even as he reaches for another piece of pie as if for the embodiment of truth? And who is to say that the superfluous man isn’t right to find truth materialized in sensory delight? This domestic history of Russian food offers a look into people’s daily lives, to serve up a history that originates from the wooden spoon rather than from the scepter.“
Every word in this book is relevant to the situations we face worldwide in regard to sustainability, famine, food justice, foraging, self-determination, ingenuity, the weaponization of food, religion, politics, and what Goldstein describes as the most crucial attribute of culinary identity: “..and, perhaps above all, [food’s] cultural resonance and the emotional value of traditional flavors, how people know who they are by what they eat together.“
Goldstein isn’t a stranger to receiving awards for her cookbooks. This one, however, deserves a Pulitzer. There has never been a book like it – an ethnographic treatise on the history of a people as told through their food and the techniques they devised to feed themselves through centuries of victory, defeat, the miseries inflicted by the state or by nature, and the sheer joy of eating. After reading the book, you will not look at bread, grains, pickles, mushrooms, pies, restaurants or politics the way you did before.
This book leads through the forest of history to a place, where we can hopefully all taste food and taste freedom.
It’s a generous invitation to learn from the past, using food as a universal language.
We all eat. History is filled with stories of those involved in violent conflicts or centuries-long animosity coming together by sharing bread or recognizing that it’s a universal need. A source of survival. And of national identity. And always a bargaining chip that should not be used to starve or blackmail.
But will we ever learn from history? Will we ever accord food security and equity the same status as political power? Will we ever learn to quickly and rapidly deal with tyrants and bullies who would gladly let grain and other food rot to advance their control over others? This is not exclusively a Russian tactic of waging war.
Hopefully, by communicating the importance of sharing food and drink, this book will encourage everyone to stop the use of food as a weapon in Ukraine, and in every other country around the world. This book is indeed a culinary ethnography, but for anyone that has ever felt love, hope, gratitude, and belonging when eating, when sharing food, when tasting home. The world desperately needs this book right now.
Full length interviews with Darra Goldstein on both of her books, Beyond the North Wind and The Kingdom of Rye, is available in our Ferments and Cultures library for members.