Today’s episode of 99% Invisible is a worthy listen; it features a cookbook, and its role in Soviet cuisine: The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food.
And it’s fascinating.
I’ve always thought of changes in cuisine as more of evolutions, something that happens slowly – spices going in and out of vogue, the gradual adoption of foods that were once new and freaky into something essential. At some point, there were no tomatoes in Italy; now it’s impossible to imagine Italian food without them.
This is the story of a different kind of food change; an engineered one, in which Josef Stalin sought to bring the Soviet Union together under a new and different cuisine…and sent an aggressive micromanager over to America to learn the ways of mass production. He came back with lots of ideas – and an accompanying problem: How do you teach people to eat all this new food?
Well, you make them a cookbook, for a start. And the resulting volume is apparently something of a nostalgic staple…though of course the reality of Soviet life may not have resembled what was in all those fancy food pictures all that closely.
If any of that sounds even vaguely interesting, go and give the episode a listen. If you’re craving more afterward, check out this article from the Guardian for some pictures, as well as a history of the book across various editions.
…Maybe it’s the photos, but I’m thinking about those cookbooks from the 70s with their Jello desserts and their Ambrosia salads and whatnot. Perhaps people have been teaching folks how to eat various foods by using cookbooks everywhere, longer than I think.
The Moosewood Cookbook for vegetarian food? How To Cook Everything, for…well, for people like me who grew up on tinned food and boxed macaroni and cheese and odd concoctions of burger patties and tomato soup and processed cheese food and then had to be re-taught how to eat whole ingredients?
…because that’s what I was learning when I started experimenting with it. How to walk into a grocery store and choose decent produce, what to do with that produce when I got it home. How to use butter instead of margarine.
I often think of cookbooks as inspirational, but they are just as often didactic, as well. They show us ways of eating, and we absorb them because it’s Wednesday and we have to cook something.
I am still learning, of course. Only last year did I finally crack what my problem with stainless-steel skillets was, and now I can cook things in them without welding them to the pan.
I watch a lot of food folks on YouTube. Some of them make fascinating historical goodies I don’t really see myself trying as a rule but that are awesome to watch. Some of them make gorgeous things it’s probably safest for me to admire from afar, lest I gain about 300 pounds and one or more health conditions. Some of them are engineering types, ruthlessly fine-tuning their own food science.
I wonder what ways of eating we in their audiences are absorbing from them.