Alison K. SmithBy
In late January 1868, a short article appeared in the Vladimir Provincial News,
the local newspaper for a region near Moscow, signed by the provincial
medical inspector Aliakrinskii. In it, he warned of a particular local
threat to public health:
Due to last summer’s crop failure of cabbage, many do not have it
preserved for cabbage soup, which is the major daily food of the
peasants in this province. And due to the lack of cabbage soup, as
people are used to it, if another sort of sour food is not substituted
for it, scurvy may appear.
This was a major problem for a Russian province in the mid-nineteenth
century. Aliakrinskii was right—nearly every account of Russian peasant
foodways in these northern regions mentioned the centrality of cabbage,
and particularly preserved (fermented) cabbage. Shchi, cabbage
soup, was the most quintessentially Russian food. In response to a
criticism of cabbage as a food, the Russian medical author Ia. S.
Chistovich exclaimed “And sour or fermented cabbage? What could replace
it for the Russian people?” as a note to his 1852 translation of A.
Becquerel’s treatise on hygiene.
Aliakrinskii, though, was concerned not out of a fear of famine
(cabbage soup was important, but grains were the major food source) but
out of a fear of scurvy. No one yet knew exactly what caused scurvy, but
in Russian medical circles, everyone believed that fermented cabbage
(not plain cabbage) was one of the things that stopped it. And so,
Aliakrinskii gave a series of short recipes (basically, recipes that
peasants might be able to make) for substitutes that would, he claimed,
stop scurvy’s progress.
To avoid that, the provincial government advises to substitute for
cabbage soup as a hot dish a gruel of some sort of grain or a potato
soup, adding to either while it is cooking cut up pickles and pickle
brine, so the taste of that gruel or soup is a little sour; it is also
good to add pepper and a bay leaf; and for a cold dish tyurya
is recommended, that is, kvass with rye bread crumbs, pepper, and grated
or ground horseradish; or kvass with chopped up salted cucumbers,
adding to that onion and horseradish, or grated radish; or tolokno, of oat flour dissolved in kvass. And when there are beets in storage, then from there prepare Ukrainian buraki:
for that put cut up beets in a tub, pour in water and, putting in there
a bit of sour dough, let it ferment; then, having cut up the fermented
beets finely, cook them with pepper and a bay leaf. To drink in every
family there should be good kvass. When spring and summer come, it will
be useful to make a hot dish like cabbage soup out of sorrel, and from
beet greens that have been boiled and then cut up fine and mixed with
kvass, adding in onion and horseradish, you get the cold dish called botvin’e.
It is also useful in spring and summer to eat green onions, both garden
ones and those that grow wild in low-lying meadows; for those one
should first cut them up and pound them in a wooden mortar, and then mix
them with kvass. (VGV (27 January 1868)).
The assumption in these recipes is that the thing that stopped scurvy
was the particular sourness of fermented cabbage—not the cabbage
itself, despite the fact that it is actually a good source of vitamin C.
All of these recipes take what would otherwise be bland foods (gruel,
potato soup, breadcrumbs, even beets) and add sourness to them.
Sometimes that sourness comes from another fermented food—the kvass (the
favorite lightly fermented drink of Russia) that featured in almost
every recipe—or by adding fermentation—the instructions to ferment
beets—or by adding pickles and pickle brine, probably the sourest
option. They also mostly add other sharp, strong, almost spicy flavors:
pepper, horseradish, onion, radish. This echoes other moments in which
Russian culinary or medical writers associated a taste for such strong
flavors with a native Russian healthiness—in 1841, in an article “And
More on Food” in the journal The Economist, an anonymous Russian author claimed that “of the Russians, only the milksops [nezhenki]
do not eat onions . . . our great-grandfathers did not know medicinal
mixtures at all, and all because they were able to live, eat, and drink
better than us, and also, how they loved onion, garlic, radish, pepper,
and such foods!”