I was recently both amused and challenged by the perspective of a figure in history from the Russian food culture. Natalia Borisovna Nordman-Severova.
She lived from 1863- 1914 and she advocated and argued for the liberation of servants and housewives from excessive labor, and the abolition of world hunger. She certainly wasn’t going to aim for low goals! And vegetarianism was a large part of her answer to those problems.
Even more, unlike her contemporaries, Natalia took her vegetarianism much further. Although the word hadn’t been invented yet, her diet became vegan, and even progressed to a largely raw diet which contained grasses, and yes, hay.
Once married, she not only shared her goals and dreams by her lectures and writings, but also by having a weekly Wednesday open house. An open house in which some of the most famous and gifted people of her day sat at. It was here that she tried to show what a servantless and meatless meal could look like.
She had a famous round table built that had a huge lazy susan in the middle. This allowed the guests to serve themselves, eliminating the need for servants. There was also a side table where guests were supposed to cut their own bread-no servants or hostess doing this job!
When they came to the door, they were told by a sign on the wall to remove their own coats (also a traditional servant’s job). The rule was “equality and self-help”. She even got on her husband’s case once for assisting a guest with their coat. And guests were not allowed to help each other to food either. If someone made the mistake of offering food to another, they were forced to make a speech-which was sure to amuse the other diners.
Even more eccentrically, before the start of each meal, Nordman played music to set the mood (no, that’s not the eccentric part) and made everyone do a wild dance, called the “plastic dance”. If you wanted to be a guest here, you would be in for a ride!
Yet, for all of her funny (and often wrong) ideas, I really admire many of her aspirations. I know without a shadow of a doubt that I need help from others, so an independent “self-help” society in no way appeals to me. I want to help others with their coats, and I don’t mind cutting the bread. I know I get help in return. But her heart really was to help others. She even invented the first “crock pot”, which no one, unfortunately, paid much attention too. She was thrilled with it because she knew that it could help the cooks and homemakers so much.
But what about the hay? She was watching her horse chomp on hay one day when she had what she thought was a brilliant idea. Man could eat hay too, and become as healthy and strong as a horse! And all of the starving Russians would never have to go hungry again. And this way too, housewives wouldn’t have to toil needlessly in the kitchen.
Here’s her recipe for hay soup (and yes, she really did serve it to guests).
“Take a teapot depending on the number of people either a small porcelain one or a huge tin one for a while workers’ cooperative, toss in two zolotniks of hay per person, chop an onion, add some bay leaves (one leaf for every three people) and two peppercorns per person, pour on rapidly boiling water, simmer for ten minutes, and the soup is ready. ”
This idea is especially hard for us to grasp, but you should understand that many traditional recipes do use hay as a flavoring agent (though it’s not eaten). It really is supposed to add a nice taste to certain dishes. However, that “soup” recipe sounds like a bad tasting tea to me!
But not all of her ideas were bad.
” In 1911, Nordman published a cookbook in which she explicitly presents the merits of her hay diet…A cookbook for the hungry……The book methodically details a comprehensive method for changing the human diet, including an important ‘project for feeding the hungry’, in which every large apartment house or yardman’s lodge would daily provide a huge kettle of free soup for the poor. The soup would be free in both senses of the word. The indigent would not have to pay for it and neither would the providers, since the ingredients would consist of the discards from wealthy kitchen. Kindergartens and factories could establish similar soup kitchens, and thus without spending a cent, the rich could feed the needy. ” 1
I think that is a great idea! I love the concept of not wasting anything, and the rich of that time (and our time too) waste a lot of good food. Why not give it to the hungry?
And even her hay/grass diet isn’t as far fetched as it sounds. When reading about her advice to take a day in the country to gather a variety of green grasses and how she also gave chemical analyses of different grasses to prove that did provide nutrients, I was reminded of our Green Drinks. In a lot of way, what she was advocating was no different. Except, of course, for the fact that we pay a lot for green drinks. It’s no longer food for the poor!
“Nordman insisted that a Russian meadow with its many grasses could provide a more varied and nutritious diet than any in Italy, where produce is available only in season. In Russia, for a quick and tasty meal, one need simply go out into the summertime fields and pick fresh grasses like lady’s mantle, goutweed, angelica, mountain sorrel, yarrow, timothy grass, and canary grass, then saute them with celery parsley, dill, and onion in a little olive oil.”2
Needless to say, she never really got a following among her people. She was just a little to extreme. It’s too bad though, because some of her inventions, like her “crockpot”, her ideas to help the hungry by using the scraps of the household, and her desire to make life a little easier for the masses did have value.
I am not a vegan, or even a vegetarian. But I do admire her gumption and commitment to making this world a better place. And, like she advocated, I don’t want to waste food when so many go hungry. So for that legacy, I thank her.
1-Editors Musya Glants and Joyce Toomre, Food in Russian History and Culture, pg 114, Published 1997 by Indiana University Press
2-Editors Musya Glants and Joyce Toomre, Food in Russian History and Culture, pg 116, Published 1997 by Indiana University Press