Promoting passion in book collecting
The last week of September is Banned Book Week, which this year seems especially timely given the current fracas over Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man in North Carolina. Among the most banned books in history include some of the greatest works of literature of all time; commonly cited are works like Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and James Joyce’s Ulysses.
The list of banned books is extensive, and it includes a number of titles you wouldn’t expect. One of these is A Gift to Young Housewives (1861) by Elena Molokhovets. Following the Revolution of 1917, A Gift to Young Housewives was banned by the Soviet government because it was “capitalist propaganda.” A good number of ingredients used in the book’s recipes were no longer available in Russia, and they merely reminded people of the privations of communism. Yet the book was wildly popular and continued to circulate; a number of handwritten copies have even survived–no small feat, considering that the cookbook came to include over 4,000 recipes!
Elena Molokhovets, née Burman, was born in 1831. Her father was a minor Russian noble, which gave Molokhovets early access to aristocratic society. She was educated at the Imperial Educational Society for Noble Girls. She married architect Franz Molokhovets, and the couple would go on to have ten children: nine sons and one daughter. But only two of these would outlive their mother, and Franz died in 1909. The last decade of Molokhovets’ life was undoubtedly a lonely one.
In 1861, the family moved to Kursk, near the Ukraine border. Franz had a position with the government and sufficient social standing that his wife had access to Russia’s minor nobility. He was also surprisingly supportive of his wife’s authorial aspirations; it wasn’t considered genteel for women to write, but Franz encouraged his partner.
Nevertheless, when Molokhovets first published A Gift to Young Housewives in 1861, she did it anonymously. The book proved much more popular than she’d likely anticipated, spawning plagiarism and imitations–and forcing Molokhovets to acknowledge authorship. First she tried marking the books with her initials, but that wasn’t enough. By the publication of the fourth edition (1869), Molokhovets named herself as the book’s compiler.
Molokhovets became something of a celebrity; few Russian households were without a copy of A Gift to Young Housewives, and by the time the Jubilee edition was published (1911), Molokhovets was affectionately called baba povairikha (old woman cook). She is often compared to Fannie Farmer and Isabella Beeton. Her work is certainly as exhaustive, authoritative, and influential as Farmer’s and Beeton’s were on American and British cookery, respectively.
The first edition of A Gift to Housewives included around 1,500 recipes, and Molokhovets continued to revise the book until her death. Thus the book kept growing! The 1897 edition had 3,218 recipes, and the 1904 edition included 4,163. But like the manuals of Farmer and Beeton, Molokhovets went beyond recipes. The book’s complete title is A Gift to Young Housewives, or a Help to Reduce Housekeeping Charges. Molokhovets intended to create a comprehensive guide for managing a household as frugally as possible. She delved into cooking utensils and equipment; relations with servants; and even water safety. Recipes for feast days are also included, along with tips for saving both time and money. Later editions also incorporated recipes specifically for the sick or elderly.
During her lifetime, Molokhovets’ book was the household guide for women who managed both upper- and middle-class households. She compiled both traditional Russian recipes and those of French dishes that were popular among more affluent households. The recipes often called for exotic ingredients (even cannibis oil), which were frequently scarce or expensive–some cannot even be found at all today. The common theme of the book, however, was that women should plan their own families’ meals frugally, and go all out only for guests. She lays out practical instructions for preservation…a necessary task when fresh food was available only about three months of the year.
Molokhovets also earned a reputation for pedantic insistence on standardization and complete faithfulness to her methods. According to one particularly scathing article in an 1884 literary almanac, “Molokhovets is convinced that cooking over fire is her invention, and that without her guidance people would be unable to put a spoon in their mouth. Every dish not cooked in accordance with her book is forged to her, and everyone who does not follow her lessons is a personal foe.”
Meanwhile Russia was far from stable. The country suffered the Great Famine from 1891 to 1893, and fell into political disarray in 1905. Households relied on the rituals of the table (fastidiously outlined in A Gift to Young Housewives) for continuity and comfort. Perhaps this is why the book was so frequently copied by hand in the USSR, even when most ingredients were completely unavailable or unaffordable to the vast majority of households.
Molokhovets’ other literary endeavors did little to enhance her reputation. Particularly damaging was her 1910 housekeeping encyclopedia, To the Russian People, which included a number of truly questionable recipes. For instance, Molokhovets writes, “If your palms sweat often, take two frogs in your hands and hold them till they die.” She also named prayer as the best remedy for the pains of childbirth. The Russia Society of Public Health openly descried Molokhovets, saying, “we cannot decide what is more objectionable: the impermissible ignorance of M-me. Molokhovets or her impudence.”
Once the book was banned, Soviet supporters derided A Gift for Young Housewives as “bourgeois and decadent.” They highlighted the outdated gender roles and classist tone; Molokhovets admittedly makes comments like “fresh roach is not very tasty and barely useful; it is, therefore, best used to feed the servants.” The book still also used outdated measures like the Russian bucket and had none of the modern recipe features like oven temperature.
In the ensuing years, food shortages and poverty rendered most cookbooks completely irrelevant. The genre languished in Russia for decades. A Gift to Young Housewives survived because it was such a vital, integral part of Russia’s cultural zeitgeist. Notable Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin left Russia and later observed, “the two most popular authors among Russian émigrés are Molokhovets in the first place and Pushkin in the second.”
In 1989, several reprints of A Gift to Young Housewives popped up in Russia. And in 1998, Joyce Toome, culinary historian and Fellow of the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University, published an English edition of the book. It includes about 1,000 of the original 1,500 recipes and an exceptional context for the work.
The recipes in A Gift to Young Housewives have even been recreated by modern culinary historians. Andrew Whitley, author of Bread Matters, uses the book as a reference for baking Russian recipes. And Helen Rennie offers photographs of dishes she recreated from Molokhovets’ book.
A Gift to Young Housewives has gained attention from scholars because it offers incredible insight not only into Russian cookery, but also into the ways in which other cuisines influenced Russian cuisine, along with the social and political attitudes of the time. The history of A Gift to Young Housewives itself provides fertile ground for rare cookbook collectors; indeed, you could construct an entire collection of the book’s various editions and venture into collecting handwritten copies from the Soviet years.