Darra Goldstein is the Willcox B. and Harriet M. Adsit professor of Russian at Williams College. She is the founding editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, as well as the editor-in-chief of Cured, a magazine on the art and science of fermentation. She has published prolifically on literature, culture, art and cuisine, including five cookbooks. Among them are “A Taste of Russia,” “The Winter Vegetarian” and most recently “Fire + Ice: Classic Nordic Cooking,” (with a new Russian cookbook in the works). Goldstein is well known for refusing to shy away from the “dark side” of food; cover photos from her magazines have included a cured pork leg wearing a stiletto heel, a worm-eaten rolling pin and a human skull covered in sprinkles. Finally, it cannot go without mention that Goldstein was the national spokesperson for Stolichnaya vodka when it was first introduced to the U.S. We met to discuss her life, work and the theme of her Monday talk at the Yale Farm: “Russian Food and National Identity.”
SS: I’d like to start by asking you about your childhood, and the influence that your parents and grandmother had on your cooking and identity.
DG: It’s a loaded question, because if you read the dust jacket to the original edition of “A Taste of Russia”, they were promoting it and said “she learned these dishes at her grandmother’s knee.” But the thing is, she was a Russian Jew … and you know there’s a divide between the lives of Russians and the lives of Jews in Russia. So that was partly a spin to promote the book.
But my grandmother cooked a lot of dishes which I think are shared between Russians and Jews who were living on Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian territory. And I always, for whatever reason, was drawn to the kitchen.
SS: You studied Russian as an undergraduate?
DG: Yes, I studied at Vassar.
SS: Why Russian?
DG: I loved languages, and because my grandmother would not say anything about life in Russia, I was very curious …
And what happened, that first semester: I had this amazing professor, who was of the old Russian aristocracy, so he still spoke in old, elegant ways. It wasn’t the rhythms of Soviet speech, and halfway through the semester his wife died, which was enormously sad. But there was something about the way he experienced grief that communicated itself to me. I don’t know how many other students felt the power of that, but his presence in the classroom — his emotional presence, I think, even more than the language itself — is what pulled me into it.
SS: This evening you’re speaking on the theme of food and Russian national identity. Let me play devil’s advocate: many people would say that food is something that should transcend the political, that doesn’t get bogged down in all this controversial stuff; what would you say in response?
DG: Well, I’d say that it’s a beautifully utopian idea. I would like to believe it too … I worked on a project with the Council of Europe about a decade ago. We met to discuss ways in which food could be used to promote tolerance and diversity — in the end I think we had 40 countries participating. Each country wrote an essay about their identity through the lens of food, and it was the most amazing project! But Azerbaijan put in a formal protest because Armenia got more pages than it did, and they claimed that Armenia had stolen what was the core Azerbaijani cuisine. And yes, food and sharing is something that allows you to transcend, but it is also something that goes so deeply to the heart of who we are, whether it’s a religious or an ethnic group — and don’t get me started on Israel or Palestine, and all the questions of hummus and falafel …
SS: Yes, sharing and hospitality — which is of course incredibly important in Russia. That’s the case in many countries, not just Eastern Europe, though I’d say Eastern Europe is famous for it.
DG: I’d say many Middle Eastern cultures are too.
SS: But in America we seem to, especially lately, have some trouble with hospitality. Of course, there are places in the South —
DG: Yes, “Southern hospitality” —
SS: — though it’s always a little bit qualified, because there are still in-and-out groups. It makes me wonder. You know, we’ve inherited much of the Greek tradition, at least intellectually, but somehow America failed to inherit that hospitality. Have you given any thought to that?
DG: I have, and I’ll make a pronouncement, and I don’t know how valid it is, but there are two things at play. One is that the first outside settlers to this country came from literally a puritanical background. They were met, for the most part, with great hospitality on the part of the Native Americans living here, but their own was an ascetic way of life, about not surrounding yourself with luxury, about restraining urges. I think it’s not to say that you can’t be hospitable, but that urge to share and be lavish — I don’t think it’s part of the whole founding father mythology here.
The other thing is that, just from my own experience, in my travels around the world, the less people have the more generous they are. And I would say that for at least the first 100 years of American history (because America had abundance, and there was a lot of food available for most people, if not all) that simple act of sharing — there wasn’t as much of an imperative for it. I mean I think of the Russian peasants in the 19th century, who, when the harvest failed, would go around; it was called begging for crusts, and they always shared, even when they had nothing, because they knew they could easily be in the position of [the person who was] starving.
