TRADITIONS OF RUSSIAN FEASTS
Ever since the ancient days in many Russian provinces they cultivated rye, oats, wheat, barley, millet, developed skills of making fine flour, discovered secrets of baking various breads made of fermented dough.
Therefore the Russian cuisine is famous for its cakes, pies, rolls, buns, pancakes, muffins, and many other types of baked goods. Many of them have since long become traditional for the Russian holiday table: Kurnik (chicken pie) is usually consumed at weddings; cakes and pancakes – at the Pancake Day, "larks" (little buns shaped as birds) – during spring holidays.
It is remarkable that all Russian culinary traditions formed in the ancient times have remained almost unchanged to the present day. The main dishes of the traditional Russian cuisine are a s follows: black rye bread, the absolute favorite, a variety of soups and porridges most Russian families eat almost every day (although now they are cooked according to modern recipes as the ancient ones required the use of the Russian stove), cakes and countless other baked products made of yeasty dough, an absolute "must" at any feast, pancakes, and traditional drinks – honey, fruit drink, vodka and kvass. For example, in 17th century, every self-respecting citizen (especially the wealthy ones) had to throw festive meals at regular intervals, as it was part of the traditional way of life. Preparations for the meal began long before the gala day: the house and yard were purged and cleaned, ceremonial tablecloths, dishes, towels, cutlery removed from the trunks where they had been carefully preserved for such occasions.
The owner of the house had an important duty – to invite guests to the feast: depending on the status of a guest the host either sent out an invitation with a servant, or went to invite the dear guest by himself.
The gala dinner ceremony proceeded the following way: the hostess in her best attire came out to the gathered guests and greeted them by bowing low – the guests did likewise. Then the ceremony of kissing started: the host offered the guests to honor his wife with a kiss. The guests in turn came up and kissed the hostess; according to the canons of etiquette they kept their hands behind their backs, and then bowed again and accepted a cup of vodka from her hands.
As soon as the hostess turned to go to a special women’s table the guests were allowed to sit down at designated places. Traditionally the ceremonial table was placed in the "red corner" (under the icon stand) next to long benches that were usually fixed to the walls – to sit on such benches was considered more honorable than to sit on movable furniture.
The meal itself began when the owner of the house cut a slice of bread with salt and gave each guest a piece which symbolized hospitality of the house.
Modern traditions of hospitality take their origin in those days. As a token of respect to a guest the host could take some food from a special dish which was placed on the table next to him and send his servant to offer it to the guest of honor.
Although the tradition of welcoming guests with bread and salt came from that time, the order of serving dishes then differed noticeably from the modern times: first they ate pies, then meat, poultry and fish dishes, and only at the end of the meal had soups.
Russian drinking traditions that many of our contemporaries still observe, also take their roots
in ancient days: today in many Russian households – exactly as in the past – to turn down the offer of food and drink means to offend the hosts.
Another tradition that has been preserved to the present day and is universally practiced in Russia is to drink vodka in one big gulp rather than take small sips (as they do in European countries). But at least the attitude towards drunkenness has changed: today to get drunk means breaking the norms of propriety, while in the old days it was deemed necessary, a sober guest should have at least pretended to be drunk. Another rule was to get drunk gradually, at the same "pace" with other guests, and rapid intoxication at a party was considered indecent.
Thanks to many ancient manuscripts that have survived to the present day one can get reliable information about festive and everyday meals that tsars and nobles enjoyed. For this we must thank courtiers who provided such precise information. The number of various dishes at the royal feasts sometimes reached a hundred, and in special cases could be as high as 500, dishes were offered alternately, one by one, on precious gold and silver plates while the rest of them were held by the servants who stood around the table.
But not only the rich and noble had a tradition of feasting. People of almost all social classes considered it necessary to celebrate important life events at the banquet table – weddings, christenings, birthdays, farewells and returns, funerals, national and religious holidays... And this tradition has come to our days almost intact.