By Darra Goldstein. From Performance Research (Spring 1999).

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Pork is the hero of the feast. Like an ardent youth, it wears all sorts of masks, but its originality is revealed even beneath the most beautiful dressings….

—Nikita Vsevolozhsky

One of the greatest dramas in Russian history was played out in 945, when Princess Olga avenged the death of her husband, Igor, by inviting his killers, the fierce Derevlians, to a funeral feast in his memory. Invoking the great tradition of Russian hospitality, Olga plied them with vast quantities of mead, and when they were thoroughly drunk, she had them massacred, five thousand in all. Olga’s combination of great acting and great savagery has earned her a secure place in Russian history, but her story also reveals an important site for the enactment of societal relations in Russia: the communal table.

Over the centuries foreign travelers to Russia have commented on the sense of excess in Russian culture, expressed more frequently through the country’s extraordinary hospitality than its scale of massacre. By examining the shared table as a mode of cultural performance, we find that Russian dining practices signal a great deal about the Russians’s sense of themselves. The excess perceived by outsiders is not simply an expression of vulgar ostentation; it also comprises an expansive generosity and a fatalism about life. Historically, Russians have celebrated the moment and aestheticized their otherwise often deprived lives by dramatizing the ordinarily quotidian meal.

The performance of a meal also serves as a vivid means of self-promotion and advertisement. The tables of the wealthy publicly announce a host’s power and prestige even as their surfeit expresses the host’s personal fantasies and desire to manipulate societal standing. Whether a magnificent feast staged by nobleman to consolidate his political power, or a restaurant debauch of a parvenu merchant, Russian dinners are consciously performative. This essay will examine a few dazzling dinner performances that took place in settings no less exquisitely conceived than in the theater.

In medieval Europe, the formal banquet offered guests a variety of entertainments, which constituted a highly anticipated part of the meal. During interludes (brief plays performed during breaks between courses), carts carrying actors and musicians were wheeled in to distract guests from the clearing of dishes and the setting out of the next course. The Russian table, by contrast, was the performance, attention being focused on the groaning board and the actual service of the meal, rather than on any extrinsic entertainment. Although Russia had its share of dwarves and jesters to entertain and mediate among guests, noble Russians in the era of Muscovy did not develop the art of mealtime pageantry as diversion. Instead, the meal itself served as spectacle through the sumptuous presentation of a multitude of dishes.

Early travellers to Russia frequently found this abundance ‘excessive and vulgar’, filling even ‘the most courageous stomachs…with horror’ (Segur 1865: 41). Overly ample portions of beef, wildfowl, fish, eggs, and pies were brought to table in seemingly random order, and seemingly without end. This distinctive Russian style of service contrasted markedly from the more restrained French style of service accepted at noble tables throughout western Europe. The French banquet table entailed an exquisite set-piece, intended primarily to delight the eye. On entering the banquet hall, diners found tables already set with an artful array of dishes, many of them in fanciful trompe l’oeil. An entire course comprising dozens of dishes may have been beautiful to behold, but eating it was likely another matter. The preset display, a pretense, meant that hot foods were no longer hot; fats were congealed. And each time a course concluded, the table had to be fully rearranged. Thus mealtime entertainments were requisite to guard against the guests’s boredom.

Russian service differed profoundly. On entering the hall, diners found only salt and pepper cellars and vinegar cruets on the table (although sideboards at the tsar’s banquets did sag under the immense weight of the royal gold plate). Once the guests were seated, each dish was brought individually to table and presented with great fanfare. Considering that banquets consisted of no less than four courses, with up to one hundred dishes in each course, royal feasts could be an ordeal, especially for foreign visitors used to the orderliness and self-containment of a French-style meal. However, the Russian style of service kept the food hot, since each dish was served at its peak of readiness. Russian practice also provided live performance as liveried waiters—often one for each guest—paraded repeatedly into the banquet hall with platters held high. Chroniclers tell of a single huge sturgeon brought to table by four dozen cooks struggling to hold the immense fish steady (Pyliaev 1897: 8); or of great silver vats that required three hundred men to fill with mead (Tereshchenko 1848: 249).

If invited guests were unable to attend a royal banquet, the old Russian custom of the podacha or presentation ensured that they would still receive food, because their portions were delivered to them at home. The podacha indicated the degree of the tsar’s favor (or lack thereof) and simultaneously represented an important show of hospitality. In a peculiarly Russian form of street theatre, presentations could occur up to several times a day, with hundreds of men filing through Moscow’s narrow alleyways bearing food. On a mid-sixteenth-century embassy to Moscow, the Frenchman Margaret witnessed presentations:

The Emperor sends to each noble at home, and to all whom he favours, a dish of meat called Podatdh [podacha]…First, he sends him some chief gentleman in cloth of gold, his mantle and hat decorated with pearls; he rides on horseback…He has fifteen or twenty servants around his horse; two men walk behind him, each carrying a clothrolled like a bale; two more follow carrying salt-cellars; then two with containers full of vinegar; then two others, one carrying two knives and the other two spoons, all richly decorated; the breadfollows this, carried by six men, two by two; then follows the spiritsand after this a dozen men each carrying a silver pot…full of various kinds of wine…after these as many large cups of German work are carried; then follow the meats, that is, first, those that are eaten cold, then the boiled and the roast and, last, the pies; all these meats are carried on great silver plates, but if the Emperor favors the Ambassador, all the plate put on his table is of gold. After come eighteen or twenty large vessels, each carried by two men, full of various kinds of mead; then follow a dozen men carrying five or six large drinking cups; and, after everything else, two or three carts follow full of mead and beer for the commons; everything is carried by the musket-men who have been entrusted with this and who are very well-dressed. I have seen up to three or four hundred carry meats and drinks for a single dinner in the manner described and have seen three dinners sent to different Ambassadors in one day…. (Margaret 1607: 32-3, in Smith and Christian 1984: 117)

Such thrilling visual displays could not appease the stomachs of the hungry commoners, who knew little more than oatmeal gruel and coarse rye bread. But to palliate the people’s thirst and disaffection, the tsar wisely provided mead and beer to this street-level audience. In the tsar’s gesture to his people and to the foreign envoys, the podacha served social, as well as political, ends.