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Cooking with Mikhail Sholokhov


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Photo: Erica MacLean.

Today, the Eat Your Words kitchen plunges into controversy with Mikhail Sholokhov (1905–1984), the Russian known as Joseph Stalin’s favorite writer, whose greatest work is And Quiet Flows the Don. This book—if it can be called a book, and not an item of propaganda, or possibly a plagiarism, or at least a contested territory—was published in serial format from 1925 to 1932, and then was completed with a final volume in 1940. In the end it comprised four “books” concerning a cast of characters based in the Don Cossack region of Russia (now in Ukraine), set in a time period starting around 1912, before the outbreak of World War I, and continuing through the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War. Sholokhov was known as “the Red Tolstoy,” and people often love the book for its qualities as a historical epic. When I first read it, while living in Moscow in my twenties, I found it useful in bringing the complex politics and military phases of the era to life. But the qualities that have brought me back over the years are the same ones that made the novel such a sensation in its time: the freshness and vividness of its portrayal of village life.

The first section of And Quiet Flows the Don is unforgettable in this sense. It centers on the Melekhov family, known in their village as Turks because the main patriarch’s mother was a Turkish woman brought home by the patriarch’s father as a plunder of war (and later accused of witchcraft and beaten to death by the other villagers). The patriarch, Pantelimon, has a son, Gregor, who develops a passion for Aksinia, his neighbor’s wife, and she for him. This passion arises against the unhappily married Aksinia’s will. The book declares: “Without consciously desiring it, resisting the feeling with all her might, she noticed that on Sundays and week-days she was attiring herself more carefully. Making pretexts to herself, she sought to place herself more frequently in his path. She was happy to find Gregor’s black eyes caressing her heavily and rapturously.”

The feelings are recognizable to anyone who has ever had a forbidden passion, but the details are enchantingly particular. One evening Gregor and Aksinia are thrown together while Gregor’s father takes advantage of a thunderstorm to go out fishing with nets (the fish are afraid of thunder and cluster by the banks). On the way home, Aksinia gets cold, so Gregor suggests they stop to shelter in the past year’s haystack, which is warm “like a stove” in the middle. Most modern readers, like me, wouldn’t have known that old haystacks are warm inside. The hay smells “warm and rotten,” yet Gregor, lying next to Aksinia within it, notices the “tender, agitating” scent that comes from her hair. “Your hair smells like henbane—you know, the white flower,” he says, before trying to kiss her. Aksinia escapes and jumps out of the haystack. We’re told that as she stands, adjusting her kerchief, steam rises from her wet clothes and now-warm body in the cold air. All of these tiny, sensual details bring the scene to life. There’s a wild folk beauty to the Russian-Ukrainian countryside that’s all its own—and is visible to this day—and the book captures it.

 

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Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Sholokhov was a daring, handsome teenager, a non-Cossack Russian from the Don Cossack region who struck out for Moscow in 1922 when he was seventeen years old, after some local trouble cut short his career prospects. There he began writing formulaic communist short stories of the “boy writes letters to Lenin’s photo” variety. It paid better than factory work, and he liked the glamour of it. He wore a Cossack hat and jacket, making his provincial background part of his persona, and allowed people to think he’d run off to fight in the Red Army when he was only thirteen. In 1928, when he was twenty-three, he began publishing And Quiet Flows the Don in serial format, and the work became an immediate sensation, making its author a Soviet celebrity. However, many people at the time felt that the precision and depth of the book’s portrayal of Cossack life, its emotional maturity, and its grasp of wartime events could not have come from a young writer who hadn’t had such life experiences. Moreover, Sholokhov’s lackluster previously published fiction showed no inkling of the talents of this writer. Accusations quickly began to circulate that Sholokhov had found a manuscript written by a deceased White Army officer and passed it off as his own.

To this day, the matter remains unresolved. Shortly after the publication of the first two volumes of And Quiet Flows the Don, a commission led by the writer Alexander Serafimovich concluded that the allegations of plagiarism did not hold up. And in 2007, the statistician Nils Lid Hjort performed an analysis of Sholokhov’s prose and concluded that “the sentence length data speak very strongly in Sholokhov’s favour.” A cache of manuscripts discovered in the eighties has also been used to prove that Sholokhov was the book’s sole author. On the other side, Alexander Solzhenitsyn published a cogent takedown of Sholokhov in the sixties, currently available in translation behind the paywall at the Times Literary Supplement. The most current Sholokhov biography, Stalin’s Scribe, by Brian J. Boeck, concludes more or less what I’ve always believed, which is that Sholokhov found a cache of source material, including the unfinished manuscript about the Melekhov family, and turned it into a final work that became more his own in the later volumes. To me it seems clear that the book’s later character development, and the incorporation of the political material, is the work of a less skilled writer.

