"Maslenitsa," by Boris Kustodiev

It’s easiest to kick off a diet (or “detox,” as we like to call them now), after a period of gluttonous, wanton indulgence. When you can physically feel the fat and salt and sugar oozing through your veins and out your pores, you are more likely to be able to resist the temptation to stuff yourself with more of the same.

People have known this for a long time: that’s why we have debaucherous Mardi Gras just before Lent. The Russian equivalent is Maslenitsa (which, like Mardi Gras, has roots in a pagan festival celebrating the coming of spring), when believers can give themselves permission to get drunk and gorge on piles of butter-soaked crepes before the Lenten fasting period begins. If you follow them to the letter, Orthodox fasting rules are strict and specific: no meat, no dairy, and no eggs for seven weeks. (Yes, nine days longer than Western Lent.) Fish may be eaten on certain days each week (though shellfish are allowed throughout, supposedly because they don’t have blood). Even vegetable oils are forbidden for much of the period, and three days a week only raw food is allowed.

Russian crepes (bliny)

Keep in mind that Lent falls during the “hungry months” of the year in northern climes, when historically vegetable stores would have been running low and nothing was growing yet. People had to get creative.

While many of us tend to associate Slavic cuisine exclusively with hearty, meat-laden dishes, there is actually a large repertoire of traditional vegetable and fish-based dishes that were appropriate for fasting days. In fact, the Russian Orthodox calendar designates more days as fasting days than not, so back when community life still revolved around the church, we can assume that a lot of Russians were actually eating vegan (or nearly vegan) meals for over half the year.

Many of them stopped observing the ritual during the Soviet period, when enforced atheism was state policy and religious observance became a punishable crime. Nevertheless, Lenten fasting has come back into vogue since the collapse. As in the US, some Russians today choose to fast out of genuine religious fervor, some as a sort of general spiritual and physical cleansing, and many just seize the opportunity to go on a communal diet (usually with a “lite” version of the doctrinally prescribed regimen).

The other day I was looking through a pre-revolutionary Russian cookbook (A Gift to Young Housewives, by Elena Molokhovets, first published in 1861) that I had picked up years ago at a used book sale in Russia. I wanted to learn more about the vegan dishes that people might have been eating at this time of year before Soviet rule changed everything. (An online version in Russian is available here.)

Title page of "A Gift to Young Housewives"

Molokhovets, of course, was not writing for the masses, who had little use for recipes: they were cooking the same dishes their families had prepared for generations. Rather, she intended it for the wives of well-to-do merchants and aristocrats who entertained guests at home, enjoyed some familiarity with French language and table culture, and could (at least occasionally) afford to purchase the non-native and pricey ingredients her recipes often require (e.g. artichokes, truffles, rum). The book was later banned in the Soviet Union because it was considered ostentatiously bourgeois. (Wikipedia notes that at one point Molokhovets remarks, “fresh roach is not very tasty and barely useful; it is, therefore, best used to feed the servants.”)

Still, I never expected to come across almond milk in any Russian cookbook. I had always considered it a product of new age hippie-dom, perhaps something that vegans in California invented sometime around 1965. Not so, it turns out. There are recipes for millet simmered in almond milk with ground walnuts and sugar (which may happen for breakfast in my own kitchen soon), cream of wheat with prunes and almond milk, and mashed potatoes with almond milk.

A second surprise was the instructions for making use of cannabis oil. “Cannabis oil is prepared from the seeds of the cannabis plant, costs about 14 kopeks a pound, is used by poor people in food, but is mostly used for lighting….It is also used in the preparation of green soap.” Molokhovets provides directions on using onions to rid it of its “bad smell and taste.” None of the Lenten dessert recipes she lists appear to include it.

Her recipe for making vinegar out of spoiled wine notes that “some people put an old swallows’ nest” into the barrel along with the sour wine, sugar, water, and wine stone (the crust of sediment left in wine casks, essentially a crude cream of tartar). Unfortunately, she does not explain the purpose of the nest.

There are recipes for “Ordinary yeast,” “Dry homemade yeast,” “Thick homemade yeast,” “Very good runny-thick homemade yeast,” “Excellent homemade yeast,” “Homemade yeast—very good,” “Potato yeast,” “More potato yeast,” and “Yeast.”

Buckwheat kasha

Having abandoned my hunt for purely vegan dishes at this point out of sheer fascination and delight, I came across recipes for “Buckwheat Kasha with Various Variosities” (“Kasha Grechnevaya s Raznymi Raznostiami”), including eggs, butter, bone marrow, and fried grouse; carrot jam with orange rind; and something edible apparently known as “sturgeon glue.”

Needless to say, Ms. Molokhovets and I will be spending quite a bit of time together from now on. Detoxing has never sounded like so much fun.