August 16, 2013 7:55 pm

The history cook: The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food

How the Soviet Union tried to persuade its people that they were living in a culinary paradise – and failed
Book of Tasty and Healthy Food©Nina Mangalanayagam

The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, by Anastas Ivanovich Mikoian, 1952 edition

Long queues, food shortages and potatoes are what most of us associate with Soviet cooking. But a 1952 edition of a Russian cookery book, The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, tells a different story.

It opens with a double-page spread of a lavishly laid table, replete with caviar, champagne and overflowing fruit bowls: more Liberace than Lenin. Photographs of food production – egg farming, apple harvesting, fruit canning – and recipes for dishes such as aubergine caviar, beef Stroganoff, Russian salad, nut pudding and apple pie are scattered throughout its 400 pages. The overall impression is one of abundance.

In reality, aside from the privileged few, the majority of the Russian population existed on a diet made dull and monotonous by the limited availability of many foods. What was on offer in the book was not an achievable culinary proposition, but a promise of what might be enjoyed once the ideals of communism were realised. It was as much a political as a practical text – and a powerful one at that. The 1952 edition, currently on display at the British Library’s Propaganda exhibition, sold 2.5 million copies.

Written by scientists from the Institute of Nutrition of the Academy of Medical Scientists of the USSR, Tasty and Healthy Food begins with a chapter on the successes of the domestic food industry, followed by “The Foundations of Rational Nutrition”. The rest of the book consists of recipes and advice about etiquette, diet and hygiene, interspersed with information on such new food products as canned sweet corn and ready-made dumplings.

The recipes themselves range from the opulent – sturgeon in jelly, cold piglet with horseradish – to the ordinary: bean soup, cabbage stuffed with meat. A suggested June lunch menu sounds appetising without being extravagant: herring, lamb ragout, rice with milk, stuffed cabbage and apple and plum compote. But the actual availability of food would have made this, and many other meals in the book, virtually impossible to achieve.

Tasty and Healthy Food was the brainchild of Anastas Ivanovich Mikoian. Born in Armenia in 1895, Mikoian survived at the highest levels of power from 1926 to the Brezhnev era, serving as the People’s Commissar of the Food Industry in the 1930s. He travelled widely, including to the US, and became convinced of the need to modernise the way the USSR produced and consumed its food. He introduced “Fish Day” on Thursdays to improve the population’s nutritional intake, built a vast new meat processing industry and popularised ice cream.

By publishing Tasty and Healthy Food, Mikoian combined his passion for food with the communist project. Readers are encouraged to enjoy eating, but food is ultimately serving a larger goal. Eat “with appetite and pleasure”, but with a mind on nutrition because this “is good for health but also your ability to labour and this is the main priority of the Communist Party and Soviet government.”

Book of Tasty and Healthy Food cover©Nina Mangalanayagam

First published in 1939, less than a decade after Stalin’s collective farm system had caused widespread famine, the book marked a change in ideology regarding domestic life. From 1917 to the early 1930s, the communist eating ideal was of collective dining. Communal food systems supposedly had revolutionary benefits: maximising the use of labour and food resources; instilling shared communist values; liberating women from the burden of domestic cooking and thereby bringing them into the workforce.

In practice, however, communal dining was often grim, with limited choice, poor food and bad hygiene. With its cover embossed “To the Soviet Housewife from the People’s Commissariat of the Food Industry”, the book suggested a return to the domestic kitchen, and attempted to reconcile pre-revolutionary dining with communism.

By using recipes from across the USSR, the book also aimed to propagate a culinary narrative about the country. There was caviar from the Far East, fruit from the Crimea, wines from Georgia, Armenian cognac and recipes for kharcho (spicy Georgian soup) and Ukranian halushki (dumplings).

For generations of Russians, Tasty and Healthy Food created a shared culinary communist fantasy. If reality had been closer to that ideal, perhaps the Iron Curtain would still be in place.

Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library, where the “Propaganda: Power and Persuasion” exhibition runs until September 17.

To comment on this article, please email magazineletters@ft.com

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Semolina (gurevskaia kasha)

½ glass sugar

2 glasses milk

½ portion of vanilla

¾ glass semolina

2 tbs butter

2 eggs

50g almond

½ can fruit

Add sugar and the vanilla to hot milk. Add semolina gradually and bring to the boil. Boil for 10 minutes. Then add butter and egg. Mix, then put on a frying pan with butter. Add more sugar and place in the oven. When it is browned, it is ready. Dress with canned fruit, sweet sauce or almond.

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