 

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Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Plagiarism is a terrible crime, but many writers might almost sympathize with Sholokhov. Many of us would be tempted by the possession of a manuscript of surpassing beauty, written by a dead man, which could be polished up and made one’s own. Many writers might also pity him for his success, for once he started the book, he had to finish it. Conditions for that could not have been more terrible. His story concerned highly political recent history and was being published during a time of massive upheaval and increasing censorship of the arts. Even before writers were being sent to concentration camps, they were under pressure to represent an ever-changing party line. Sholokhov needed to glorify Soviet history by making Gregor Melekhov into a Bolshevik, and to portray without nuance the White Russian side, which most Cossacks fought for in the Civil War, as pure evil, despite that this ran against the thrust of the found material. He was enough of a writer to know that to transform his characters too dramatically would be to murder them. And he had real sympathy for the Cossacks and the rural people of his region. Ongoing installations of the book were increasingly dangerous attempts to thread the needle, with occasional insertions of political rants to correct ideological “mistakes” from previous chapters.

For a writer to get it all right politically in the Stalin era was impossible. In 1931, Sholokhov was summoned in disgrace to discuss his plot with the writer Maxim Gorky, whom Stalin’s Scribe describes as the Soviet Union’s unofficial literary ombudsman. Sholokhov had moved from Moscow back to the Don region after the first plagiarism scandal, and the long trip to the capital with his fate in the balance was by all accounts excruciating. When Sholokhov walked in to Gorky’s Moscow mansion, he discovered that the audience was actually with Stalin, who had, like everyone else, loved the book’s early chapters and was concerned about its political direction. In a most unlikely turn of events, Sholokhov argued successfully for his nuanced plot and charmed the dictator. Perhaps one provincial fabulist recognized another. Sholokhov was given Stalin’s personal phone number and tasked with carrying out Stalin’s vision for Russian literature. A more terrible bridegroom can hardly be imagined, and again, one almost sympathizes.

 

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Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Conditions worsened in Russia in the thirties as the communist government turned against successful small farmers. At the time, to most observers—including Sholokhov—these seemed like excesses or outrages. The violence was later revealed to be a deliberate program, endorsed by Stalin, in order to force people onto collective farms. The historical tragedy of this is well known. Numbers vary, but at least four million people starved to death in Ukraine in the years 1932 to 1933 as a result of these destructive policies. Sholokhov put himself at political risk to help people, and was personally able to secure aid for his region, but work on his manuscript ground to a halt. In a detail that horrifies me, he was then tasked by Stalin to write a triumphant fictional account of collectivization, which resulted in the first volume of the novel Virgin Soil Upturned, published in 1935. To be forced to positively fictionalize a holocaust seems like a punishment a thousandfold for any writer’s sins. If Sholokhov felt that way, we can’t know. He became a serious alcoholic, but in the Russia of that time, this wasn’t uncommon.

Sholokhov survived the purges of the thirties, in legend and perhaps in truth because And Quiet Flows the Don was not finished and Stalin wanted to see how it ended. His personal survival must have felt like a mixed blessing when all around him people were being arrested and tortured, including his two best friends, who were local officials caught up in the purges. Again using his pull with Stalin, Sholokhov fought for these two men and managed eventually to free them, but his complicity with the regime must have been felt. The scene where one of Sholokhov’s trembling, tortured, prematurely aged best friends is united with the writer beneath the watchful eye of the secret police is among the biography’s most poignant and chilling. Sholokhov eventually finished his book in 1940, during World War II, and carried on as a respected, if never prolific, literary figure, even winning the 1965 Nobel Prize in Literature (the most contested award in the history of the prize, according to Stalin’s Scribe).

