Friday, May 16, 2014

Red Ticket: Excursions

I am reading a fantastic book by the woman who wrote one of my favorite cookbooks, Please to the Table. It is called Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, and she's looking at the experience of loving, hating, and leaving Russia through the lens of food. This is a particularly apt approach because so much of Russian history has been marked by famine and want.

A few years ago I had sort of the same thought she did, and wrote an essay about the unexpected things I learned when I visited Moscow's Museum of Popular Nutrition during some very lean (though not the leanest) times in Russia. Here it is:


I’d glimpsed it just once, fleetingly, in 1991. The sightseeing bus my schoolmates and I were riding on pulled away from the stoplight before I could note the location, or even really register what I’d seen. Under normal circumstances I’d have told myself I was imagining things, surely, but in Moscow? It was entirely possible that the sign I’d seen as the bus merged into traffic really did say what I thought it had said. “Musee Khleba.” Museum of Bread.

Believe me, I understood the urge to see something whimsical, or out of the ordinary. I understood that hand-made, highly localized entertainments could often be way more interesting than glitzy, prepackaged diversions like Disney World. My own obsession with esoterica had driven me to search out and visit unusual places in my home country, places like the World’s Largest Hand-Dug Well, and the Lightning Portrait of Henry Wells.45 And I had voluntarily attended both the cat circus and the mouse theater, after all. I knew as well as anyone out there that weird usually equals fun and interesting.

But…bread? A whole museum devoted to bread? This was before the Virgin-Mary-on-grilled-cheese-sandwich incident, when all of us realized how interesting bread could actually be. Back in 1991, I tried hard to imagine what exactly would be on display in the Museum of Bread, and failed.

Now I had another chance. It was 1993, and I was lucky enough to have a job that mandated finding and visiting strange places like the bread museum. So I did everything I could to find it. I haunted bakeries all over the city, spoke with curators of other museums and chefs in restaurants, called the Ministry of Culture and Carbohydrates. But it was no use. The Museum of Bread was destined to remain just a yeasty rumor, a starchy El Dorado. In my searching, though, I came across a reasonable substitute. The Museum of Popular Nutrition (though probably not as compelling as the Museum of Unpopular Nutrition) would have to do.

So I called them, and was informed by the uncharacteristically friendly man on the other end of the phone that I could “come and visit any time, though we are only open on Wednesdays.” The following Wednesday, I took them up on their offer and made my way to the respectable stone building that housed the museum. I was greeted in the lobby by a man who appeared to be very elderly – well into his ‘80s, if not beyond. I was somewhat taken aback by this, as war, alcoholism, and poverty had conspired to make old men in Russia a relative rarity (in 1994, for example, life expectancy for men was a nasty and brutish 57 years). This old man was most definitely alive, though, and with his natty wool jacket, alert blue eyes, and compact stature he looked like a friendly gnome. He got right down to business, asking me politely, “What do you want?”

“I would like to see the museum,” I politely responded, gesturing to the heavy wooden staircase that I supposed led to the displays.

“Why?” he responded.

Good question. Why does one come to the Museum of Popular Nutrition? Because one is unable to locate the Museum of Bread? Caught off guard, I stammered, “I…just…thought it might be interesting.”

The old man considered my reply. “Hmmm,” he said. And then, “Are you with an excursion?”

“An excursion? No. No, I really just wanted to see the museum. I called and you said it would be OK.”

“I see,” he mused. “And you’re not with an excursion?”

“No,” I said, realizing that I was going to have to tell this man the truth. “Actually, I work for a magazine. My job is to find interesting places in Moscow and write about them so that our readers will have someplace to visit.”

“As an excursion?” the old man raised his white eyebrows, suddenly hopeful.

“Well…maybe. Yes, probably, yes. A big excursion.”

