Moscow Food Museum Caters To Soviet Union's Culinary Past

Life, any Russian will tell you, revolves around the kitchen. And that is clear at the Musei Obchepita, or Museum of Public Catering, one of Russia's more obscure collections.

Housed in a poorly marked building for the past 20 years, it is run by white-haired retirees of the restaurant trade who discuss food and its history as passionately as the Bolsheviks once discussed Lenin and Marx.

For them, like many Russians, eating is a serious matter. This is the generation that knew food shortages and long lines for meat. Food is not something to wolf down casually. It is the glue of all social events, the cement of families, and an art form worthy of scholarship.

"A menu is like an agreement between guests and the host. It means the guests must be made happy." says guide Sergei Inozemtsev. Mr. Inozemtsev should know, having worked at Moscow's finest restaurants including the famed Praga.

This shrine to the public kitchen claims more than 10,000 items, ranging from pre-revolutionary menus to plastic models of cutlets served at workers' canteens. The elderly staff's enthusiasm is so great that they manage to keep the museum going despite the fact that state funding has run out.

Each hall has a political context, charting the history of the table from the crystal of the bourgeoisie to ration coupons from wartime Leningrad.

There is even a line of photographs of Russian chefs who defended their nation fighting in World War II.

One hall with an especially heavy Soviet accent displays wax models of dishes served in the canteens ubiquitous in factories and schools.

Another room documents the rise of restaurants and cafe society at the turn of the century, with yellowed photographs of intellectuals discussing politics and reading newspapers.

And of course there are fine specimens of the most typical of Russian cookware - samovars and cream funnels to decorate cakes.

Then there is the dazzling, or rather tarnished, array of cutlery from the last century, when any self-respecting nobleman required 70 different implements to set his table. Among the more intriguing is a flat-topped fork to extract canned fish.

Scholarly visitors can consult the library's collection of cookbooks. The museum also believes in putting theory into practice, offering cooking classes and consultations for chefs. The museum is open only three hours a week, and one must make a reservation to visit.

Inozemtsev waxes lyrical about well-prepared bream. And there's a faraway gaze is in his eye as he lectures about the proper way to set a table in the 1890s and the history of the fork, which was introduced to Russia by Peter the Great 250 years ago.

Looking at one decorative Art Nouveau menu, he reflects on the art of eating. "A special meal is like using crystal glasses. If you use them every day, you won't realize how beautiful they are."

The one major thing the museum lacks is any mention of the role the kitchen played in people's homes, particularly during the harsh years of Socialist repression.

Any political dissident from those days will recall the kitchen talks where opponents of the regime met to discuss politics.

While proud of Russia's culinary past, Inozemtsev is happier to be living - and eating - in modern times. Remembering the hard old days, he savors the abundance of choice in newly opened restaurants and shops.

"We culinary people suffered before. The wars and shortages made it difficult to get ingredients, so many people preferred to eat at home. Things are becoming normal," he says with the satisfied look of a man who has just eaten a wonderful meal.

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