Sholokhov’s career was a tragedy, and his book is a cautionary tale on how ideology ruins art. Yet I return occasionally to And Quiet Flows the Don for the manifest beauty and authenticity at its core. It evokes for me a very particular Russia, whose closeness to the village was something I felt strongly while living in Moscow in the nineties. To my American eyes back then it was striking to see old women standing in the metro underpasses selling gnarled vegetables from their gardens, potatoes covered with black earth, bunches of dried dill flowers for pickling. There were two currencies circulating—an old hyperinflated one and a new adjusted one—and people remembered times of recent hunger. My urban landlady spent the summers on a plot of land outside the city, subsistence farming without indoor plumbing to lay up food for the winter.

 

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Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

The food this peasant connectivity produces is distinctive and amazing: pickles, infusions of fresh fruit and herbs, infused vodkas, fermented drinks made from crusts of old bread (kvass), a prevalence of fresh and aged dairy products from homes that own cows or goats, and simple creations with seasonal fruit and vegetables wrapped in pancakes (blini). These are the foods of And Quiet Flows the Don, where all soup is cabbage soup, a house’s kitchen is described as smelling of “fresh kvass, harness, and the warmth of human bodies,” and an anteroom reeks of “dogs and vinegar.” The book brings the agricultural countryside to life with simple, homely things like sunflowers, sour cherries, apricots, sorrel, rye, oats, curd cake, cold borscht, and kefir.

I am married to a Russian and have a deep background in this kind of cooking. I made a feast for a peasant celebration, drawing on foods mentioned in the book and making reference to my archive of Ukrainian cookbooks, purchased long ago in Kiev. For a few dishes I used Bonnie Frumkin Morales’s beautiful cookbook Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking, which offers the kind of retro-upscale spin on tradition you’d find today in fashionable Moscow restaurants. This was the source for my vodka infusion with cocoa nibs, which I used to make White Russians as a nod to the likely author of the original manuscript. From Kachka I also took a bright green tarragon drink that is inflected with the Central Asian influences of the Don region, and a kompot drink of summer fruit using sour cherries and apricots. To me kompot seems like an ingenious peasant way of doing something new with seasonal abundance.

If the thrifty technique of turning extra bits of things into delicious liquids is emblematic of this kind of cooking, nothing is more emblematic than kvass, which I have made before but never really understood. To the Western palate a “fermented bread drink” is weird. Kvass is a fairly simple preparation that can be made in a day, or overnight. You take slices of rye bread, dry them out, toast them, and then soak them in water for a few hours. Strain, add sugar and yeast and a few raisins, set in a warm place, and in no time you’ll have a dry, bubbly, very lightly alcoholic drink. These days it’s usually made with store-bought bread, but no village woman in the early twentieth century would have done that, so I made my own, working off a recipe developed for a previous column. The resulting kvass was a revelation. I’ve been craving more ever since. For my menu, I took it a step further and made a kvass-based okroshka, the most iconic cold soup in a culture of iconic cold soups. This is a dish to truly befuddle the Western palate: cubes of radish, cucumber, ham, and potato floating in an ice-cold bath of kvass and topped with sour cream and dill. I’ve rarely felt so wildly enthusiastic about a dish as I did about my okroshka. And one out of five dinner party guests agreed with me. (That might sound like poor numbers, but considering the dish’s unfamiliarity, I believe it was a triumph.)

 

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Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

For my main course I needed to use millet and cabbage, two ingredients mentioned frequently in And Quiet Flows the Don, and I found a recipe for millet-stuffed cabbage in my Ukrainian cookbook. This dish is an example of the elaborate technique that traditional countryside cooks would use to transform simple ingredients. I first washed the millet, then toasted it, then cooked it in chicken stock, then sautéed it in a mixture of onions and carrots, producing a fresh, light, pleasingly salty mixture to be used as stuffing. It was only when I moved on to the next step that I realized that unlike most stuffed-cabbage preparations, which wrap a filling in a precooked cabbage leaf, this beauty was supposed to be stuffed whole. I steamed the cabbage, then carefully prized it open like a giant flower, stuffed it, folded it back up, roasted it, stewed it (I’m not sure this step was necessary, but the cookbook instructed me to do so), then cut it into wedges and served it topped with fresh parsley and sour cream. The resulting crispy green confection was truly a showstopper.