“Ahh,” he sighed, “I’ll go speak to someone. While I’m gone, read the rules of the museum.” The man took my elbow in a surprisingly firm grip and led me over to a wall where a 16 x 20’ poster hung. “RULES,” it said at the top of the poster, but that was all I could decipher. I stared at the 60 or so items on the list, wondering just how much trouble it was possible to get into at the Museum of Popular Nutrition, anyway, until eventually a woman in her 50s appeared.

“Were you with this morning’s excursion?” she asked.

“Yes. Yes I was. And it was so interesting that I decided to come back. Is that OK?”

“Oh YES!” she beamed, rushing around behind the counter.

As she was selling me my ticket, the old man I’d first spoken with returned with a much younger man, who seemed to be in charge. “This is Ivan,” said the younger man, pointing.46 “He will give you a tour.”

I followed Ivan up the stairs and into a hallway with four large doors. We opened one and entered a vast room that was lit only by the big windows that made up one wall. Glass display cases of knives and forks ringed the room and ran down its middle. Ivan turned to me. “Do you understand Russian?” he asked me kindly.

“I will if you speak slowly,” I replied, then realized what I had done. Oh. My God.

“This…is…a…fork,” said Ivan, watching my face for comprehension as he pointed at the first item in the case. “In…the…old…days…forks…were…very…heavy…as…you…can….see…

I peered around the room as Ivan moved on to the second item in the case (another fork), and did some frantic calculating. There were, conservatively, perhaps 1000 knives and forks on display in this room, and at 5 minutes a story per each utensil times 4 rooms total…I realized it was going to take me approximately 13 days to get through this entire museum. I would starve. At the Museum of Popular Nutrition. Ha!

Fortunately, at that very moment the younger man threw open the door. “Don’t give her the full tour!” the man yelled crossly at Ivan. “She’s not an excursion!”

Ivan, his presentation interrupted, seemed bereft. We stood there in silence for a few moments and then I asked him how many excursions visited the museum. “We had five,” he replied, not specifying if he meant that day, that month, or since the museum’s opening.

“Ah. I see. And where did you get all these…(I gestured helplessly at the display cases, the words for knife and fork having deserted me as soon as I opened my mouth)…plates?”

“Plates? You would like to see plates?” Ivan shepherded me into room number 2, which was filled with (you guessed it) plates. But wait! What’s this? Ivan described a few of the plates to me but then, perhaps fearful of being yelled at again, pulled me over to a separate, lighted case that was obviously the room’s star attraction. Inside the small glass case stood a figure of a chef made entirely of lobster claws. “Langusta!” declared Ivan with pride.

“Indeed!” I replied. We smiled at each other, pleased to be sharing this experience together.

Finally, Ivan led me into room number 3, the last of the rooms I would visit. And suddenly, everything changed.

This room was much smaller than the previous two, and lacked any windows. The close quarters and the yellow light thrown by the fixture hanging from the ceiling gave it an intimate, cozy feel. The wall across from the door was entirely covered in faded pink squares of paper that were divided by grids into smaller squares, like bingo cards. “What are these?” I asked, stepping away from Ivan’s side for the first time and peering at them.

“Those are ration cards,” replied Ivan, “from the siege of Leningrad.”

“The siege of Leningrad?” I became immediately, inappropriately excited. I had read all about the 900-day siege of Leningrad, the deadliest siege in the history of the entire world, where 1.3 million civilians perished.47 It stands to this day as one of the worst things I’ve ever learned about.48 I am not trying to minimize other groups’ suffering here, at all; I understand that suffering is something that cannot be measured or quantified. But in the catalogue of terrors and atrocities that make up the uniquely barbarous 20th century, the siege of Leningrad ranks right up there near the top of the list. To actually be standing in a room that was filled with everyday items from this experience, things that the people held in their hands and stored in their cupboards, was overwhelming. The fact that the items on display related directly to food made the whole thing even more emotional. City records show that at the start of the siege, in September of 1941, the city had this much food available:

