Carbohydrate Hell

Kristen Ann Ehrenberger's picture

A What is a Recipe? contribution by Anastasia Lakhtikova, PhD (Independent Scholar)

Similar to many traditional cultures, and despite industrialization and development of the food industry, Soviet citizens heavily relied on carbohydrates. Such things as “boiled beef with Italian macaroni,” not to mention “spit-roasted beef” from Joyce Toomre’s examples of the most modest dinner dishes in imperial Russia, were not available on a daily basis for the middle class Soviet family even in the late, most prosperous period between 1960s and 1990s.[1] In addition to various breads (of very high quality, one must admit) and dessert-type sweet breads, sweet milky porridges made of a variety of grains (semolina, wheat, oats, millet, rice, and, less frequently, buckwheat and barley) represent a Soviet breakfast childhood staple. The same grains would be eaten for dinner without milk as a main course with some form of protein in very modest quantities. All kinds of traditional fare made of yeast and soda dough with a little bit of filling—such as fried and baked individual pies, pancakes, blintzes, pelmeni, vareniki, and pirogues—though labor-intensive, were also popular because they were nourishing and required lots of dough and little filling. Individual baked or fried pies were incredibly popular with the children for their taste and nourishment.

In my mother’s personal manuscript cooking journal that she kept between the 1970s and 1990s in Soviet Ukraine, I find a cut-out from a national women’s magazine, a recipe titled “Wonder Sand”—the rock bottom of carbohydrate hell, in my view. Just the idea makes my skin crawl. In a section similar to “Letters to Editor,” the correspondent writes:

My grandmother, Matrena Andreevna, baked wonderful “pies with sand”; even now I pamper my husband and children [with] them [the pies]—everyone likes them! The filling, to my mind, is very unusual: flour fried in pig lard till it’s light brown, salted to taste. The dough is regular yeast [dough]. When the flour cools down, I stuff little pies with it, and bake [them] in the oven.

The tone of this narrative is very warm—the author was sharing what she genuinely believed to be a great family recipe and a great find for anyone living in the Soviet space. She is relying on women’s common knowledge of how to make yeast dough; no recipe or instructions would be necessary. In that culture, most Soviet women would be full-time family cooks with full-time employment outside of their homes. Considering the ingenuity of Soviet women in terms of the variety of fillings they could put into pies made of yeast dough (from fresh to preserved fruits, to stir-fried vegetables, to ground meats), the filling in this recipe puzzles me. It either speaks of utmost poverty and/or inaccessibility of sometimes the most basic foods. I’ve considered speed and, preferably, the least effort that was required to make a dinner after a full day’s work, but yeast dough required for fried individual pies is not a speedy option. Unless, of course, one keeps some in the fridge at all times. I thank my mother for not trying these pies out, though my brother and I would probably have gobbled them up, as we did everything else she baked. This recipe, this find was a glimpse into how “others” whom we did not encounter in our everyday lives lived. We lived what seemed like an average Soviet family life and this recipe was a revelation about how privileged we actually were.


[1] Toomre, Joyce, trans, ed., Classic Russian Cooking: Elena Molokhovets’ “A Gift to Young Housewives” (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992).