When Gregor comes home from the war, his relatives rush to feed him “some pancakes,” which surely would have meant blini. These are lacy, paper-thin crepes about six inches in diameter (not the bite-size thick pancakes called blini in America). To make them properly has been a lifelong quest of mine, one I’ve also written about in a previous column. Blini can be folded into quarters and topped with caviar, or stuffed with all kinds of things—potato, mushroom, ground meat. Usually the sweet versions incorporate some mixture of fruit and farmer cheese (tvorog). In this case I opted for seasonal simplicity and stuffed mine with fresh strawberries topped with whipped cream. Blini, made right, are so good that they really need no enhancement.

It was enormously fun to whip these blini out perfectly, just like a Russian grandma, and to stuff the cabbage, and to concoct all my liquids. My guests thought the feast was colorful, intoxicating, and impressive. I hadn’t consciously set out to mimic the great joy of the novel, which is the surprise of the authentically local and particular, but that is how it turned out. And this gave me another insight: The cooking process for these columns often contains an element of the unexpected, wherein the meal seems to summon the spirit of the author, who then takes over my kitchen regardless of my intentions. In this case the menu was so bright, herbaceous, and abundant that the author summoned seemed not to be a man who’d lived through famines and the Stalin era but someone from a simpler time, perhaps a White Russian officer fighting in the war, away from home and longing for the food of his countryside. I summoned someone, but I don’t think it was Sholokhov.

 

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Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Tarragon Soda

Adapted from Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking. This recipe should be started the night before you plan to serve. 

1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
large handful of fresh tarragon, chopped, both leaves and stems
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
6 cups club soda
a few drops of green food coloring, optional

 

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Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan, and bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve any remaining granules of sugar. Remove from heat. Let cool to room temperature, and add the tarragon. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, strain through a fine mesh strainer. and reserve the syrup. In a pitcher, combine syrup, lemon juice, and club soda, and stir gently. The “authentic” version of this drink is always dyed bright green with food coloring, so add some if you like.

 

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Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Summer Kompot

Adapted from Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking. This recipe should be made the night before you plan to serve. 

a pint of sour cherries, pitted
1 cup of pitted and sliced apricots
a pint of strawberries, washed and sliced
3/4 cup sugar
6 cups water

 

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Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Place the fruits, sugar, and water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, and stir to dissolve the sugar. Reduce heat to a simmer, and simmer until the fruits soften and release their flavors, up to five minutes. Cool completely, and then refrigerate overnight. To serve, ladle both the liquid and the fruit pieces into glasses or mugs, and serve with a spoon.

 

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Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

White Russian with Cacao-Nib Vodka

Adapted from Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking. This recipe should be started a week before you plan to serve.

2 tbs cacao nibs
1 750-ml bottle of vodka
1 tbs simple syrup
1 1/2 oz cacao-nib vodka
3/4 oz coffee liqueur
1/2 oz simple syrup
2 oz heavy cream

To make the vodka, preheat your oven to 375. Place the nibs on a rimmed baking sheet, and toast for five minutes (they’ll begin to smell delicious). Remove from the oven and let cool slightly, then place them in a quart-size mason jar. Add the vodka and the simple syrup, cover, and let steep for a week in a dark, cool place.

To make the White Russian, pour the vodka, coffee liqueur, and simple syrup into an ice-filled glass, stir for five seconds, and strain into the glass you plan to use. Add more ice, and top with heavy cream. Taste for strength and sweetness, and adjust as desired.

 

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Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Okroshka

Adapted from Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking. This recipe should be started forty-eight hours before you plan to serve—or longer if you make your own bread.

To make the kvass:  

3/4 lb dark Russian bread (see “Cooking with Varlam Shalamov,” or use store-bought variety)
3 quarts of water, divided
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/4 tsp yeast
2 dozen raisins

 

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Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Preheat your oven to 350. Cut the bread in quarter-inch slices, and lay them out on a rimmed baking sheet. Toast in the oven until they’re completely dry and have a little bit of color (but are not burnt), about twenty minutes.

When the bread is toasted, place it in a large heatproof bowl or pot. Bring a quart and a half of water to a boil, and pour the water over the bread. Let the mixture steep for an hour, and then strain, keeping both the bread and the water. Set aside the first steeping of water, and place the soggy bread back in the bowl. Bring another quart and a half of water to a boil, pour the water over the bread, and let the mixture steep another hour. Using a fine-mesh strainer, strain and discard the bread. Combine the steeped waters in a large container.

