What to Feed the Servants in Sixteenth-Century Russia

By Carolyn Pouncy

Russian Cabbage/Sour Cabbage Soup (Shchi)
Russian Cabbage/Sour Cabbage Soup (Shchi)
(Wiki Images)

There is a Russian proverb, well known among historians of the prerevolutionary years and especially of the peasantry—“Cabbage soup and kasha are our food.” It sounds better in Russian, where it rhymes: Shchi da kasha, pishcha nasha. But in either language, it conveys a basic truth about Russian life—probably even today, but certainly in the past, when the range of foods was so much narrower and abject poverty more widespread than they are now. The great dishes of Russian cuisine, the Chicken Kiev and Beef Stroganoff, are not only relatively recent inventions but creations developed for the 19th-century elite. Such foods never formed part of most people’s diet.

So it is both amusing and a bit sad to turn to Domostroi, the 16th-century book on domestic management (the name means, literally, House Structure or House Order), and read its prescribed meals for servants:

“As everyday food servants receive rye bread, cabbage soup, and thin kasha with ham. Sometimes they may have thick kasha with lard. This is what most people give their servants for dinner, although they vary the menu according to which meat is available. On Sundays and holy days servants sometimes get turnovers [pirozhki—small pies stuffed with a mixture of meat or vegetables, cooked grains, and eggs], jellies, pancakes, or other, similar food. At supper they eat cabbage soup and milk or kasha.”

Meat/Vegetable Turnover (Pirozhki)
Meat/Vegetable Turnover (Pirozhki)
(Wiki Images)

These prescriptions were for meat days. On the many fast days that dotted the Orthodox calendar, the cabbage soup and kasha continued to appear, with fish or vegetables rather than meat, “sometimes with broth, peas, or turnip soup.” Fish soup, pease porridge, pickles, and oatmeal were also considered suitable. On ordinary days, feast or fast, servants drank “second-grade beer,” upgraded on Sundays and holidays to ale. Those who served at table, together with children and poor relations of the family, did better, since they were permitted to share in the leftovers of the much more elaborate dishes served to the master and mistress of the house. Seamstresses and embroiderers, as well as visiting tradesmen, might be permitted to eat with the master and mistress. This expressed high appreciation indeed, treating these skilled craftspeople and merchants as subordinate members of the family. It also guaranteed them a good meal.

From a modern perspective, it all sounds rather grim and regimented. It’s easy to imagine staring at yet another bowl of cabbage soup, made from sauerkraut in winter, and silently grumbling—as my heroine Nasan does in The Golden Lynx—that if someone cut her open, they would find her green and curly inside. (Nasan is a Tatar, and a khan’s daughter at that, accustomed to somewhat different fare.)

But the real question historians must ask about the instructions in Domostroi is whether anyone followed them. Domestic servants in 16th-century Russia were, almost without exception, full, hereditary slaves; the mere acceptance of a position in household service equated, in the eyes of the law, with selling oneself. Slavery functioned as a kind of social welfare, and those who purchased domestic servants implicitly took responsibility for their maintenance.

Even so, most slaves did not live in the compounds where they worked but supported themselves in whatever miserable lodging they could afford on the basis of a meager allowance, out of which they were also supposed to supply their own food, drink, and clothing. Some resorted to robbery and murder to make ends meet. Most of them would have rejoiced at the thought of two full meals a day, with beer or ale and meat several times a week. Through the early 20th century, many peasants and members of the urban poor would have agreed that such a situation constituted pure, unadulterated bliss.

Sometimes cabbage soup and kasha, delivered regularly and on time, doesn’t look so bad after all.

Text quoted from Carolyn Johnston Pouncy, ed. and trans., The Domostroi: Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 161–62 (chapter 51, “Instruction from a Master to His Steward on How to Feed the Family in Feast and Fast”).


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