Michele Humes (I live in New York and I write about food.)

Food, By Andrei Bilzho

This is a book I chanced upon in the library’s G stacks today. G, in the Library of Congress classification system, is for Geography, Anthropology and Recreation. This book has a bit of all of those things.

And yes, that is a real, metal fork hammered into the cover. You see, now, why I had to check it out of the library, even though it was too big for my handbag and I had to carry it around Manhattan for three hours.

Eda (“Food”) is a book of illustrated memories, by Andrei Bilzho, of all the best dishes of his Soviet boyhood. Bilzho is a well-known cartoonist who lives in Moscow and has a pair of Soviet-nostalgia restaurants called “Petrovich” (named after his most famous character) in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Soviet nostalgia: what’s that all about? As Bilzho has noted, three of his four grandparents were either executed or packed off to the gulag during Stalin’s time, so he’s not at all nostalgic for the Soviet system of government. Rather, his is an artist’s nostalgia for the artifacts of everyday Soviet life.

(I totally get it. It’s like how I get really teary-eyed about any number of silly Hong Kong objects, when in fact my childhood was mostly miserable.)

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Shproty/“Sprats”

Each illustration is of a single dish, drawn on a cheap paper plate and accompanied by a short, chatty essay. There are 40 of them, followed by a reproduction of a typical Soviet restaurant menu circa 1977–a time when you could dine for under a ruble.

I love this book.

Russia’s cuisine is so compact and homogenized that–despite having spent maybe seven months in that country, tops–I feel that I know every dish in this collection intimately. (Contrast this with the cuisine of a country like China, where I have spent so much of my life and yet have only begun to scratch the culinary surface.) In my own way, I’m as nostalgic for them as the author is. Our associations are different, of course.

Here is what he has to say about kotlety po-kievskii, chicken à la Kiev:

I drew the chicken à la Kiev wrong. They shouldn’t have sticks poking out of them, of course, but chicken bones–only I always imagined them on sticks, like ice cream bars. These chicken cutlets are pretty tricky; I put them on the menu at Petrovich as “The Tragedy of Optimism,” because if you stick your knife in one straight away, hot butter squirts out all over your shirt and tie or your blouse. With this tricky little chicken cutlet, first you have to strategically puncture it and let the butter leak out, and only then can you proceed. Why they’re called “à la Kiev,” I don’t know, but they go by this name in a number of countries. I’ve heard that in the US, which I’ve never been to myself, they eat them on the go. Like ice cream bars, as a matter of fact.

I wonder how that rumor got started. Did a Russian tourist come upon a particularly greasy corndog?

My own chicken à la Kiev memory would be quite different–a composite of the big old chicken football (the coinage is my husband’s) I ate nearly a decade ago at The Shamrock, an Irish bar in St. Petersburg that was always crawling with ballet dancers from the Kirov across the street, and an even bigger, older chicken football that I once ordered on a date in Hong Kong because I was very young, had butterflies, and had no idea what I really wanted. The tragedy of optimism struck both times.

(All photos cribbed from a Russian online bookseller that has quite magnanimously scanned most of the pages.)