Add the sugar and yeast to the strained liquid, and stir to dissolve. Taste the liquid so you have a baseline to gauge the fermentation, then place a cheesecloth or a clean dishtowel over the top. Let the mixture sit at room temperature for eight to ten hours, until it becomes slightly fizzy and less sweet (as the sugars are eaten by the yeast). It can sit out longer if you would like the finished product to be more dry than sweet. Continue to taste periodically until it gets to the desired flavor.

Add the raisins, cover, and transfer to the refrigerator. Chill thoroughly, popping the lid a few times to remove the pressure from residual fermentation.

To make the salad mixture: 

a large Yukon Gold potato, cut into a 1/3 inch dice
1/2 lb good quality ham, cubed in a 1/3 inch dice
4 mild “breakfast” radishes, cubed in a 1/4 inch dice
2 cucumbers, peeled and cut into a 1/3 inch dice
3 large hardboiled eggs, chopped finely
1/2 cup sunflower sprouts (optional)
1/2 cup sliced scallions (reserve some for garnish)
1/2 cup finely minced dill  (reserve some for garnish)
1/2 cup sour cream
2 tsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp lemon zest
1/4 tsp salt
black pepper to taste

 

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Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Place the potato in a small pot, and add water to cover by an inch or two. Bring to a boil over high heat, and then reduce to a simmer. Cook until the potato is tender when pierced with a knife, just a few minutes. Drain, and let the potato cool to room temperature.

In a large bowl mix together the cooked potato, ham, radishes, cucumbers, chopped egg, sunflower sprouts, scallions, and dill. Set aside and chill. In a small bowl, mix together the sour cream, lemon juice, lemon zest, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine.

To serve, place three quarters of a cup of the salad mixture in each bowl. Add a cup of kvass and a dollop of the sour cream mixture, and garnish with reserved scallions and dill.

 

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Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Cabbage with Millet Stuffing

Adapted from The Best of Ukrainian Cuisine.

a green or white cabbage
1 tbs vinegar
1/2 cup millet, washed and dried
1 1/2 cups water
4 carrots, sliced in coins
2 parsley roots, cubed (substitute fennel if you can’t find parsley root)
a large onion, chopped
3 tbs melted butter (or lard)
an egg, hardboiled and diced
1/2 cup chicken stock or water
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup chopped parsley
salt (to taste)
pepper (to taste)

 

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Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Preheat the oven to 350.

Wash and core cabbage. Place cabbage in a pot of boiling salted water with a tablespoon of vinegar. Cook for ten minutes until crisp-tender. Set aside to cool.

Toast millet in a dry skillet until starting to turn golden. Pour millet into a small saucepan, add a cup of water or chicken stock, cover, and bring to a boil. Turn down to a simmer, and cook until the millet is tender and the liquid is absorbed, about fifteen minutes.

Sauté onions on low heat until browned. Add carrots and parsley roots, and cook until tender. Turn off heat, and allow to cool slightly. Add millet and hardboiled egg, and mix thoroughly. Salt and pepper liberally.

Open out the leaves of the cabbage, and stuff the mixture between them as thoroughly as possible. Close the cabbage back up as best you can, topping with a few coins of carrot. Place the cabbage in a roasting pan, pour over the melted butter, and bake for twenty to thirty minutes until cabbage turns golden. Remove, transfer carefully to a large pot, add a half cup of chicken stock or other liquid, cover, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer, and stew, covered, an additional thirty minutes. To serve, cut into wedges, pour over sour cream, sprinkle with chopped parsley, and season with salt and pepper.

 

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Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Strawberry Blini  

1 recipe Russian blini (see “Cooking with the Strugatsky Brothers”)
a quart of fresh strawberries, sliced
1/4 cup sugar, or to taste
1 tsp lemon juice
2 cups heavy cream
2 tbs sugar, or to taste

 

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Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Combine the strawberries with a quarter cup of sugar and a teaspoon of lemon juice, and let sit at room temperature until the berries soften and begin to release their juices, about fifteen minutes.

Whip the cream until it forms soft peaks. Add two tablespoons of sugar, and stir to combine. Taste, and adjust for sweetness.

Place a premade blini open on a plate. Lay about a third of a cup of strawberries in the center, in a vertical line, leaving room to fold over both the sides and the ends. Fold over the sides, then the ends, to make a packet, then flip it over so the seams are underneath. Repeat, serving two or three blini per guest. Top with whipped cream and extra strawberries if you have them. Serve immediately.

 

Valerie Stivers is a writer based in New York. Read earlier installments of Eat Your Words.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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