A cookbook that teaches you more than how to cook Soviet-style
In 2015, a survey of 2,000 Britons revealed that even though the average person owned six cookbooks, people were still prone to cook the same nine meals over and over again (Telegraph). This should come as no surprise to book publishers or those interested in encouraging diversity in our diets. The fact is that reading a cookbook can have nothing to do with cooking, and people who buy and read cookbooks can do so with zero intent of lifting a spoon.
I am a prime example. I love the physical density of hardcover books that use words like toss, wilt, pound and mince. Books that tell of unfamiliar places or familiar ingredients presented six different ways and transformed into different dishes, like magic. Books with pictures that make me feel hungry. I have every intention to dream about this food and no desire to cook any of the food.
If you browse through the shelves at any bookstore or library, you will notice that there are a lot of cookbooks that adhere to a kind of sameness. Full-page coloured photo, a recipe with ingredients and instructions, an introduction to the origin of the recipes, and a theme that ties it all together. Sometimes it’s as simple as recipes by location, or type of course (desserts), or it could be 200-pages about cooking with specific ingredients (like cooking with tinned fish). Cookbooks in this category are created for the kitchen. Their recipes are meant to be trialled at the oven and stove, and hence the point of their existence.
There, however, is another category of cookbooks which are created to be read. I’m calling this category “discovery cookbooks,” because like Almanacs, they lay out routes to distant shores and new places, and reveal foreign parts of life that can be tasted, but only if desired. These cookbooks deliver the excitement of armchair travel and teach you something new about life and cultures of other places. They hold nuggets of information that are related to cooking and dining but are also amusing to read.
Bonnie Morales is a first-generation immigrant from Belarusia and owner of the restaurant Kachka in Portland, Oregon. She is also the author of Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking, a cookbook which I put in the “discover” category. The book is a marvellous read, revealing little bits of information about the author, life in the Soviet Union and ways of eating and dining. In the book, Morales has a section on how to lay a zakuski table, a table of little bites of hors d’oeuvres, entrées and snacks. She uses the metaphor of Tetris (fitting a Russian invention) to describe how the plates should fit together. I’ve included a summary of her pointers below.
How to lay a proper Russian-style spread
- If you have room for a centrepiece, you don’t have enough food.
- Your dishes should be touching. “Negative space is nice for Martha Stewart magazine spreads, not for zakuski tables.”
- All the food should be out before guests arrive.
- Use risers to lift plates to add dimension.
- Use a side table for beverages and bread.
- More small plate. Dishes should repeat ever six seats or so.
- Keep glasses minimal, with more on the side for people who need them.
- Put silverware and napkins on the plate.