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The uncomfortable truth about post-Soviet comfort foods

What nourishes us also destroys us: this old saying holds true not only for food, but also politics.

Kvass street vendor, Rīga, Latvia, July 1977. Photo CC A 3.0: S. Vecrumba / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved. Sometime ago, after a fair amount of Friday night pub drinking with Ukrainian friends in London, I end up at their place for a 3am snack. They pull out a jar of tushonka, a post-war food staple made of canned stewed meat from military supplies shipped to the Soviet Union by the US. How did this fatty grub with a shelf life that makes it sound more like a post-apocalyptic survival food than a delicacy end up in London? As it turns out, it’s homemade: my friend’s parents sent it from Ukraine in one of those delivery vans that shuttle across Europe, transporting goods and parcels every week, thus sustaining a dense network of cross-border ties. In a city that has hundreds of restaurants, cafes, pubs and food stalls; where all sorts of meat are sold, from humble pork to exotic crocodile; where steaks are cooked every minute, to any degree of perfection, from blue to well done – in this city, a glass jar of processed meat with a thick layer of lard which has travelled over 1,000 miles to connect a village near Ivano-Frankivsk in west Ukraine with a flat near King’s Cross, seems to have a much greater symbolic than nutritional value.

It’s comfort food, and it tastes good at 3am after a few pints. But wouldn’t, say, a kebab be tastier? Doesn’t tushonka probably contain too much cholesterol? Isn’t it reminiscent of the dismal living conditions during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 1990s? Isn’t it synonymous with the precarious state in which so many citizens of the former Soviet Union have been living to date? And are food choices also political choices?

There’s another side of this, though, a darker one. In April 2018, The Sun published an article mentioning that the former Russian spy Sergey Skripal may have been poisoned in Salisbury by buckwheat – one of the common porridges in diets of many countries of the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe – which was presumably brought from Moscow by an unnamed woman. While the article may or may not have been a hoax, the choice of buckwheat is symbolic. A cheap Soviet and then Russian culinary staple, ubiquitous “back home” and having a nostalgic value for many migrants, buckwheat was now presented as a carrier of a toxic agent and a potential transnational murder weapon.

Seemingly comforting in its nostalgic and sentimental value, some food from “back then” or “back home” can, in fact, turn out to be not so good for you. Ironically, comfort food can turn out to be discomfort food if one takes a closer look at it. They might seem to be the foods of your own choosing, but the preference for them is often conditioned by a lack of alternatives. Discomfort politics can be seen in a similar way – as something that is risk-related and very likely to make your life miserable, while feeling familiar and even desirable due the lack of other options.

Discomfort food

The assumption that a liking for foodstuffs from “back home” may be connected with more than sustaining a cross-border relationship with your loving family has become more prominent recently. In a short video filmed by German Russian-language channel RTVD in a supermarket in Marzahn – a Berlin outskirt described by the channel as the city’s “most “Russian” locality” – a number of Russian-speaking migrants speak to camera about supporting Vladimir Putin at Russia’s 2018 presidential elections. They talk about lack of competition from other candidates and vaguely praise Putin’s achievements as president. One of the women mentions that she has relatives living in Russia, where “life is hard, of course”, and that she supports them “as much as she can”. Most of the interviewees have been living in Berlin since the early 2000s.

It is telling that of all places the Berlin migrants were chosen to be filmed by the TV channel, they are filmed at a supermarket catering to the city’s Russian-speaking population. This setting and the interviews point at the speakers’ cross-border connections with their home country, including political allegiances, personal ties and culinary habits. Post-election data suggests that the number of pro-Putin votes amongst Russian migrants in Germany has nearly tripled since the previous presidential election. Perhaps migrants’ eating habits are feeding into their political preferences and voting behaviour?

Russian speakers in Berlin give their opinions on the March 2018 presidential elections. Source: RTVD.

“Is there a correlation between migrants being vatniks [an internet meme and slur defining its subject as uncritically supportive of the Russian regime] and Russian grocery stores?” the friend who sent me this video from Marzahn asks half-rhetorically. “I’ve only had one colleague who shopped in a Russian shop, and she was fiercely pro-Putin.”

