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Vittles 6.13 - Nationalised Food
The Stolovaya Revival, by Lisa Haseldine
“Nationalise Greggs”. “Nationalise Wetherspoons”. There was a brief time when these mantras were used by the Twitter left to persuade John McDonnell to propose nationalising anything and everything. It was no mistake that they were the first choices to become Britain’s version of the Soviet stolovayas — they are, after all, already the nation’s canteens. Not only do both deal in hot and cheap comfort food but they also buy into an easily understood version of Britishness - of pies and pasties on the one hand, of fish and chips and curry nights on the other (and all without the inconvenience of Bangladeshi chefs).
I recently wrote a piece in the Guardian about the role restaurants could play in social eating, such as canteens, but I didn’t have space to discuss what that food looks like. Perhaps we need to expand our definition of what a canteen can be. Great canteens do exist. The Guyanese chef Faye Gomes of Kaieteur Kitchen told me fondly of her own time running the Commonwealth Secretariat's canteen, which allowed her to theme days around Caribbean, West African and Indian cooking. Before the shopping centre closed, the subsidised canteen at the Elephant and Castle Bingo Hall used to serve Jamaican food — oxtail stews, rice and peas, ackee and saltfish — alongside chips and burgers, reflecting the makeup of the clientele. My own personal canteen looks something like the notorious Soho Chinatown restaurant Wong Kei. The choice is practically infinite, the food cheap and hot, the tea hot and free. The curt service puts you on equal terms with your server, the communal seating allows you the same with your fellow diner (as long as it isn’t Will Self). The chilli oil makes everything taste good. And all for less than a Pret meal.
Now I’m not saying we should nationalise Wong Kei (but also, Nationalise Wong Kei), but if this isn’t the time to think radically about how our food systems can be changed, then when is? In her essay ‘I Dream of Canteens’ writer and academic Rebecca May Johnson sets out a utopian vision of what a canteen that works for everyone would look like. For Johnson the template is more Ikea and McDonalds than Greggs and Wetherspoons, brighter and more international. Johnson too notes with surprise how easily the British Restaurants were forgotten, how the modest gains made by the post-war Attlee government have slowly been chiselled away until we are unable to imagine things that were once possible.
Today’s newsletter by Lisa Haseldine is about the stolovayas of her mother country, and whether they provide an imaginable template for the UK. The food of the stolovayas is much maligned, but there is still a huge nostalgia for them — when I was in Moscow I was amused to see a bougie version of one in the upmarket department store GUM. If you go to one today (now privatised) you’ll find food that scratches a nostalgic itch, but is actually pretty good. One improvement is that the food is no longer as standardised as it used to be — this seems to me to be the obvious way social eating hubs should be run. Ultimately, these structures, whether community kitchens or religious organisations, already exist and know what their community needs and wants, and what is culturally appropriate. Canteens don’t have to be state-mandated Greggs and Spoons. The food and the cooks already exist — the only thing the government needs to do is fund them.
The Stolovaya Revival, by Lisa Haseldine
Three years ago I upped sticks and moved to Moscow, spending five months studying and trying to soak up as much of Russian life as I could. Although it was an unromantic requirement of my university degree, for me it was also a journey of clichéd self-discovery – being half-Russian, born and raised in London, I really have always felt a bit ‘between two places’, even if it’s become banal to admit it. Growing up, I ate different things, spoke a different language and watched different TV shows to my friends at school. And yet, while to them I was ‘the Russian one’, to my cousins in Russia we were still ‘the English ones’. So when the chance came up to study Russian, live in Moscow and understand my Russian side a bit better, I grabbed it with both hands.
Before living in Moscow, most of my exposure to Russian cooking had come through my grandmother. I’m sure everyone thinks this way, but my granny’s cooking is the best, hands down. Even simple things like pancakes and meatballs taste better when she makes them. But being miles away from her and only just figuring these ingredients out for myself, I needed to find another way to get my Russian food fixes quickly. Enter the stolovaya.
‘What is a stolovaya?’ I hear you ask. Directly translated, a stolovaya is a canteen. But to call it simply a canteen does it an injustice and removes the strong cultural significance of what is quite definitely a Russian phenomenon. Conceived in the early days of the Soviet Union to meet the demands of workers flooding into big cities, stolovayas have been a way to feed the masses cheaply ever since. Not unlike a school canteen in its setup, you move around a counter, select the food you want, wait for it to be plated up, pay and then sit down to eat. Naturally, the variety of options in a stolovaya varies, but generally speaking the core menu is the same, centred around home cooking: meat skewers, baked fish, buckwheat porridge, chicken soup and apple pie, to name a few. Food is prepared and cooked on site, meaning that it is all, for the most part, fresh.
For a long time, the singular appeal of these places was how cheap they were: throughout the Soviet Union even workers on the lowest wages were able to afford a hot meal at lunchtime. They were a staple of life, unremarkable but as necessary to survival as a fur coat in winter and a banya for washing. Offering menus standardised by the Soviet authorities, stolovayas gained a reputation for predictable, basic food, the quality of which wasn’t always guaranteed. And yet, slowly, they have been rejuvenated. By the time I arrived in Moscow, stolovayas had become thriving places with delicious, home-style cooking, although in a privatised form. Chains had sprung up and some had even begun to cater to a more gentrified customer base, selling quinoa, avocado and ‘super smoothies’. Many offered a ‘business lunch’ set menu, and it wasn’t uncommon to see people holding their meetings there. And yet, no matter the type of stolovaya, all of them managed to retain their low prices.
