Beyond the North Wind: A Q+A with Darra Goldstein

Darra Goldstein, author of Beyond the North Wind | Photo by Barry Goldstein

I thought I knew Russian food—then I devoured Darra Goldstein’s Beyond the North Wind: Russia in Recipes and Lore and I realize now that I was mistaken. The moment I finished this lovely book—filled with evocative storytelling, essays on culinary history, and recipes that truly embody a sense of place—I was excited to connect with the author over email for a socially-distanced Q+A, shared below.

My Kievan-born single mother—a pediatrician—used to say, “I’m a doctor, I don’t cook,” and every week she’d pull out the Dutch oven. In would go a chicken—skin, neck, gizzards, and all—followed by the onions, carrots, potatoes, peppercorns, and bay leaves. Two hours later, out would come a brown sludge which I lovingly dubbed “Onionofsky.”

My journey through the world of Russian food has been a mixed bag, and seemingly not as authentic as I once believed. When I first moved to New York, my boss took me to the famed Russian Tea Room. I recall nothing about what we ate. Possibly, we only drank. I’d later go to the now-shuttered FireBird Restaurant, known for its grandeur, refined Russian fare, and tableside service by white-jacketed servers. The meal and setting were spectacular, but it was food fit for a tsar—heavily influenced by the Saxon chefs imported by Peter the Great and French chefs brought in by Catherine the Great.

In Beyond the North Wind, however, I’ve finally encountered the true heart of Russian food—a Russia of mushrooms and berries, of savory pies and fermented vegetables, of vodka infused with birch buds and cracked cherry stones. A Russia I had, until now, only encountered in fiction.

eLA: You are both a professor and an award-winning cookbook author. Can you talk about what drew you to food in the first place? Was your mother a great cook? Did Russian literature awaken your interest in the food?

DG: Some of my earliest memories have to do with the kitchen — I think its smells and its seemingly magical transformations drew me in from the start. My mother was a wonderful cook who loved to experiment. Food companies used to sponsor a lot of cooking contests, which she’d often enter. One year she won the grand prize from King Oscar Sardines (100 cans of Norwegian sardines!), and in 1968 she was a finalist in the Pillsbury Bake-Off.

When I began reading Russian literature, food took on a whole new meaning. I suddenly saw it not just from a culinary perspective but in cultural terms. I saw how it was used — especially in nineteenth-century Russian novels and short stories — to portray different characters, the most famous scene being in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, where the political and emotional leanings of Oblonsky and Levin are revealed through the foods they enjoy. Oblonsky is a Westernizer, in love with French dishes, while Levin is a Slavophile, like Tolstoy himself, who wants nothing more than cabbage soup and kasha (buckwheat groats). When I started grad school I wanted to write my dissertation on food in Russian literature — it's so rich for exploration! — but I was told that food wasn’t a serious topic.

eLA: Beyond the North Wind begins with appetizers (zakuski) and ends with desserts, as one would expect. But apparently, this sequencing of courses is a purely Russian invention.

DG: My students are always astonished to learn that our standard American sequence of courses comes directly from the medieval Russian practice of serving food sequentially, and individually plated, at banquets for the elite. The French had a very different style of service in which the food was set out on the table as an artistic display and everyone helped themselves to the dishes nearby. Beginning in the early 19th century, service à la russe took Europe by storm  — Charles Dickens introduced it to London — and by the end of the century it had become the trendy style of dining. Of course only the affluent could afford to dine this way, since it required an awful lot of tableware.

eLA: I found the chapter on pies, pancakes, and dumplings extremely alluring. Every culture has something similar yet I’ve never encountered such a wide variety of ingredients, from humble cheese to the surprising pickle filling. Talk about what’s so uniquely Russian about these recipes.

