In 1861, the year Tsar Alexander II freed the serfs, Elena Molokhovets published her domestic bible, “A Gift to Young Housewives, or the Means of Lowering Household Expenses.” She explained how to feed the servants, how to pick the freshest meat, how to measure precisely in a culture that still cooked by instinct, how to plan six hundred meals of varying attendance, cost, and life-cycle significance. (A breakfast for one’s name day, for example, should include a turkey galantine, a cold French pâté, a well-sauced duck or goose, beef tongue, fried foul, rice, radishes, two salads, pastries, coffee, rum, and, of course, more pâté.) A half century later, by the time the Bolsheviks had overthrown Alexander’s heirs, the book had been printed in thirty-odd editions, most of them overseen by Molokhovets herself, all while rearing ten children, writing religious tracts, and running her own hearth with utmost efficiency.
The once ubiquitous and bourgeois “Gift to Young Housewives” all but disappeared in Soviet times, but it resurfaced this summer in Red Hook. Valerie Stivers-Isakova, a young, American, and very pregnant housewife, received it as a gift from the mother of her Russian-born husband, Ivan. Inspired, Stivers-Isakova, a writer, decided to have a Molokhovets-themed dinner party.
First, the menu. For a June dinner “of the first order,” Molokhovets recommends starting with a soup of puréed game or wild mushrooms, accompanied by “strong Spanish wines,” lobster-stuffed pastries, and pirozhki with brains, “served in their shells.” The dinner should then proceed through eight more courses: filet of beef with a knockwurst butter paired with a nice Saint-Julien or a warmed Lafite; sturgeon and potatoes served with a Sauternes or a Chablis; young carrots, turnips, potatoes, and cabbage in a cream sauce, “divided on the platter with strips of pastry”; lobster soufflé; a wild-strawberry Imperial punch; braised capon stuffed with liver and truffles; strawberry ice cream; and, finally, berries with black coffee, tea, and cognac.
After hours of translation, Stivers-Isakova decided to ditch the vegetable dish with what she termed “fancy dough receptacles.” She also figured that she was inviting too many vegetarians to serve so much meat. In the end, she said, “I decided to go for the spirit of the thing.”
She started with the poultry. “We tried to make the veal-stuffed duck, and it was a total disaster! We deboned it, we even sewed it closed, and it just came out looking ridiculous,” Stivers-Isakova recalled, posing, elbows out, in homage to the ill-fated mallard (Recipe No. 894). “Molokhovets just says, ‘Cook till it’s done.’ What does that mean? What vessel do you use? What temperature?”
A peach tart turned out soggy; rice-and-egg pastries too dry. Stivers-Isakova went hunting for nettles at the Union Square Greenmarket, called Court Street butchers looking for kidneys and veal bones, and scoured the Red Hook Fairway for elderberry juice. The nettles were the worst. Six stinging bushels had to be cleaned, boiled, drained, blanched, wrung, chopped, and reduced, finally, to a small pile you could hold in your hand. “I had four pots going,” Stivers-Isakova said. “I had to wear ziplock bags on my hands.”
Stivers-Isakova cooked for three days. When her twelve guests finally arrived, on a Saturday night, the meal got under way with smoked fish (from Russ & Daughters) and pickles (prepared in Russia by Ivan’s mother, using Recipe No. 3,287), accompanied by shots of cold vodka. Cutting into a chicken cutlet (Recipe No. 846), Alix Alferieff Murdoch, a law student, recalled how her Kentuckian mother had tried to re-create a traditional Orthodox Easter dinner for her Russian-émigré husband. “She lost the recipe for kulich”—a dense Easter cake—“and could never remember—was it twenty eggs? Twenty-two eggs?” (Molokhovets, in Recipe No. 2,472, recommends ten.)
After the sorrel-and-nettle soup (Recipe No. 2,032) and fish in champagne aspic (a variation on Recipe No. 1,249), the guests wandered over to look at the Statue of Liberty, visible through the dining-room windows. Anya Ulinich, a writer and a Russian immigrant, tried to give Stivers-Isakova some advice, young housewife to young housewife.
“I really want my kid to speak Russian,” Stivers-Isakova said, balancing a slice of rum torte with jam (Recipe No. 1,944) on her belly. “Ivy says he’s going to speak Russian to the kid, but I don’t believe him. So I’m going to hire a nanny who only speaks Russian.”
“But you know the problem with Russian nannies, don’t you?” Ulinich said. “You need a nanny who speaks no English, and if she speaks no English she’ll be older than you, in which case she’ll become your surrogate mother. She’ll constantly be freaking out: ‘Oh, my God! How can you give the child cold milk straight from the fridge!’ ”
Stivers-Isakova remained confident that she’d build a fine nest, even if it is a hybridized version of the one Molokhovets envisioned. What did she think of the book, in the end?
“It’s an instrument of torture.”