Safe to say, this evolution of the stolovaya has yet to fully register with many foreigners and tourists. I was always slightly baffled by the snickering of my British friends out there, for whom these places seemed an archaic relic. Had they only stepped inside one, they would have seen how inaccurate their misconceptions were. Moving out to Moscow in the depths of the Russian winter, I quickly came to look forward to the relief of escaping the heavy snow and piercing cold by bundling into a warm stolovaya, unwinding my many layers and sinking into a booth to defrost over a full tray of food (and kill a few hours between classes). Let me run you through my go-to order:
For starters I would either go for the famous Slavic soup, borscht, the Russian variant of which has a beetroot, onion, cabbage and tomato base with optional beef (every Slavic nation has its own variant), or a meat pirozhok, not dissimilar to a Cornish pasty but usually smaller and with softer pastry. My main would always, without fail, be breaded chicken with a side of mashed potatoes and vinaigrette, plus a salad of beetroot, potato, cucumber and carrot. Dessert, if I was feeling decadent, would be a medovik, a Slavic honey cake made up of fine layers of honey-flavoured cake and sour cream. If I wanted a cold drink, I would have mors, a cranberry juice drink made by boiling and then cooling the berries, or hot sea buckthorn tea, the most delightful bright yellow drink of berries, tangy, citrusy and floral all at once, sweetened with sugar and the perfect way to speed up the thawing of your fingers. The best part was that I could easily have a meal like this for no more than 250RUB, approximately £3.60 according to the exchange rate at the time and well within the budget of any Russian (for comparison – a main in a restaurant then could easily have been above 700RUB in Moscow).
As in any culture, being able to go to a restaurant in Russia is linked to status, but it is also linked to occasion: celebrating a birthday, a reunion of old friends, marking an anniversary. But if you’re in need of a no-frills, everyday meal then the stolovaya is the place for you. And in that sense it is egalitarian: an all-purpose dining setting where labourers and academics dine side by side with businessmen, schoolchildren and students without anyone batting an eyelid.
In English, we associate the word ‘canteen’ with schools and soup kitchens. It has negative connotations and faint echoes of Turkey Twizzlers. And yet, with so much uncertainty surrounding the post-coronavirus economy and its guaranteed impact on people’s disposable income, not to mention on the restaurant and hospitality industry as a whole, perhaps the stolovaya offers a solution. And it wouldn’t be the first time.
During the Second World War, the government introduced ‘British Restaurants’ to feed the many thousands who had been bombed out of their homes, had run out of rationing coupons, or simply could not afford to feed themselves. At their peak they were serving 600,000 meals a day. Surprisingly similar to stolovayas, their menus were designed by the government with a focus on nutrition and strict accompanying regulations on how much they were allowed to charge their customers. A good three-course meal could be had for the equivalent of £1 today.
And yet, why do we know nothing about them? We are all becoming painfully aware of the hardships that will result from this pandemic, and yet no politician has mentioned a solution that for some is still within living memory.
As the saying goes, ‘an army marches on its stomach’, and the same can be said for nations, cities and communities. The road to rebuilding the British economy and society will be a long one once this is all over, but how can we expect that to happen when an increasing number will be going hungry? A full stomach is good, not just for morale or productivity, but for energy, mental wellbeing and health.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen record numbers turning to food banks, many of whom have never had to rely on them before. For as long as they have existed, they have been stigmatised for their association with the poor and destitute, acting as a last resort for those who have run out of options. But food banks are not a watertight option, particularly from a nutritional perspective. They are usually run by charities, at the mercy of the goodwill of volunteers and donations from the community. Due to their operational nature, they often don’t have the capacity to collect, store and hand out produce that needs refrigerating or freezing, ruling out most fresh produce of one sort or other.
Whether state-backed or not, the introduction of simple, affordable and nutritious meals in a canteen-style setting could offer a way to feed the many people who will be hit hardest by this pandemic, while offering a focus for the many in the restaurant business who will see their livelihoods similarly affected. While this pandemic is not the great leveller some are keen to label it as, this alleviating measure could perhaps be. Regardless of the politics behind them, the Soviet stolovayas and ‘British Restaurants’ recognised that access to a hot, nutritious meal is a right and not a luxury. Customers were able to eat in a stigma-free environment with dignity. They opened the door to those for whom restaurant doors are usually shut and created a new mode of eating out where health, accessibility and enjoyment of food were of equal importance.
Just as stolovayas saw many Russians through the hardship of the ’90s and Perestroika, they will no doubt also play an important role in post-coronavirus Russia. Although most are currently shut for in-house dining, some stolovayas have adapted for delivery, allowing people to keep enjoying their food at home. As for the UK, this could well be the time to revive the ‘British Restaurant’; not just to wind them down once the worst is over, but to establish a new cornerstone of British dining, serving not only the vulnerable and the poor, but simply anyone in search of a healthy, hot and affordable meal.
The illustration is by Ada Jusic, who specialises in illustrations with a political or social context. You can find more of her illustrations at https://adajusic.com/.
Lisa and Ada were both paid for their work.
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