A Russian Cook

Another good appetizer is stewed white mushrooms, with onion, you know, and bay leaf and other spices. You lift the lid off the dish, and the steam rises, a smell of mushrooms … sometimes it really brings tears to my eyes!
~~Anton Chekov, “The Siren”

With the publication of Gourmet magazine beginning in 1941, stories about cooks appeared sporadically, including a series on Katish, a Russian cook from the childhood one of Gourmet’s writers. Wanda L. Frolov compiled the articles into a book in 1947. Katish: Our Russian Cook still reads rather enticingly, in spite of occasional quaintness and other markers of a time fast receding into the long tunnel of history. In 2001, The Modern Library reprinted Katish, adding a charming introduction by Gourmet’s then-editor, Ruth Reichl.

A memoir cookbook, actually one of the very first, Katish stands out for its recipes as well as its narrative style. Although we might view those days in the 1920s and 1930s as a little slower than our own, cooks like Katish spent a lot of time making sure that the larder always contained something on hand for a quick meal. And Katish’s solution to the problem of the fast meal for surprise guests hinged on her Mushrooms in Sour Cream. (See a pictorial essay about making this dish HERE.)


Photo credit: Kristie Gianopulos

Wash 1 pound of mushrooms quickly. Never, never let mushrooms stand in water. Cut off the stems just where they cease to be woody; but do not peel. Slice each cap from the top down through the stalk. Heat 3 tablespoons of butter in a heavy pan. When pan and butter are hot, but not burning, put in a layer of the mushrooms. Don’t overcrowd the pan and don’t bruise the mushrooms with rough stirring; if you do these things the juice will run out and boil away. When the first lot of mushrooms is delicately browned, remove them from the pan, heat a little more fat if necessary, and brown another layer. When all the slices are nicely browned, stir 2 tablespoons of flour into the fat remaining in the pan. Add 1 1/2 cups of milk and stir to form a smooth sauce. Return all the mushrooms to the pan, stir in 1/2 cup of sour cream, salt and pepper to taste, and add 3 or 4 drops of Maggi Seasoning. Cook over low heat for five or six minutes. Used sparingly, Maggi Seasoning points up the flavor of mushrooms, but too much of it will give a flavor of dried mushrooms.

Photo credit: Erich Ferdinand

According to Frolov, Katish used these mushrooms in a multitude of ways, including open-faced ham sandwiches, where she buttered toasted bread slices, laid a few thin slices of ham over the top and then poured on some of the warmed mushroom sauce.

The mushrooms in sour cream would keep for days and their subtly delicious flavor enhanced and extended a number of dishes to elegance and abundance. If the larder was really low, Katish might hard-boil and egg for each person. Then she would open up a can of shrimp or lobster or boned chicken. She would split the eggs in half lengthwise and arrange them in a shallow casserole with seafood or chicken, then pour the mushrooms over and heat in a moderate oven.

If you leaf through other cookbooks on Russian food, you’ll notice that mushrooms pop up constantly. Why is this? The answer lies in the impact of Orthodox Lenten and fasting regimens on the daily diet, which in the past was quite considerable. According to Anne Volokh, in The Art of Russian Cuisine:

Mushrooms play so prominent a role in Russian cuisine because of the exclusion of dairy products from Lenten fare. [I would add meat, as well.] During Lent and numerous fast weeks through the year, mushrooms dishes were included in the menu almost daily: mushroom pirozhki, rice and mushroom patties, mushroom sauce for potato patties, rice and mushroom patties, stewed mushrooms with potato and sour cream [sic], fried mushrooms, borscht with mushrooms, mushroom pelmeni,* various mushroom soups, mushroom paté,  poached salmon with mushrooms, and on, and on.

And in her introduction to Elena Molokhovets’s Classic Russian Cooking, translator Joyce Toomre includes a section entitled “Influence of the Russian Orthodox Church,” recognizing that Russian cuisine as it evolved to today exists precisely because of the feast and fast days of the Orthodox liturgical year. For almost 200 days a year, Russians fasted.

Up to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Russian cooking developed along two parallel tracks with separate foods for meat days and for fast days.

No matter just how Katish learned to cook and what influences there were on the foods she cooked, throughout Katish, Frolov makes it clear that Katish the cook —  who fled Stalin’s Russia in the early 1920s — played a significantly important role in the family’s life, illustrating the connection between cooking and nurturing.


Russian Proverb

The Art of Russian Cuisine, by Anne Volokh and Mavis Manus (1989)

Classic Russian Cooking: Elena Molokhovets’ “A Gift to Young Housewives”, by Elena Molokhovets (1998)

The Georgian Feast: The Vibrant Culture and Savory Food of the Republic of Georgia, by Darra Goldstein (1999)

Katish: Our Russian Cook (Modern Library Food), by Wanda Frolov (1947, reprint 2001)

Food in Russian History and Culture (Indiana-Michigan Series in Russian and East European Studies), by Musya Glants and Joyce Toomre (1997)

A Taste of Russia: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality, by Darra Goldstein (1999)
*Pelmeni deserve an entire whole post of their own.
© 2009 C. Bertelsen

2 thoughts on “A Russian Cook

  1. I wonder if there were also economic reasons that contributed to the popularity of mushrooms — besides the religious ones. Did they continue to be a key food after the Soviets disestablished religious practice? I think so. The Chernoble disaster contaminated mushrooms much more than other foods (they absorb the radiation directly from soil), so people had to avoid them; until I read this I didn’t realize that it would have been a significant loss.

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