Darra Goldstein is the Willcox B. and Harriet M. Adsit Professor of Russian, Emerita, at Williams College and the founding editor of the James Beard Award-winning journal Gastronomica. She has published over fifteen books, most recently: Beyond the North Wind: Russia in Recipes in Lore.
In her own words: “Recipes reveal so much more than ingredients – they reveal history, culture and global migrations. Most important, they’re delicious to eat and even better when shared.”
In an interview with RA+C contributing author Olya Voronetskaya, Darra Goldstein shares many untold stories about her pioneering exploration of Russian art, literature and food.
Olya Voronetskaya: Could you talk a little bit more about your interest in food? From what I understand it was related to being in the kitchen around both your grandmother and your mother, but some people don’t appreciate food even though they do have that experience.
Darra Goldstein: Yes, our household had a lot of good food, but of the three children, I was the one who responded most to that. Food was what spoke to me. I think it was the smells—I’ve mentioned elsewhere that one of my earliest memories is of my grandmother taking rugelach out of the oven. When I came to study Russian and tasted Russian food, I realized that these pastries are the same as rogaliki. The word “rugelach” actually comes from rogaliki, “little horns.” So it all came together.
But it was really when I started studying Russian in college and was reading Russian literature that my interest in food grew. Because there was so much censorship in the 19th century, you couldn’t write about sex—it was sublimated into wonderfully erotic descriptions of food, particularly in Chekhov and Gogol. When I got to Stanford for graduate school, I proposed doing my dissertation on food in Russian literature, but I was basically told that I was not a serious person.
So I wrote on Nikolai Zabolotsky and his poetry instead, and I’m not sorry that I did, because it was very rich and wonderful to immerse myself in his verse. But I couldn’t let go of my interest in food. For one thing, I had a desire to prove my professors wrong. Even more important was the time I spent in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, when I experienced great difficulty. I found salvation in people’s generosity, in Russian hospitality. People gave me food and wanted to share what they had, even when there was virtually nothing in the stores… I saw how food was this immediate language of exchange—emotional exchange, but also sustenance. So instead of giving up Russian studies entirely, which I was almost ready to do, I wrote my first cookbook.
Olya Voronetskaya: Did you ever think that that would be the outcome of your year in the Soviet Union? Did the idea start to form when you were still in the Soviet Union?
Darra Goldstein: Oh, I loved food and cookbooks, but it wasn’t my intention to go to the Soviet Union and write a book. That never crossed my mind. As I mentioned, it was something about the generosity of the people, the depth of their hospitality, that prompted me to write it. That guiding idea became the subtitle of my first book, A Taste of Russia: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality, which came out in 1983.
Many Russians thought I was too thin—I remember they kept using the word “dystrophic”—so they would bring me food. It was an amazing education, which was all the more meaningful because I was American. It wasn’t downright dangerous for them to associate with me, but they could certainly have been, and sometimes were, harassed for communing with me.
Over that year I tasted all kinds of new things and asked people for recipes. I tasted chebureki, which I had never heard of before, pelmeni, all these amazing street foods—freshly fried ponchiki, fabulous stuff. And I felt like I needed to write about them. My first cookbook also contains a lot about food in Russian literature—the dissertation I wasn’t allowed to write.
Olya Voronetskaya: Could you discuss the difference in approach and the recipes for your new book, Beyond the North Wind? I think it’s so relevant in the sense that in Russia and in many countries, there is an interest in recipes that are authentic or original to one’s culture. This book really resonates with that trend.
Darra Goldstein: I’m so glad you think so. This book is almost a complete about-face from my first one. I think they make really good companions, but it wasn’t my intention to write another Russian cookbook. I had this wonderful editor at Ten Speed Press who said she really wanted me to write a Russian cookbook. I burst out laughing and said, “That’s crazy! I’ve already done one.”
But then I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea. I wrote my first cookbook 37 years ago. So much has changed since then! Russia is no longer the Soviet Union, and now there are all kinds of exciting things going on in terms of people rediscovering what had been, if not lost, then certainly forgotten or suppressed during the Soviet years. There is a kind of food renaissance taking place, and I realized that I really did have something new to say. Meanwhile, I had become interested in fermentation, and Russian cuisine relies heavily on fermented foods. Fermenting is so trendy in the West now—all the talk of probiotics, the microbes in the gut. Well, the Russians have been practicing fermentation for thousands of years. And foraging, too, which is equally trendy in the West—they’re both part of the Russian DNA.
