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BOOK REVIEW : Crystallized Roses and Fish in a Basket of Snow : CLASSIC RUSSIAN COOKING: A Gift to Young Housewives By Elena Molokhovets ; Translated, introduced and annotated by Joyce Toomre ; (Indiana University Press: $39.75; 704 pp.)

April 01, 1993|ANNE MENDELSON

Why do so many of us save food articles and buy cookbooks until we're buried in recipes? I think one reason is a deep yearning for culinary magic carpets to sweep us away to another time and place. Somehow and somewhere, we feel, the alchemy must exist to conjure up in our own kitchen the true flavor of Aristophanes' Athens or Dolly Madison's White House or modern-day Bahia--right?

Well, not really. Not without long hours spent plugging away at the tedious, innumerable realities that separate those worlds from ours. In all honesty, modern American cooks must struggle mightily to take in anything not of their own time and place.

Even when a fine editor has done the plugging away, such a work as Elena Molokhovets' famous pre-revolutionary Russian kitchen bible, "A Gift to Young Housewives," will present monumental obstacles to understanding. But if you're willing to immerse yourself in a strenuous task, this handsome, thoughtfully illustrated, scholarly edition truly will conjure up the long-ago and faraway. You will not doubt for a minute that you have been set down in another culinary realm, whether the business at hand is crystallized whole roses or how to carry live fish in a basket of snow.

"A Gift to Young Housewives," Joyce Toomre tells us, is one of those long-lived manuals that undergo many different incarnations. During decades filled with great culinary and technological change, recipes were deleted and added wholesale through more than 25 editions, up to 1917--even later, in emigre versions.

With such a book, a translator/editor would have her work cut out merely deciding on a text to translate, even if she could easily get her hands on surviving copies (Toomre apparently had trouble), and even if the original book had not become monstrously long and complex in later editions.

Then there is the small hitch that scarcely one of the old measurements (volume, weight or even length) translates comfortably into anything in current American use. Or the constant problem of ingredients that we can duplicate only through mad effort--birch lye, sturgeon heads, the silver kopeck that was steeped in milk to make "silver leaven." Even water could present choices unknown to us ("river water" vs. "well water"). The kitchens, batterie de cuisine and general conditions envisioned by the author tax the imagination.

You can start by assuming that the elbow grease for mixing a stiff gingerbread dough "at least two hours" came from hordes of servants and that people were conversant with the differences among several types of earth for burying food--a method of insulating and curing.

As an ever-present background difficulty, the very names of Molokhovets' Russia defy any sane, logical transliteration into our own hopelessly unphonetic writing system.

Toomre, a Harvard-based Slavist, addresses all such hurdles with unflinching gumption. I have just a single quibble, and any scholar would dismiss it: For lay readers, her transliteration system is unpronounceable. Otherwise, she spares no effort to make Molokhovets' amazing work intelligible to people who have never previously tangled with old cookbooks or Old Russia.

First of all, Toomre has cut through the textual snarl by taking one edition (the 20th, from 1897) as her working version and abridging it by about three-quarters--a drastic solution but, given the assembly-line character of the big 19th-Century cookery manuals, not fatal. Her surgery leaves about 900 recipes, a selection meant to be "interesting from a contemporary American viewpoint" but also to show "the full range of Russian ingredients and techniques."

The mixture turns out to be well chosen. On the one hand, Toomre takes care to include dishes that will ring a bell with modern audiences or can at least be attempted by a resourceful person accustomed to seat-of-the-pants cooking.

There are versions of some standbys we know in this country--though the allspice-accented beef stroganoff won't taste much like the Fannie Farmer version and the five borscht recipes bear no resemblance to the insipid American canned beet juice concoction. There's also a sprinkling of fairly easy but (for us) attractively off-beat dishes: fried fish "cutlets" with a bit of carrot or parsley root serving as the "bone," beer soup with sour cream, "apple mustard" (just what it sounds like), a French toast spread with a ground almond and rose water syrup, cold berry soup with optional scoops of ice cream added "like dumplings."

But what you should mostly expect is the unexpected. "A Gift to Young Housewives" is a rare record of a civilization that at times seems like the other side of the moon. Many recipes evoke a now-extinct opulence (and supply of cheap household labor), from boned stuffed suckling pig in aspic or cold truffled pate en croute made with calf's liver and hazel grouse, to preserved gooseberries hollowed out one by one with a penknife and threaded on twigs to resemble clusters of hops.

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