Feb 17 2012: Sixteen Plates from a Stalinist Cookbook [‘Jak se Vaří v SSSR’] (Prague, 1954)
These images are taken from Jak se vaří v SSSR (Cooking in the USSR), a cookbook published in Prague, but with self-declared origins in the Soviet Union, during 1954. With an epigraph from Joseph Stalin and plates that imply luxurious plenty, it’s clearly as much an exercise in propaganda as an actual cookery manual, though its instructions appear exhaustive and could certainly be followed easily enough should a reader have the required ingredients and wish to do so. What’s particularly interesting about these sixteen or so colour plates (apart from their distinctive illustrative style, which hovers seductively around the mid-point between painting and hand coloured photography) is their similarity to the kinds of photographic scenarios to be found in contemporary Western examples of the genre, where aspirational lifestyle counts for at least as much, and often rather more, than the prospect of ever actually cooking and eating the recipes given. In this sense, it’s far from obvious that there’s any fundamental difference between the outright Soviet propaganda of this particular Stalinist cookbook and those British equivalents by the likes of Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall that are to be found piled high around bookshop tills every Christmas. In most cases, it’s likely that the good life being sold (and let’s face it, these books are nearly always more about their projections of some fantasy lifestyle than any superficial veneer of practical purpose they might otherwise purport to have) is starkly at odds with the reality experienced on a day to day basis by those destined to read them – or, if not actually read them, then display them and ocasionally look at the pictures before opening another ready-meal or pizza delivery box. It’s in this disconnection between actuality and reality that propaganda invariably operates, a point we might usefully remember applies as much to British kitchens in 2012 as it did to Stalinist Czechoslovakia in 1954, the year of publication for Jak se vaří v SSSR. The societies and political issues may differ considerably, but the nature of the propaganda deployed to maintain investment in the status quo – and not only maintain it, but generate a kind of widespread desire to embrace and be embraced by it – remains remarkably consistent.