The recipes in this new book are stripped down to the most basic ingredients, showing how austerity can give rise to creativity and beautiful, intense flavours. This book doesn’t include eggplant caviar or dishes from the former Soviet republics. It looks at what really is elemental to Russian cuisine. In the North, where the climate is severe, the soil tends to be poor, and the growing season is short. So there’s a focus on whole grains, fermentation, cultured dairy products, and pies that use a simple, often rye or whey-based dough, not the French-derived puff pastry or brioche.
Olya Voronetskaya: How has the book so far been received? What were your expectations?
Darra Goldstein: The reception has been fantastic—the New York Times named Beyond the North Wind the number one cookbook in its special 2020 Summer Reading issue, and the TLS published a glowing 1500-word review. Perhaps most important to me is the positive response from people like you who are Russian, but adept in Western culture, either living here or elsewhere in the West, people who approached the book with some scepticism—how can someone named Darra Goldstein, an American, possibly be authoritative about Russian cuisine?
But Russians have found the book quite wonderful and surprising, teaching them things that they never knew about their own traditions. One of my favourite comments was from a woman who tweeted: “I’m an old crusty Soviet, and I approached this book with great scepticism, but its tone is spot on every time.” That really pleased me.
Olya Voronetskaya: One of the first things one sees on the title page is the fantastic quote, “Don’t put off till supper what you can eat at lunch,” from Alexander Pushkin. Are there any particular recipes that you always think back to?
Darra Goldstein: I always go back to the pies. So the kulebyaka… I include a wonderful quote from Chekhov in the book: “The kulebyaka should be appetizing, shameless in its nakedness, a temptation to sin.” It’s a fabulous passage from his short story “The Siren.” And then I think about the four-cornered pie in Dead Souls that contains four different fillings. At some point, Gogol also describes a pie so delicious it will make a dead man’s mouth water. I really love Russian pies!
Olya Voronetskaya: Could you share a bit more about your experience consulting for The Russian Tea Room and Firebird restaurants in New York in the 1990s?
Darra Goldstein: Ah, that was so fantastic—I loved that work. I consulted for the Firebird first. It was over on Restaurant Row, on 46th Street. The wife of the man who founded it was Russian, from some illustrious St. Petersburg lineage. The restaurant was a jewel box. The owner had bought some chairs at auction in London that had belonged to Prince Yusupov. Those chairs weren’t for people to sit in, but they greeted you at the entrance—all of the decor was on that level. Attention to detail and no costs spared, so that entering the restaurant felt like walking into a nobleman’s house in the late 19th-century. The menu was really elegant in that regard, too. It reflected Russian haute cuisine.
The Russian Tea Room was amazing because Warner LeRoy was behind it. He was the son of the producer of The Wizard of Oz and literally grew up walking down the “Yellow Brick Road”. For Warner, it was all about fantasy. He installed an acrylic bear whose belly had been carved out to make an aquarium for tiny sturgeon to swim in. Up on the top floor, where the private dining rooms were, he built a diorama of the Napoleonic Wars with the French marching into Moscow. The lighting changed from daytime to night, when it would start to snow. The scenes were magical.
The Russian Tea Room menu was interesting because the food was pan-Russian, including the Soviet Republics. So there were dishes like Chicken Tabaka from Georgia and Central Asian plov. Warner hated eggplant, so he didn’t want eggplant caviar on the menu, but in a Russian restaurant like that, I felt you had to offer eggplant caviar! Our other battle, I still remember, had to do with sour cream. This was in the 1990s, when there was tremendous fat phobia in the United States. Warner didn’t want the words “sour cream” to appear on the menu, which I couldn’t agree with. I told him, “Warner, you serve borscht with sour cream. People like to put sour cream on blini. Sour cream is a touchstone.” He said: “No, no, we have to call it crème fraîche.” I said, “That’s so pretentious, and it’s sending the wrong message.” We went back and forth like this, till I finally said, “Well, why don’t we use the word smetana? If people don’t know what it is, they can ask the waiter, and the waiter can say it’s crème fraîche.” So that’s what we landed on.
