Peoples' Friendship Salad and other culinary expressions of brotherhood
The taste of ice cream interests you more than building communism !
—Joseph Stalin to Anastas Mikoyan
In 1936, Stalin commissioned a cookbook from Anastas Mikoyan, his Commissar for Food Industry. After a period of thorough study of the cuisines of the various Soviet republics and their appropriateness as proper nutrition for the builders of communism, the first edition of The Book of Delicious and Healthy Food was published in 1939. The book did not aim to give certain foods a fashionable aura. Instead, the emerging communist empire was concerned with an entirely different issue—educating its multinational citizens in rationally organized nutrition. But even more importantly, the book aimed at expressing the new Soviet identity-in-construction—the keyword for which was “friendship” between the constituent republics— in culinary terms. Through its countless editions, The Book of Delicious and Healthy Food tried to synthesize the experience of different peoples, presenting the union between them as the acme of historical evolution.
If Soviet Marxism declared itself the only truly scientific ideology, one based on the most advanced achievements of human thought, then Soviet cuisine was to be equally based on an explicitly scientific approach. Cooking was not considered an art but rather a kind of science. It was not undertaken in the pursuit of pleasure, but rather to afford moderate satisfaction and reasonable enjoyment, all in the service of optimizing the health of the hardworking citizen according to scientifically determined guidelines. Simply put, food was part of the production process and had to be approached as such, rationally and pragmatically. The new bible of Soviet cuisine was thus overtly didactic, scientific, and educational: long passages on women’s liberation from kitchen slavery and a thorough analysis of vitamins, minerals, and calories preceded the book’s two thousand recipes. Strong political guidance was equally important: each chapter opened with a quote by Stalin, Molotov, or Mikoyan, praising the achievements of socialist industrialization, defining new far-reaching goals for meat and fish production, or reflecting on the importance of good packaging for vegetables. Recipes of soups, steaks, and omelettes followed.
Going even further, we could speculate on parallels between the Soviet cuisine-in-construction and the structure of Soviet Marxism itself, with its influences from German philosophy, English political economy, and French utopian socialism. Similarly, approved Soviet food consisted of multiple influences—traditional Russian cuisine; local dishes from other Soviet republics; and a third element that presented a perplexing ideological problem, as it was neither socialist nor communist, and had no detectable traces of Marxism-Leninism whatsoever. This last strand was the influence of French cuisine, which was difficult to suppress even though the Soviet Union in the 1930s was, on the face of it, rather hostile toward Gallic cooking. French food was too emblematic of the exploitation of the working class, too related to the sinister Tsarist past, and too tied to the decadence of capitalism. It ostensibly represented a set of values fundamentally opposed to those of the nascent Soviet identity. In fact, numerous books of the time, written by various directors of government food agencies, were highly critical of French cuisine, heralding instead new “emancipatory” ways of cooking, and trying to shield the soon-to be-communist citizen from obsolete and contemptible bourgeois habits.
However, despite the strong ideological will of the government and a series of state-endorsed initiatives, healthy, delicious Soviet food continued to retain hints of Frenchness, still evident in the 1939 edition. Frivolous canapés, soufflés, and tartelettes remained from the damned Tsarist past, betraying serious ideological concessions and looking somewhat suspicious in direct vicinity to borscht and pelmeny. Obviously, things had to change, and they did, as many capitalist ingredients disappeared with capitalism. One of the most dazzling metamorphoses was the one undergone by the enormously popular Soviet dish known today in its brutally abbreviated supermarket version as "Russian salad," and originally called “salade Olivier.”
The ever-popular salad—the Soviet dish par excellence, as beloved by party leaders and the intelligentsia as it was by workers and peasants—was in fact the brainchild of a Francophone chef who created it in 1860s. Named for its inventor, Lucien Olivier, the Belgian-born chef of Moscow’s famed Hermitage restaurant, it was originally made with grouse, veal tongue, caviar, lettuce, crayfish tails, and capers, and occasionally truffles, cubed aspic, or smoked duck. In its original incarnation, it contained just a few potato slices as a decorative addition, a little hint of Russianness deployed with Gallic flair. The 1939 edition keeps the original recipe almost unaltered, while changing the name to the less pretentious "game salad".
From that moment on, we can trace the spectacular transformation of this salad through the Soviet era from a decadent delicacy born of rotten capitalism into a healthy, delicious Soviet culinary star, internationalist in form and socialist in content. Of course, during this epochal transformation a number of necessary modifications and substitutions had to be made. Instead of grouse, alien to the working class, chicken or even sausage was used; crayfish tails were replaced by cooked carrot—presumably to preserve the original color, a substitution that further democratized the dish. Truffles, caviar, and capers disappeared altogether, with potato gradually becoming the main ingredient. And thus the favorite dish of the Soviet table was born, retaining almost no trace of its original bourgeois decadence other than its French name. Like any successful brand, the Soviet version of the salade Olivier had imitations, interpretations, and appropriations carrying different names, such as “Stolichny salad,” especially rich in potato, or “people’s friendship salad,” featuring fancy ingredients such as ham and fresh cucumbers. One ingredient, however, remained unaltered since the times of Lucien Olivier—mayonnaise.
Today, we can only speculate on the full impact of French influences on the formation of a classless, multinational Soviet cuisine because later editions of the book assiduously suppressed all ideologically objectionable or politically problematic elements. For example, by the 1952 edition, all explicit references to French delicacies such as profiteroles, croquettes, and croutons disappear, as do mentions of "Kalmyk tea" and "Vyborg biscuits." (In 1944, the Kalmyk people had been forcibly exiled to Siberia and Central Asia; the town of Vyborg, seized from the Finns in 1940, likewise bore a number of undesirable connotations.) After World War II, some former ideological and culinary friends had to be withdrawn from the delicious and healthy canon of brotherhood and friendship. French traces, however, were more difficult to eliminate and remained present in a great number of recipes, although their ideological meaning was significantly modified by their new Soviet veneer. The peoples’ friendship salad, as much as the salade Olivier on which it was based, perfectly exemplifies the principle of a non-discriminatory blend: all ingredients are made to seem equal, and equally bound to each other, by mayonnaise, a perfect instrument of ideological reconciliation. Mayonnaise, deeply non-Soviet in its initial raffinement, began to be commercially produced in the USSR in 1936, and surprisingly became the country’s preeminent condiment, the binding element in almost all Soviet salads. Perhaps the basis of mayonnaise’s compatibility with the Soviet ideology of friendship lay in the fact that its simple components combine to create something altogether new, a perfect medium in which disparate “ingredients” can coexist peacefully, enriching each other without any one element dominating the whole.