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The Taste of Russian Summers

In this week’s report from the Humanities Research Seminar on the theme of “food,” Professor Christine Ruane shares her own experiment in recreating an eighteenth-century Russian treat.

Russian food has evolved by incorporating influences from other culinary traditions, especially French cuisine. Tired of having Europeans dismiss Russians as uncouth barbarians, in the early 1700s Tsar Peter the Great decided that he would “Europeanize” himself and his subjects. One way to do that was for Russians to eat European food. Since French cuisine had become the gold standard for European fine dining, elite Russians embraced it to demonstrate their culinary sophistication. This embrace of French cuisine did not mean that Russians merely imitated their French counterparts. Cooks in Russia adapted these French recipes and cooking techniques to Russian conditions. Most Russian cookbook authors will identify these Franco-Russian dishes, or sometimes the names themselves reveal their dual citizenship.[1]

ruane-blog2There is at least one exception to this instance of cultural transmission and adaptation. In researching Russian usage of fruits and vegetables, I kept running across a dessert called pastilles (French) or pastila (Russian). Initially, I assumed that the Russian candy was the result of French influence, but in exploring the etymology of the Russian name, I discovered a more interesting story. According to the most comprehensive nineteenth-century Russian etymological dictionary, pastila comes from the verb postilat’/postlat’ which means to spread or lay out.[2] The original name of the candy was postila which clearly indicates its derivation from the verb. The first mention of the dessert (postila) can be found in a sixteenth-century household management book called the Domostroi.[3] It was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that the Russian spelling was modified to pastila.[4] Why the name changed is not explained in the sources, but it is translated into English as pastilles. Whatever the confusion over the name, the dessert is an example of old Russian cuisine. Along with jams, preserves, and juices, making postila served as another way to preserve freshly harvested fruits.

So what then is this Russian dessert? The Russian culinary historian Pokhlebkin argues that the medieval postila would have been made from pureed apples, honey, and beaten egg whites. Once thoroughly mixed, women would bake these sweets in the enormous clay stoves that were customary in Russian homes.[5]  Inevitably, the traditional ways of making postila changed as a result of Europeanization and industrialization. Sugar replaced honey as the sweetener, and Russian stoves were replaced with smaller metal ones. Pokhlebkin remarks that the drying process with newer ovens became too cumbersome for women to make postila in their homes.[6] (Indeed in my attempt to make the modern version of pastila (Figure 1), I found the long baking time of six hours challenging to work into my rather hectic schedule.)[7]   To supply Russians with postila, some nineteenth-century Russian entrepreneurs began the industrial production of the sweets.[8] The provincial towns of Kolomna and Rzhev became the centers of postila/pastila production in large part because they used the much-loved Russian antonovka and titovka apples for their puree. Today, there is a pastila museum in Kolomna, celebrating the role of this sweet confection in Russian life.[9]

[1] See Darra Goldstein, A La Russe: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality (New York: Random House, 1983).

[2] Vladimir Dal’, Tolkovyi slovar’ zhivogo Velikoruskogo iazyka (Moscow: Russkii iazyk, 1980): III: 344-345. This is a reprint of the 1882 edition.

[3] For the English translation, see The “Domostroi”: Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible, ed. and trans. Carolyn Johnston Pouncy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 152.

[4] Vil’iam V. Pokhlebkin, “Kulinarnyi slovar’,” Bol’shaia Kulinarnaia Kniga (Moscow: Eksmo, 2013), 899.

[5] Ibid. For more on Russian stoves, see Snejana Tempest, “Stovelore in Russian Folklife,” Food in Russian History and Culture, eds. Musya Glants and Joyce Toomre (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997): 1-14.

[6] Pokhlebkin, “Kulinarnyi slovar’,” 899.

[7] Goldstein, “Apple Confections/Pastila,” 292.

[8] Pokhlebkin, “Kulinarnyi slovar’,” 899.

[9] See