High Society Dinners: Dining in Tsarist Russia, a Model of Culinary History Methodology and Translation

High Society Dinners

Many writers and researchers around the world now write prodigiously on the topic that engages all of us several times a day: food. And its history.

It used to be that those of us interested in the history of food found the pickings pretty slim. Of course, there was Reay Tannahill’s Food in History (1973) and that book, in my mind, started the avalanche of today’s increasing bibliography of food- and culinary-history tomes. Many of these very welcome works emerge from English-speaking countries, although the French and Spanish contribute immense amounts of material – think Bruno de Laurioux and L. Jacinto García-Gómez and of course Massimo Montanari* of Italy.

Language presents a bottleneck for many researchers in food and culinary history. Obviously, more translations would be helpful, especially translations into English from languages not usually spoken by researchers working the West. Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Indonesian, Russian, Hindi, etc.

There are many reasons for the dearth of translations in the area of food and culinary history; the following are just a few:

1) Publishers generally find translations to be unrewarding to their bottom line.
2) Editors do not speak other languages.

Another issue influences decisions as to whether or not a work is translated: translators might be knowledgeable about a language, but not the nuances underlying the subject being translated.**

And that is precisely why Prospect Books’s edition of Yuri Lotman and Jelena Pogosjan’s High Society Dinners: Dining in Tsarist Russia (2014) deserves a wide readership among scholars and researchers and writers currently working on food- and culinary-related subjects, as well as curious general readers.  The combined talents of the translator, Marian Schwartz, and the editor, Darra Goldstein, result in a superb model for bringing food history writings from another language into English.

Born in St. Petersburg in 1922, Yuri Lotman worked in Tartu, Estonia, having been denied a Ph.D. in Russia because of his Jewish background. He, as Goldstein mentions in her Introduction to the English Edition, “was a brilliant theoretician, but he was no culinarian, to use an awkward but apt term.” He wrote what he called “a domestic History of unhistoric events,” handicapped as well by a lack of primary materials. Goldstein adds many invaluable notes, glosses as it were, to the text. As a non-Russian-speaking culinary historian, I appreciated these comments to no end. Karen Hess and others have done similar work with English-language material, e.g. Hess’s edit of The Virginia-housewife, but Prospect Book’s treatment of High Society Dinners, a non-English original, stands out.

High Society Dinners, originally published posthumously in Russian in 1996 – the author having died in 1993 – technically consists of a number of menus for meals served at the opulent house of Petr Pavlovich Durnovo – Adjutant-General of the Tsar’s Imperial Suite – during the period ranging from the spring of 1857 through 1858. Durnovo included diary-like comments with most of these menus, making the material an even richer source. Lotman devotes over 116 pages to a description of Russian cuisine it history, the background to the menus, and social structure and mores. He consistently references Russian literature as a source for culinary comments and digressed on French cuisine – highly important at the time among the Russian noble class. And, in addition, he relies on Ekaterina Avdeeva’s 1842 cookbook, The Experienced Russian Housewife’s Handbook, and surprisingly not Elena Molokhovets’s A Gift to Young Housewives or a Help to Reduce Housekeeping Charges (1861), a rather odd omission. But maybe not, given the Soviet view of Elena Molokhovets’s “decadent” work, which was quite disdainful of the servant class, saying that the lower classes could quite as well eat roaches.

All of this, Goldstein picks apart in utmost detail, granting non-specialists an understanding of Russian culinary culture and the influences upon it. Take Lotman’s reference to “bird’s milk.” He writes, in reference to a dinner held at the Yusupov table in 1837, that a guest commented on opulence by stating “’the only thing lacking was bird’s milk.’3”

That little “3” leads the reader to this gloss of Goldstein’s: [Bird’s milk, which represents the unattainable, is something of an idée fixe for Russians. In Soviet times, bird’s milk candies – small chocolate-enrobed bars with a soft marshmallow-like interior – were a so-called ‘deficit’ item; obtaining a box of the candies was considered a coup, nearly as unlikely as milking a bird. DG]

In addition to Goldstein’s commentaries, High Society Dinners includes an index of dishes served with the dates over the two-year period, offering readers an opportunity to track the ingredients used, their frequency, and seasonality (or not).

While High Society Dinners doesn’t offer readers the smooth reading of a beach novel or popular non-fiction, it opens up a window onto a historical period of great interest via detailed primary material not normally associated with food and culinary matters. The importance of High Society Dinners also lies in the methodology demonstrated by the working team of translator and editor. High Society Dinners will be referred to many times in the future as a model for translating non-English food- and culinary-history material. Tom Jaine of Prospect Books, Marian Schwartz, and Darra Goldstein deserve many accolades.

*Some of Montanari’s books have been translated into English.

**For more on this, see ”Linguistic and Cultural Issues in Literary Translation,” by Mohammed Albakry (Translation Journal 8(3), July 2004.)

© 2014 C. Bertelsen

3 thoughts on “High Society Dinners: Dining in Tsarist Russia, a Model of Culinary History Methodology and Translation

  1. AH! FInally a place to comment. Il fallait le savoir. I was looking below the text.

    Thanks, Cynthia for another great blog. You just made me more nervous however, with the mention that editors/publishers don’t like translations. Who knew? I am looking for a French one. Wish me luck!

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