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

Notable Replies

  1. One of the most charming things in the movie Good Bye Lenin (set in East Germany around the time the wall fell) was the hero's quest to find East German food favorites for his fragile mother who didn't know about the reunification. I'm sure an entire generation of former East Germans felt a real nostalgic twinge when he found a jar of pickles or the like.

    This is a lot like the retro 1950s cookbooks that were popular in the 1980s in the US. They are sure to evoke memories.

  2. Here's a very nice, more tongue-in-cheeck German book on the topic, by Wladimir Kaminer:

    Actually a collection of (allegedly) autobiographical short stories and commentaries, each one culminating in a recipe:

    "The Totalitarian Kitchen":

  3. I love the cocktail recipes in Venedikt Yerofeyev's / Erofeev's Moscow Stations like "Tears of a Komsomolka"

    Here's one I found on the interwebs:
    APPENDIX: excerpt from Erofeev's poem in prose 'Moscow Stations' (translated by Stephen Mulrine, Faber & Faber, 1997).

    'You see, vodka on its own, even straight from the bottle, offers nothing but aggravation, weariness of spirit. Mixing vodka with eau-de-cologne gives it a certain whimsy, but absolutely no pathos. However, you drink a glass of Canaan Balsam and you get whimsy, ideas, pathos and even a hint of metaphysics to boot.

    So which ingredient of Canaan Balsam do we prize above all others? The meths, of course. But in fact the meths, being the mere object of inspiration, is itself wholly lacking in inspiration. So what is it we actually rate most highly about methylated spirits? Why, its naked taste sensation, naturally. And even more so the miasma it exudes. And to release this miasma you need just a soupcon of perfume. That's the reason you have to add some sort of dark beer to the meths, preferably Ostankino or Senator, in the proportion 1:2:1, along with clear varnish.

    Now, I'm not going to tell you how to distill varnish, that's kids' stuff. You know, it's weird, nobody in Russia knows how Pushkin died, but everybody knows how to distil varnish.

    Anyway, you'd better write down the recipe for Canaan Balsam, you've only got one life, and if you want to see it out, you don't make mistakes with recipes:

    methylated spirits: 100g milk stout: 200g clear varnish: 100g

    So there you have it Canaan Balsam (popularly known as a Silver Fox); a blackish brown liquid, in fact, of moderate strength, with a persistent aroma. Actually it's not even an aroma, it's an anthem.

    The anthem of democratic youth. Yes, that's true enough, since it brings out vulgarity and sinister tendencies in the people who drink it. I've seen that so many times!'

  4. I got this book for Christmas, and it's a truly fascinating piece of history. I have no desire to make any of the recipes, but the anecdotes and history behind them is really worthwhile.

    For example: when French cooks visited Russia in the prosperous 60s, they introduced people to fancy salads with vinaigrette dressing. As resources and finances dwindled, so did the salad, until by the 80s, it was called a "Vinegret" salad, and was just potatoes, beets, carrots, and sometimes sauerkraut, drizzled with nothing but unfiltered sunflower oil, and that's the salad people know today.

  5. I love that movie! The whole thing is great, but the search for the pickles is kind of the best.. and the statue scene:

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