We talk to Darra Goldstein about life and food under the USSR.
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"
“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.