Surely many of us have known someone at some point who was conservative in their food tastes, and would stubbornly prefer buying groceries in “their” “ethnic” shops to shopping in any other place. On the other hand, connections between food choices and politics can be imposed on migrants by others even when this is not the case: I heard a story about a woman shopping in Berlin’s Mix Markt, where a cashier, upon seeing a lump of meat in her grocery cart, commented on it: “Good for you, you can eat meat. And my relatives in Crimea are starving because of the Russians!”

When people who have moved from former USSR to the west keep shopping in shops like Mix Markt, what does this actually mean? What do their food choices stand for? Are such people automatically more likely to have more conservative political views? Anecdotal evidence of migrants’ adherence to comfort foods may have different interpretations, some of which arise when looking at it in connection with individually and socially uncomfortable experiences.

Some researchers outline four types of comfort food: nostalgic foods, indulgence foods, convenience foods, and physical comfort foods – and assert that “new foods” cannot relieve distress since they tend to evoke feelings of anxiety. The sociological literature on migration suggests that comfort foods can be a way of coping with the stress brought about by the move to a different country. Some marketing studies, on the other hand, demonstrate the “comfort food fallacy effect”, indicating that people are less likely to choose familiar food during times of upheaval and change.

Dishing it out

When we talk about food, we don’t only think about it as nourishing, comforting, abundant, sustaining or even tasty. Food and images of food consumption are also connected to bleak outcomes for societies, individuals and the environment. The high intake of saturated fats, sugar, and complex carbohydrates, together with low consumption of lean meats, fruits, and vegetables are a cause for concern in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and are related to high cardiovascular heart disease-related mortality.

Election day fare at a polling station, March 2018. Source: Nashgorod.ruImages of food-related practices in relation to contemporary Russian politics are often rather unattractive, too. Bans of western food imports along with the dystopian gesture of bulldozing sanctioned food in 2015, were portrayed by Russian media in the last few years, purportedly, as a way of responding to western sanctions for its military invasion into Ukraine, but actually hitting its own population hardest. Food intake can look very ugly and dehumanising, at some instances: consider eating pancakes from a shovel (this was the way this traditional Maslenitsa holiday food was served to Russians during a public celebration a few years ago). Finally, free and discounted food offered at polling stations across the country, farmers’ markets and food festivals, or food coupons given out to voting students have been amongst a variety of tools used to increase voter turnout during the 2018 presidential elections that were accompanied by reports of forced voting and ballot stuffing, and a general lack of suspense.

Take, for example, the overly decorated layered salads served during holiday celebrations in the late Soviet Union and contemporary Russia – elaborate combinations of ingredients, painstakingly put together, and drenched in mayonnaise. The weird opulence of urban Russian comfort foods certainly dates back to the Soviet times when individuals tried to apply their creativity to making something interesting based on a very limited choice of ingredients (and often combined with general ignorance about healthy diet). What seemed “luxurious” in the era of shortages is now considered by many to be a culinary monstrosity – an artifact of “sovok” that only a path-dependent, dull and unreflexive Homo Sovieticus could possibly enjoy putting on their table.

This political and cultural symbolism of (post-)socialist cuisine is the subject of the web community mayonesa.nax, whose members collect and share cringeworthy recipes from all over the Russian-language internet. The very title of the community (which can be roughly translated as “Fuck Mayonnaise”) refers to a distinct meme. A staple of Soviet and contemporary Russian cuisine and a necessary ingredient of festive salads, mayonnaise is a product of historical significance, which is connected not only to individual tastes, but politics too – the planned economy, food shortages and poor nutrition. An industrial state-produced sauce in the Soviet Union, mayonnaise is remembered as something that one could not buy but only “get”; as a product that was used to diversify the taste of dishes prepared with an extremely limited set of ingredients, and to conceal the poor quality of food; yet also as something that many former Soviet citizens, even those living abroad, still refer to in a very nostalgic, albeit somewhat ironic, way.

An Easter-egg prawn dish. Source: LiveJournal. The people who post to mayonesa.nax tackle issues from overly complicated preparation processes, overcooking, wasting quality ingredients and, yes, baking mayonnaise, to the excessive and vulgar use of diminutives while talking about foodstuffs. The spirit of this vibrant discussion community is almost Bourdieuvian. Here, the participants draw connections between eating habits, cultural and economic capital. Critique is often directed against “the taste of necessity” represented by lumping together crude, heavy, economical foods (such as pasta and potatoes). On the other hand, participants criticise aspirations for the “taste of liberty”, the aim for good presentation and elaborate serving, together with the use of exotic/expensive products such as seafood or high quality cheese (often overcooked, or mixed in strange combinations and proportions). For example, the commentators can’t help but “feel sorry for the king prawns”, when the latter are overboiled, mixed with half a dozen other ingredients, and drowned in mayo, resulting in an oddly shaped and decorated salad.

