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A Slice of History in a Unique Russian Cookbook

Today considered to be a historical treasure shedding light on Russian society prior to the Soviet Era, the cookbook entitled A Gift to Young Housewives was at one time considered essential in many middle and upper-class Russian households. Written by Elena Ivanovna Molokhovets, this Russian cookbook has gone down in history as the most successful book of its kind in Russia during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The author revised the book frequently between 1861 and 1917 and more than 20 editions were printed, with over 295,000 copies being sold. The 24th edition of A Gift to Young Housewives, published in 1904, contained 4,163 recipes.

In addition to the many typically Russian dishes and delicacies, the book features step-by-step instructions for out of the ordinary dishes such as Hazel Grouse and Suckling Pig. It even includes instructions on how to make vodka, along with jam and mustard-making recipes. The book also details cooking techniques, describes the best utensils, equipment, stoves and ovens a kitchen should contain, and goes so far as to give advice on household management and employer-servant etiquette. Traditional feast day menus, money-saving hints and information on correct nutrition are other features of the book.

The book fell out of favor during the Soviet era, partly because it had been written for the middle and upper classes and unabashedly looked down on the lower classes, and partly because it became outdated as modern equipment was introduced into kitchens. Moreover, in the times of conflict of the early to mid-1900s, when people were battling to obtain the barest necessities, the very concept of a cookbook seemed absurd. However, as times got better, cookbooks once again gained favor.

In 1992, author Joyce Toomre translated and adapted recipes from the original works of Elena Molokhovets into a book called Classic Russian Cooking: Elena Molokhovets' a Gift to Young Housewives. With 42 chapters the book includes the many traditional dishes that make Russian cuisine unique. In acknowledging the many people who helped her in compiling the book, Toomre notes that "Molokhovets' cookbook is encyclopedic; it described a cuisine and culture that have now vanished, and for that reason alone it deserves to be more widely available."


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