A Case of the Haves and Have Nots:
19th century Russian Cabbage Soup
(e-SoupSong 60: May 1, 2005)
It happened one day that the son of a widowed peasant woman died--a young fellow of 20 years who had been the best worker in the village.
The lady of the manor, learning of the peasant's sorrow, went to call upon her on the day of the funeral. She found her at home. She found her standing in the middle of her hovel, in front of the table--slowly ladling out a bowl of shchi [cabbage soup] from the bottom of a dirty pot. With her left arm hanging lifelessly by her side, the poor woman fed herself spoonful after
spoonful of the soup with her right hand. The woman's face was dark and slack--her eyes were red and puffy--but she stood straight and carried herself as uprightly as if she were in church.
"Dear heaven," the lady thought to herself, "how can she eat at such a time? What coarse feelings these peasants have." She could not help but think of when she lost her own dear daughter, nine months old, a few years before. She had been inconsolable, unable to eat. She had even refused, out of grief, to rent a beautiful villa near St. Petersburg and had actually spent the entire summer in town!
The peasant woman continued to eat the shchi. Finally, the lady could stand it no longer: "Tatiana!" she said, "Dear heaven, how can you eat at a time like this? Is it possible you didn't love your son? I am amazed--how can you eat that shchi?"
The woman replied softly, with tears running down her sunken cheeks, "My Vasya is dead--and, of course, my own death will come soon because my very head has been taken from me while I am still alive. But the shchi must not go to waste. After all, it is salted."
The lady shrugged her shoulders and left. She didn't understand. She got salt cheaply.
* * *
I translated this short tale by Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev for the first time 30+ years ago for a Russian class and, understandably, never forgot it. It took me years to track it down again for soupsong, and I hope you will forgive me for laying such a sad and terrible tale on you this lovely May Day.
The thing is, it's so human in its terribleness. Turgenev, writing about pre-revolutionary Russia, had a gift for that. He captured with clarity and even compassion the heartbreaking chasms between people and classes that ultimately blew tsarist Russia apart. I hope you'll join me in a bowl of this soup, and I hope you'll pick up a book of Turgenev's stories to read along with it. Imagine in such short compass showing such hideous inequity that is nevertheless shot through with generous impulse, mother love, unspeakable sorrow...cabbage and salt.
* * *
Um, so what about that shchi?
In fact, there's evidence that this soup was known in ancient Rus long before 988 AD and the advent of Christianity--so long before, in fact, that shchi actually meant "liquid food" in the beginning. But Greek and Roman colonists to the Black Sea area had brought cabbages with them from Mediterranean homelands, and over time these hearty vegetables traveled north to Russia and by the 9th century were thriving. The Slavs adored them, planted them, could not imagine life without them. Within a few centuries, Russian princes paid tribute to their Mongol masters with racing horses, jewels...and cabbages. Cabbage became the Russian staff of life, the national food--especially in the form of soup.
What glitterati outspokenly craved it over the years? Of course those 13th century Mongol khans who held the vastness of Russia in their grip. Tsar Ivan the Terrible. Tsar Nicholas II...and the man ultimately responsible for his usurpation and murder, Vladimir Lenin. Stalin. Mao Zedong. And, most recently, Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Also French novelist and gastronome Alexander Dumas pere, who liked it so much he included it in his cookbook. Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, found it "quite drinkable, though it contained some sour element, which perhaps is necessary for Russian palates."
But it's shchi's common touch that rules supreme--its associations with peasants, the earth, common soldiers, ordinariness. Historically, when Russians call someone "a professor of sour shchi," they mean he's a fraud--cause you can't earn respect by making something so common. When Russian soldiers marched into France in 1812, they were so desperate for the taste of fermented cabbage that they picked vine leaves and started pickling them so they could make shchi. In today's era, the Russian writer Edouard Limonov had his hero Edichka (from the novel That's me, Edichka) describe surviving on it in New York City: "'The advantages of shchi are as follows,' Edichka explains. 'There are five of them: 1. It is very cheap--a saucepan [of it] costs two or three dollars, and it is enough for two days. 2. It doesn't get sour without refrigeration--even when it is very hot. 3. It is cooked quickly--only one and a half hours. 4. It is possible and even necessary to eat it cold. 5. There is no better meal for summer, because it is sour.'"
* * *
Shchi can be made with meat or without it--with sauerkraut or with cabbage or with both. The only thing all cooks seem to agree on is that it should sit and cure for as long as possible, up to a day or two, before eating. This particular recipe is meatless--and can be vegetarian if you use water or vegetable stock instead of beef stock--but it is unusually rich and
hearty, full of flavor and textures, using both sauerkraut and cabbage. Serve hot as a meal to 6-8 people, with lots of pumpernickel or rye bread and butter on hand.
Garnish: chopped fresh dill mixed into sour cream
- 8-10 dried mushrooms, preferably cepes/porcini, but even shiitakes are
okay, hydrated in 1 cup hot water for an hour
- 3 Tablespoons butter
- 4 cups shredded cabbage
- 2-3 cups sauerkraut (cold pack--not canned, if possible), rinsed well
with cold water and squeezed dry
- 2 Tablespoons tomato paste
- 12 cups beef or vegetable stock
- 3 Tablespoons butter
- 1 carrot, peeled and cut into a julienne
- 1˝ cups onions, chopped
- 1 stalk celery, diced
- 1 large turnip, peeled and diced
- 1 16-ounce can tomatoes, drained, seeded, and chopped
- salt and pepper
- 1 large clove garlic, minced or pressed
Begin by soaking the mushrooms in water. In a large Dutch oven, melt 3 Tablespoons of butter over medium high heat, then toss in the cabbage and sauerkraut and sauté for 15 minutes, stirring often. Stir in the tomato paste and 1 cup or so of stock, cover, and simmer of low heat for 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, squeeze the mushrooms dry and slice finely. Melt the other 3 Tablespoons of butter in a skillet and sauté the carrot, onions, celery, turnips, and mushrooms until soft and slightly brown--about 15 minutes. Seed and chop the tomatoes, reserving them.
When the sauerkraut and cabbage are nicely stewed, stir in the sauteéd vegetables, the tomatoes, and the stock. Season with salt and pepper--and think of poor Tatiana as you do. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a low heat--cover and simmer for about 20 minutes. Add garlic and cook 5 more minutes.
Let stand at least 15 minutes--but ideally a day or so in the refrigerator to cure. When ready to serve, reheat slowly. Ladle into bowls and garnish with spoonsful of dilled sour cream.
Schast'ya i zdorov'ya!
My very best wishes,
NEXT MONTH: Prothalamion for Daughter Meg...and Her Wedding Soup