SS: And then coming out of that heritage, you go directly into the Soviet era, which in many ways is characterized by the state’s relationship to food. How has the Russian attitude toward hospitality shifted between the Soviet era and the post-Soviet era we’re living in now?
DG: Well, in the Soviet days there wasn’t food in the stores … but there were — I don’t know if you know about the magical tablecloth of Russian fairy tales? It was always laid — and I understand that part of that was because I was a guest, and I was being honored. But food could be had. It was a barter system, it was black market, people used their wiles. And in the post-Soviet period, it’s a very different thing; globalization writ large, food from all over the world coming into at least the major cities. Coming from Williamstown, where you know we don’t even have a grocery store, and I keep thinking, “if only I were in Moscow” … I mean, it’s a complete reversal of what it was, for people who can afford to buy it. The problem now is that instead of this leveling which you found in the Soviet years, there are desperately poor people there now.
What I’m interested in is the way in which the sanctions that were imposed in 2014 jumpstarted artisanal revival of Old Russian food ways.
SS: Yes, when I was there last year I stayed with my grandparents, and they said “the sanctions are actually useful for us because they’re reviving the local food market.”
DG: It’s real! You know, for years I had been teaching about the “moskovskii kalach,” that I had read about … it was supposed to be this exquisite bread — have you been to Lavkalavka in Moscow? Well, [the owner] is working with old babushki and farmers and doing a lot of historical research and recreating these foods, and I went, and there on the table was the “kalach”!
Of course it wasn’t authentic, because the flour is different now, and the water’s different, but still, it was that classical purse shape, and I felt as if I’d tasted Russia — well, not for the first time — but I’d tasted Muscovy. Let’s put it that way. And the pastilla that he makes is beyond belief. It is just ethereal, melting in your mouth. I’ve never tasted anything like it.
It’s really exciting. I’m going for a month this summer, because I just signed a contract for a new Russian cookbook, if you can believe that, in this era!
SS: I’m interested in how that one will differ from your first book.
DG: It’ll be completely different! I started thinking about, you know, my Russian cookbook I wrote when I was quite young, and it was about Soviet life, and then nostalgically looking at pre-revolutionary Russian food, which was really French haute cuisine. Many of the dishes weren’t deeply Russian, and what’s happening now is going to the essence of what, for me, Russian food is all about! So it’s all of the ferments, and the pickles, the salted things, the whole grains, the mushrooms; everything that is very simple and essential, so it will be a completely different book.
SS: Since your first book you’ve become interested in the dark side of food, as seen in Gastronomica or in Cure. The pleasure, the materiality of it, of course, but also the other dark sides of exploitation —
DG: Yes, the labor. I mean, can you eat a chocolate bar without feeling guilty?
SS: And is part of your goal to try to overcome this dark side?
DG: You know, it’s a really interesting question, but I think what I want to say is that one of the reasons that there are health issues in the United States is that we, as a society — I mean, this is a broad over-generalization — but every bite we take is fraught. “You’re eating too much, this doesn’t have enough antioxidants, this has too many calories, this isn’t fair trade” — you can’t really eat anything without feeling terrible about something. I think it’s extraordinarily important to have an awareness of all of the underlying issues; you have to know them. But I think you have to get beyond them to allow for pleasure — pure pleasure. And I think what’s missing from all the “foodieism” in the United States — it’s somehow also at the same time hooked to that puritanical streak, and the whole idea of just something really truly delicious that you can sit down and enjoy is key to living a good life.
SS: If you could tell the Yale College student one thing that he or she should be able to make in the dorm — what would you have them pickle on their windowsill?
DG: Well, you know what you can do? And I had this going with my roommate when I was in college … it’s called “tutti frutti.” You take some fruits, for example fresh peaches (stone fruits are really nice), and you cover them with brandy, so they macerate in the brandy, and you can take it out whenever you want some fruit, (because if you have it covered it’s not going to turn moldy), and you can have a nip at night if you’ve had a stressful day in class — I don’t know if you’re allowed to have alcohol here, maybe I shouldn’t be saying this — but you could put the fruit over ice cream, and then you just keep constantly filling it, so it becomes in itself like a sourdough starter, it’s always continuing …
SS: What would you want your last meal to be?
DG: If there was just one last taste to have in my mouth, or a combination of tastes, it would be a beautiful loaf of bread with some sweet cream butter and just a little fleur de sel (salt) on it. It would be a peasant loaf, I don’t think it would be rye, but it would have some whole wheat in it, for more depth of flavor. That simple. And a glass of really good red wine, without which I cannot live.