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'I Was Roughed Up By The KGB, But Food Saved Me': Darra Goldstein Talks Cuisine Behind The Iron Curtain

Interviews
Jan 27
/
4 Mins

Our very own Darra Goldstein tells us about her obsession with Russian literature, her experiences in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and how she came back from Russia with love... for their food!

Grand military demonstrations, brutalist apartment blocks and winding queues for bread.

These are often the images we associate with the Soviet Union since the Berlin wall fell and marked the end of communism in Eastern Europe.

However, author and food academic Darra Goldstein sees a very different picture.

With a fascination borne out of the pages of Russian literature, Goldstein has journeyed beyond the Iron Curtain, engaged in culinary diplomacy and sought to spread the word of Eastern European cuisine.

"Things are pretty tense now, but they were very tense then"

Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash

“I was actually working for a branch of the state department”, says Goldstein, “telling Russians about American life.”

As a grad student, sent to Russia under the protection of the US government in 1978, Goldstein was well aware of the precarious diplomatic situation she found herself in.

“Things are pretty tense now, but they were very tense then”, she recalls, “the Cold War was raging and you could feel a lot of tension wherever we went.”

This sense of unease would culminate with a run-in with the infamous Russian secret police - not something that many people can say they have experienced and lived to tell the tale.

“I was roughed up by the KGB, and at that moment I was ready to give up on everything Russian. The language, the literature, the Stanford fellowship.”

However,  she decided not to upon discovering the culinary culture that had been flowering between the cracks of the oppressive Soviet bloc.

“It was food that saved me,” she says.

Following the end of the Vietnam War, the US was in dire need of some good publicity, and looked to agriculture as a means of showcasing capitalism to a changing world.

“It was basically propaganda”, Darra says wryly, “we had these stands at an exhibition on American agriculture, and people came off the street and wanted to show that they had good things to offer, even if there was nothing in the stores.”

This olive branch offered to her by regular Russians would prove enough for Goldstein to stick it out and see what the country really had to offer.

"The people are still cooking the way they did centuries ago"

While the Soviet state was less than hospitable, Darra found the Russian people to be some of the warmest hosts she had ever encountered.

“People kept bringing me food to taste,” she says, “Even though it was dangerous for Russians to consort with Americans, I found them to be the most welcoming, hospitable people - and some of the most creative in the kitchen, turning scraps into savory dishes.”

Visiting the homes of the local people, Goldstein was exposed to a world of food that you didn’t see in the fading propaganda of 1970’s Russia.

“You’d see these beautiful window displays,” she says, “and then you’d go in and the produce was old and the shelves were empty.”

The real culture of food was happening beneath the surface, in the homes of normal Russians.

“People knew how to work the system… a lot of bartering went on,” she explains, “they had their own gardening plots, some foraged and others even brought  fruits and vegetables from the Caucasus, which were delicious!”

Once her year in the USSR was up, Darra returned to America, but her love affair with Russian food had only just begun to blossom.

"It's just in the DNA"

Ironically, as a student sent out on a mission to promote the wonders of American produce to the Soviet Union, Goldstein returned as a double agent for the beautiful Russian cuisine she encountered.

However, her allegiance was not to the “sodden, bland” food that the state fed her in hotels and functions, but to the beautiful vibrant dishes she discovered in peoples’ homes and on the streets.

“It may seem like a very limited diet but there are actually incredible riches,” she says, “they take the best of what nature offers, and learn to cook the flavour out of things.”

In the years after she returned from the Soviet Union, Goldstein would go on to write her love letter to Russian cuisine, in the form of her first cookbook ‘A Taste of Russia’ which was released in 1983 (and is still in print to this day!).

As an academic, Goldstein wanted to learn all she could about the world she had peered into, and would go on to return to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe countless times over the years.

As she collected more anecdotes, stories and recipes, Darra realised that a lot of the quintessential Russian food we know today actually has its roots elsewhere.

"A nod to the past"

Photo by Artem Kovalev on Unsplash

“Russia has a cuisine that was developed in the 19th Century by the french chefs working for the aristocracy,” she says, “dishes that carry the nobleman’s name like Beef Stroganoff and Veal Orloff are classically French, but with a Russian overlay”.

During the time of the Romanov royal family, Russia was in the process of modernising itself - drafting in Italian architects, German military advisers and French chefs and artists.

This meant that much of the old Russian culture was swept aside and replaced with a new hybrid, and food suffered a similar fate.

“It’s seen as peasant food because it wasn’t cuisine,” Goldstein asserts, “but I don’t see the Frenchified [dishes] as really getting to the heart of Russian food”.

Goldstein went about searching for this original Russian cuisine that predated the French chefs of the Romanov dynasty.

“I wanted to get at what I felt was the most [faithful] to how people are still eating,” she says, “I decided the place I would find that was in the far north, where very few foreigners have ventured, and where people actually are still cooking the way they did centuries ago.”

In her latest book, Beyond the North Wind, Darra shares the incredible cuisine and hospitality found in these remote reaches.

The quality that inspired Goldstein in the beginning is still true today; that in spite of terrific hardship and strife (both political and natural) the people still make the most of what they possess.

“They’ve held onto age-old methods and flavours,” she says, “even if you have very little, you can intensify what you have.”

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