DG: I’m glad you liked this chapter. As I was writing it, I felt as though I could write an entire book on Russian pies — there are so many! They range from rustic to refined, from hearty rye or buckwheat dough to tender enriched wheat. Some of them arise from frugality, stretching scarce ingredients and turning them into something more than the sum of their parts. These are the everyday pies, which can be hand pies or plate sized; round, oval, triangular, or rectangular. But there are also lavish celebratory pies made for special occasions like name days (celebrated like birthdays) or weddings. These pies are usually enormous, with many layers. The repertoire of pies grew even larger in the nineteenth century with the influence of French haute cuisine. When the classic layered fish pie known as kulebyaka was adopted into French cuisine as coulibiac, it began to appear with a puff pastry or brioche dough. You can still find it made this way in Russia, though I prefer a humbler crust that shows off the filling. 

In general, when you say Russian pies, I think of savory ones, though there’s a whole range of sweet ones, too, especially apple, berry, and farmer’s cheese. They really are works of art. Not only do Russian pies have generous fillings, they’re almost always finished with decorative touches, like dramatic pleats, or designs with flowers and tendrils or abstract shapes made out of dough. Chekhov captured the glory of Russian pies in his short story “The Siren,” where he describes kulebyaka like this: “The kulebyaka should be appetizing, shameless in its nakedness, a temptation to sin.” 

eLA: What struck me about many of the recipes in your book (except for the rich treats eaten before the Lenten fast) was how healthy they were. Gluten-free flour made from buckwheat or bird cherries. Probiotic everything from brined vegetables to cultured milk products to various fermented drinks. Berries rich in antioxidants. Immunity-boosting mushrooms. Nutrient-rich root vegetables. Seems like the ancient Russian cooks were natural food chemists and naturopaths.

DG: A lot of people think of Russian food as heavy and starchy, but the traditional Russian diet is extremely healthy. Partly that has to do with the fact that most of the population couldn’t afford more than the basics, so they subsisted on porridges made from buckwheat and rye, sourdough rye bread, kvass (a lightly fermented beverage made from rye bread), root vegetables, lacto-fermented vegetables from sauerkraut to cucumbers, foraged mushrooms and berries in season that were preserved with salt or honey to last through the winter, and all sorts of cultured dairy products. You’ve noted how high in probiotics many of these foods are, though the early Russians obviously didn’t describe them this way — they just knew that they felt better when the foods they ate had a sour tang. 

eLA: I love your descriptions of the peasant stove, how it cooked the food slowly to preserve vitamins (all things we’re are doing now with our Instant Pots, etc). How the perestroika generation had the stoves removed from the old dachas, but now the new generation of Russians are having them put back in. We’re seeing something similar happening in this country. Even before the pandemic, people were making their own bread, almond milk, and ricotta. Home and hearth. Victory gardens. Self-sufficiency. Cooking with seasonal ingredients. Could it be that the Russian common people (not the tsars, who gorged on French food) had it right all along?

DG: I like to think so, but I’m not sure I can convince everyone. There’s a lot of skepticism surrounding things Russian because of the messy political situation we’re in. It’s hard for people to embrace Russian cuisine the way they might another cuisine that feels more foreign, with unfamiliar ingredients. It would help if there were more great Russian restaurants in the country like Kachka in Portland, Oregon.

eLA: You are a genuine culinary ambassador between the East and West, the old and the new. How did you embark on this mission, or did it find you?

DG: It found me. In 1978-79 I worked as an exhibition guide in the Soviet Union for the US Information Agency, a now-defunct branch of the State Department. That year’s theme was “Agriculture USA,” a politically sensitive topic in those Cold War years when the stores were largely bare. There were some unpleasant incidents (I was roughed up by the KGB), and I was ready to give up my study of Russian and turn to something else. But I saw how people risked harassment to bring me homemade pickles and preserves — to share what they had and show me what Russian food was all about — and I realized that food was the the most immediate way to try to enter into another culture, through tasting and sharing. I wanted to communicate that idea, and my first cookbook, A la russe: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality, came directly out of that Soviet experience. I later went on to work with the Council of Europe to explore ways that food can be used to promote tolerance and diversity. Sadly, though, until governments embrace less hostile policies, these efforts have to remain at the grassroots level.

Get a copy of Darra Goldstein’s Beyond the North Wind: Russia in Recipes and Lore.


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