CCCP Cook Book – recipes from the days of Soviet food planners

See sample pages from this book at Wink.

Fuel Publishing, based in London, has carved a niche in the book world by creating books that document the small dark corners of Soviet history. You may be familiar with the series of books, Russian Criminal Tattoos, that revealed the language of body ink and the hierarchies of gulags. CCCP Cook Book uses the same obsessive attention to detail to great effect. When your country is wholly dependent on what the obshchina (collective farm) produces, what you eat is a political act. CCCP Cook Book delves deep into the history of dishes beloved by generations of Russians evolved from both the ideal of equal for all and the realities of planned food production in a country of nearly 170 million.

Visually, CCCP Cook Book adheres to Fuel’s high-minded design aesthetic. The full-page photos that illustrate the recipes are faithfully reproduced in the faded colors and garish contrasts that plagued cookbooks (regardless of origin) throughout the mid-century period.

Knowing that “Soviet” in Russian means "assembly" helps understand that Soviet cuisine isn’t necessarily Russian food. Central planners developed recipes based on projected harvests and preserved foods. Fresh herring wasn’t available in Taskent, but tinned (preserved) fish could be distributed throughout the country. Workers were fed meals at their workplaces that helped standardize recipes, as commissary cooks were required to follow the famed manual, “Book of Tasty and Healthy Food.”

That guide purposefully adapted regional dishes into new, improved Soviet recipes. Vorschmack has its roots in Jewish cuisine, but is easily recognized today as our own deviled eggs. Soviet planners declared every Thursday to be Fish Day as a way to address meat shortages. In response, agricultural scientists, inspired by the 16th-century Rus dish of minced fish shaped with elaborate molds, created a modern meal for the masses: fish sticks!

Soviet food scientists were doing the same work as capitalist American food engineers of the time. For every color-saturated booklet published by Kraft, the Soviet food councils published their own versions. Americans are haunted by the endless variations of the mayonnaise based “toss it all in a bowl “ style salad recipes. The Soviets also had their versions of the “toss it in bowl” recipes. One of my favorites in the CCCP Cook Book, for both the "blech" factor and its advertising campaign, is Shuba, better known by its nickname, Herring under a Fur Coat. The key ingredients are, of course, mayo and herring.

As a practical cookbook, I have neither the will nor stomach to actually prepare any of these dishes, yet CCCP Cook Book is an amazing work of culinary history. The book as an object is a marvel. The heavy quality paper, the purposefully reproduced photos, the exposed stitching binding, all appeal to a collector’s artisanal instincts. It’s my new "You Must Buy This Book" recommendation for my foodie friends. – Christina Ward