*grain and flour: 35 days
*groats and pasta: 31 days
*meat and livestock: 33 days
*fats: 45 days
*sugar: 60 days

The siege would last for nearly 3 years. They rationed the food they had, eventually giving civilians – who spent all their waking moments digging defensive trenches in the frozen mud – a daily allotment of 250 grams (5 slices) of bread made from sawdust and straw. The residents ate anything they could – pets, rats, briefcases, wallpaper glue, dirt, their neighbors – but still it was not enough to keep people like Tanya Savicheva and her family alive. Everything, all the scholarly work, all the military analysis, all the oral histories describing the siege could be tossed on a bonfire and we’d still know everything we needed to know about it because we have the brief diary of 12-year-old Tanya. Reading the last nine sentences in her journal; blunt, declarative statements that simply report what was happening, is like looking into a black vacuum where nothing recognizably human – not evil, not sorrow, not anything – exists. It terrified me when I read it sitting at home on the couch in Florida, and it nearly undid me here in this tiny room, standing among the empty bowls and plates of the victims.

Standing frozen, staring at the reproduction of Tanya’s diary and the chipped porcelain child’s cup that accompanied it, I realized that I was on the verge of some kind of silent hysteria, and abruptly turned and crossed the room. The pictures I was now looking at were from around the same time, I could tell, but the subject matter was much happier. Young men and women stood in rows, posing for the camera. They looked the way all Russians do when posing for formal photographs, serious and stern, but they also looked well fed, alive, and not terrified. Nearly all of them sported jackets emblazoned with medals. “What’s this?” I asked Ivan, startled by the harsh sound of my voice in the airless space.

“Those are chefs and restaurant workers who participated in the war effort,” replied Ivan.

I looked more closely at the photos and, remarkably, saw someone I knew. There, much shorter than everyone in his row, stood 30-year-old Ivan, with his natty wool jacket and alert, pale eyes. “Hey!” I shouted, suddenly overjoyed, “That’s you!”

“Yes,” replied Ivan. He looked off modestly to the side as he said this, but I still caught his small, gratified smile.

“Ivan…Ivan.” I crossed the room to where he stood and put my hand on his arm, “You don’t understand! That’s you!”

“Yes, dear, I know. It’s me. It’s me.” Ivan patted me kindly as I wiped at my eyes and looked around the room, trying to figure out what to do with this news.

“You like history?” Ivan asked me as he escorted me to the lobby door a few minutes later. “You should come join us for our monthly buffet dinner. The last Wednesday of every month. It’s a reunion. It’s all you can eat.”

“I didn’t know they had those kinds of things in Russia,” I said, stuffing a tissue back in my coat pocket and getting ready to rejoin the world outside. Truly, I didn’t. I thought all-you-can-eat buffets were an American innovation. And anyway, where were they getting the food? There wasn’t exactly a surplus in present-day Moscow. But then: “Stupid,” I chastised myself, “These are people who survived 900 days of famine by eating mattress stuffing and the pages of books. Post-Soviet Russia probably seems like a picnic, literally, to them.”

“Yes, yes, it’s all you can eat” confirmed Ivan, “and we would love for you to come. But Robin,” he warned, growing serious, “we ask that you don’t bring a bag.”

“A bag?” I repeated, not understanding.

“Yes, it’s one of our rules,” Ivan pointed at the giant poster I’d seen when I came in. “We want there to be enough food for everyone.”

“Me too, Ivan.” I thought about Ivan and his friends at the museum, and Tanya, and hungry cities then and now. “Me too.”


45. I am now going to have to learn to play an instrument and form a band and record an album just so I can name it the Lightning Portrait of Henry Wells. Dammit. Continue reading post.

46. I’m sorry that all the old men in my story are named Ivan. If I were making this up I would have chosen more interesting, less stereotypically Russian names. Continue reading post.

47. Facts about the siege come from here: Continue reading post.

48. And when what you study is Russian history, that’s really saying something. Continue reading post.


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