Let them eat cake?

So, what about immigrants from the former Soviet Union who now live in Europe? Why would they stick to food from their previous life when so much is available? I’ve been asking myself this question since the onset of my own academic career, when I was studying for a PhD in London.

The city strikes me with its culinary multivocality. Shortly after arrival, I marvel at the choice at Waitrose at Brunswick Square in Bloomsbury, lost among the numerous types of potatoes, upon discovering that actually more than one type exists. Chinatown is additive with its small restaurants (“If the staff is rude and doesn’t speak good English, then it’s proper Chinese,” I’m told), and grocery shops selling unfamiliar fruit and veg and spicy sauces. Food markets enthral me: from the overpriced but beautiful Borough Market to my local Leather Lane in Holborn, where a variety of street food stalls open at lunchtime on weekdays, offering lamb kebabs and prawn katsu sandwiches, pork bulgogi and jerk chicken, jambalaya and bun salads. There’s a number of east European and Russian shops in the city, of course; I rarely go there, and I do so out of curiosity rather than nostalgia, or when I need ingredients for a thematic dish for some party or gathering. I’ve hated pelmeni, or dumplings, since childhood, I think, so why would I buy them now?

Russian food shop in Bucharest. Source: Maria Rybakova. One of my Russian acquaintances has an affair with her phlegmatic Belarusian neighbour. She often complains that he is too busy, and that it’s difficult to agree on a time to meet up with him. One day, she calls me, proudly announcing that the object of her advances has promised to visit her tonight, provided that she cooks a “Russian dinner” for him. “I’m thinking mashed potatoes and sausages. How do you cook mashed potatoes, by the way?” I drop by her place the next day. Apparently, everything went smoothly. She offers me some leftovers from yesterday’s feast: a couple of frankfurters, some mash and defrosted green peas – all microwaved. “Hmm, looks like a dish from a Soviet canteen,” I say. “It does. Cool, isn’t it?” I mumble something affirmative.

Affinity towards Russian, or late Soviet, comfort foods that migrants exhibit seems to be ubiquitous. One London culinary duo, Russian Revels, seeks to performatively present Russian (or, rather, Soviet) food as something fun and nostalgic. While these preferences appear to be shaped by their childhood memories rather than politics, their website features a fair share of mayo-drenched salads described as “adored and treasured by the great ex-USSR masses”, and waxes lyrical about Soviet-era meat-deficient frankfurters. Sometimes, they refer to contemporary politics in a questionable manner: in a post from the end of January 2014, around the time of the escalating violence during Ukraine’s Euromaidan and first deaths of the protesters in Kyiv, the culinary website features a recipe for “cutlets a la Kiev”, in a weird homage to events whose participants are described as “seemingly so removed from the joys of a full belly”.

One man’s meat is another man’s poison – and migrants who take part in opposition rallies in their host countries and criticise Putin on their Facebook pages also use food as a political instrument and social glue. Mulled wine and pancakes with jam were offered during an opposition rally that took place in front of the Russian embassy in London on 18 March and was attended by Russian, Ukrainian and Syrian migrants. While certainly comforting, these foodstuffs hardly seem to be connected with post-Soviet nostalgia. The food service was apparently organised by Evgeny Chichvarkin, a Russian entrepreneur who fled to London in 2009 and who has been campaigning against Putin from abroad for years; a wine shop owner, Chichvarkin also opened a restaurant in Mayfair in April 2018.

Political transnationalism, specifically migrant involvement in home country politics across borders, may include a variety of practices. Democratic ideas do not necessarily underlie them – just as comfort foods are not necessarily a source of a comforting experience, but may well be used to create an impression of attractiveness of dubious or potentially harmful activities and ideas. However, neither food nor politics really have to have a special link with childhood, or one’s country of origin, to make one feel (un)comfortable. Migrants, particularly those inhabiting big multicultural cities, while having the options to stick with familiar communities and ideas, have a chance to engage with new and diverse culinary and political cultures. Escaping from the oppressive grip of discomfort foods and politics of home country may not automatically lead to adoption of a more democratic worldview, but it may well be a start of a healthy habit.

 


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