Olya Voronetskaya: Back in your PhD days, your professors weren’t accepting of your idea about bringing food and literature together from a scholarly angle, and then you founded Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture (now The Journal for Food Studies) – how did that come about?
Darra Goldstein: Well, there’s actually a Russian connection. I wrote an article that remains one of the favourite things I’ve ever written. I had been reading about Marie-Antoine Carême, the great French chef who cooked for Tsar Alexander I right after the Napoleonic Wars when he came to France to broker peace. Alexander was enthralled by Carême’s cooking and invited him to Russia. Everywhere you read that Carême cooked for Alexander I in Russia. When I started researching, I found that Carême never actually cooked for him there. When Carême arrived in St. Petersburg, the tsar wasn’t at the dock to meet him, and great French chef that he was, Carême was deeply offended not to get the royal welcome, quite literally. When he went to the imperial kitchens, he was appalled by what he saw and decided not to remain in Russia. I think he was in St. Petersburg for two weeks until he could catch the next boat back to France. He pretty much hated Russia.
Carême had actually wanted to be an architect. If you study his work, you know that he created pièces montées, which are dramatic architectural constructions for the table. It turns out that he did a portfolio of drawings for monuments for St. Petersburg—he felt that the city wasn’t vertical or imposing enough for the capital of an empire. He didn’t realize it was built on a swamp! Rather unbelievably, I discovered that Carême’s portfolio is in the rare books collection of Amherst College. So I was able to see his architectural drawings and compare them to his pièces montées.
I wrote an article that came out in the Slavonic and East European Review, from University College London. It embraced Russia, cuisine, and art—all of my passions. The article was published in a section called “Marginalia” and, not surprisingly, didn’t find the right audience. I thought, how many people like me are out there publishing articles that no one knows about? That experience led me to found Gastronomica as a journal where people from many different disciplines could come together to share scholarly work and also promote the sensual aspects of food and art.
Olya Voronetskaya: That brings me to the fact that one of your other passions is art. When did the interest in art and Russian art start, how did it progress?
Darra Goldstein: It was only in the early 1970s that information about the Russian avant-garde really started to come out in the West. When I was studying Zabolotsky, I discovered that around 1928, he was going to the workshop of the amazing artist Pavel Filonov. I wanted to understand how Filonov’s work influenced Zabolotsky, but I had never formally studied art.
When I came to Williams, at the very first dinner party I attended, I was seated next to a man named Milo Beach. He was the chair of the Art Department, who went on to become the director of the Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, D.C. I told Milo that I had just discovered an artist whom no one knew much about, and that I was blown away by the whole Russian avant-garde.
He said, “You have to teach a course on Russian art. “And I burst out laughing. I’m so grateful to these people in my life who have suggested things that have carried me to amazing places! I replied, “I can’t possibly do that, I’ve never even taken Art 101.” But Milo said he’d help me apply for a Mellon Grant so that I could start learning, because a course on Russian art would be a wonderful addition to the departmental curriculum.
With Milo’s help, I got a grant from the Mellon Foundation, which enabled me to start seriously studying Russian art. But I could only look at books and slides, and something was lacking for me—I couldn’t really feel the art. So I got in touch with John Bowlt, an art historian specializing in the Russian avant-garde, to ask him where I could see some of these works in person. He told me he’d heard of a man named Merrill C. Berman who had a collection, which no one really knew about at that point. (In 2018, the Museum of Modern Art acquired over 300 masterworks from Merrill’s collection.)
I called Merrill out of the blue, and he was intrigued. He invited me to see his collection of graphic design, largely posters, which was phenomenal. In order to understand the artwork for myself, I had to study it very closely, and once I had, I felt that I needed to share these extraordinary works with others. So I approached Tom Krens, who was then the director of the Williams College Museum of Art (he later became the director of the Guggenheim). Tom agreed to let me put together an exhibition, which opened in 1985, and then I started teaching the course. That’s how it all happened. It’s like a fairy tale, right?