When I was growing up, my parents sometimes read aloud letters from my grandmothers about the endless food lines that marked their days in Leningrad and Lvov. Some 30 years later, their great-grandchildren navigate the packed aisles of the Russian grocery store Yummy Market in wonder and awe: For them, Russian food means abundance and excitement. This isn’t the world my parents envisioned when they fled the USSR in 1979.
Yummy Market opened in 2002 and now has two Toronto locations — yet the Russian market bills itself as a “European food experience” — a rebranding that’s common across “Russian” stores. If it seems natural that a Russian store would carry foods from across the USSR — which disintegrated into 15 countries in 1991 — it’s actually the product of 74 years of state control and propaganda that’s hard to fathom today. The results are served in Russian homes across the country and fill the aisles of countless Russian grocery stores. That Uzbek lamb plov is sold alongside caviar and blini gives pause to no one. But these details actually tell a unique piece of Soviet-Russian history.
For the early Bolsheviks, food was fuel. Utopia-minded futurists of the era envisioned homes without kitchens, replaced by obedient workers collectively chewing on nutritionally perfected meals in state stolovayas (cafeterias). Widely reviled for their poor quality, stolovayas never fully replaced kitchens and nutritional ideals never overcame corrupt mismanagement of the food system.
Enter Anastas Mikoyan, who was considerably more taken with gastronomic pleasures than his co-revolutionaries. An Armenian Bolshevik, he became head of the Soviet food industry in 1934, and, in the words of cookbook author Anya von Bremzen, “was the engineer of the Soviet palate and gullet.” In 1936, when the USSR was still openly internationalist, he spent two months in the U.S., bringing back everything from machinery for hamburgers to corn flakes. The ice cream in the freezer called plombir is his doing — a marriage of his longstanding love for ice cream, a passion for its potential as a year-round treat for all ages, and American mass distribution techniques. But after WWII, as the Cold…