Sunday, July 7, 2024

Etiquette and the Russian Zakuski Table

One of the distinctive features of Russian hospitality that attracted the attention of visitors and travelers – including King Edward VII who brought the custom of appetizers back to England after traveling to Russia as the first reigning British monarch to visit the Russian Empire – and was described in detail in memoirs of the 19th century was the snack table or “zakusochny stol.” Snacks and how they were served was initially one of the specific features of Russian cuisine.

For the first time, the concept of this display of  “snack foods” appears during the Great Troubles, after the death of Tsar Ivan IV the Terrible, when the Polish prince Vladislav found himself on the Russian throne. It was then, especially for him, who was not Orthodox and, accordingly, who did not know the rules and customs, that a “list of royal dishes” was drawn up from 1610-1613. It is not possible to determine the order of serving in that source, since it is compiled on a different principle and is more concerned with the religious aspects of the feast and food consumption. It is logical here that not knowing the local rules of behavior, or etiquette at the table, instantly made a newcomer with great ambitions a stranger. This was clear even then.

Until the 17th century in Russia, a “snack” (Zakuski) meant any food that was convenient or customary to eat with the main course. A snack, that way. could be a piece of bread served with hot food, for example, meat. Or, for example, sweets that help neutralize the nasty taste of the medicine. According to V.V. Pokhlebkin, a famous researcher of Russian and other cuisines, until the 17th century, the word “snack” was synonymous with breakfast. “Snack – In high society: breakfast before lunch, vodka with salty and other foods; sometimes early lunch: birthday appetizer; among the people, multiple snacks are more common: dessert, appetizer, super filling, delicacies, sweets, gingerbreads.” — Dahl's Explanatory Dictionary. — 1863–1866.

There were many foreigners in 19th century in Russia who noted a rule that surprised them. This was not typical for other countries. Some time before sitting down at the table and starting lunch/dinner, snacks were served in a separate room on special tables. It was not something small and not filling; many foreigners believed that this was the entire dinner or lunch program and were somewhat surprised when they were invited later to the main table. German traveler Christian Müller put it this way: “Russian snacks served before lunch are more expensive than German lunch.”

Or here’s another quote: “it is customary to serve some light food before the main meal - right in the living room, a quarter of an hour before sitting down at the table; this preliminary treat - a kind of breakfast that turns into lunch - serves to stimulate the appetite and is called in Russian, unless I heard incorrectly, “appetizer”. The servants serve plates on trays with fresh caviar, which is eaten only in this country, with smoked fish, cheese, salted meat, crackers and various cookies, sweet and savory; they also serve bitters, vermouth, French vodka, London porter, Hungarian wine and Danzig balsam; They all eat and drink it while standing, walking around the room. A foreigner who does not know local customs and does not have a very strong appetite may well get enough of all this, after which he will sit as a simple spectator for the entire dinner, which will turn out to be completely unnecessary for him. –Traveler A. Custine in, “Russia in 1839”

If drinking coffee in another room or at least at another table was considered decent everywhere in Europe, then separating snacks from the main meal and serving them separately and in advance had become a highlight of Russian etiquette. They did not sit at the snack table; they drank and ate while standing. And, by the way, not in a hurry. Plates of appetizers were held in their hands. I read that it happened that the snack table was made higher than usual, so that it would be clear and so that none of the guests would think of moving a chair to it. And in some houses, snacks were transferred to individual plates by servants, waiting for the signal “enough,” but quickly, perhaps to avoid the crowd around the snack bar, self-service became fashionable.

I want to emphasize that the desire of a guest, for example, out of ignorance, to immediately sit down at the dinner table, bypassing the snack bar, was considered terribly rude, however, and as they are very fond of exclaiming now, “not according to etiquette” – “not comme il faut,” an absolute “bad manners,” in general, that “etiquette forbade it.” This was highly undesirable.

Therefore, in L.N. Tolstoy’s novel “Resurrection,” the father of the girl whom Nekhlyudov had designs on immediately stopped such an unethical attempt. “He apologized for being late and wanted to sit in the empty place at the end of the table between Missy and Katerina Alekseevna, but old man Korchagin demanded that, if he no longer drinks vodka, he would still have a snack at the table.”

In France, it is said, snacks appeared at the end of the 16th century in the royal kitchen. As a result, as many as four French words were combined into Russian - “snacks.” Hors d’oeuvre, entree, entrements, relevee and, albeit slightly from a different category, amuse-bouche, can be translated, with varying degrees of preservation of the nuances, as appetizers. But what is very, very important here, French rules interpreted appetizers as something additional and accompanying. Until the mid-19th century, appetizers in France were served not before the start of the feast, but during lunch, in the intervals between main courses or in addition to them. These could, as a rule, be different meals, or they could be part of one.

Around 1860, the Russian system of serving snacks, began to spread in France. This fact is recorded in the French gastronomic encyclopedia Larousse Gastronomique, published in 1938. The first and main supporter and PR man of Russian snacks in the West was the famous French chef Jurben Dubois (1818–1901), who worked at one time in Russia and apparently fell in love with the local practice. The custom of serving snacks before meals, brought by Dubois from Russia, seemed to the French worthy of attention and borrowing, ans he was famous and respected at home. Naturally, but in some places the idea was somewhat transformed, mainly by reducing the quantity served and the range of what was offered.

But time did not stand still gradually, because not all guest rooms had enough, snacks first moved to the dining room, closer to the main table, and then... to the main table. The resulting hybrid, however, also had authoritative opponents. Auguste Escoffier wrote in his culinary guide: “Hospitable hosts and head waiters, rather fussy and zealous than thoughtful, introduced the fashion for snacks in our country, without taking into account the peculiarities of the climate, the fact that we have different national traditions, tastes, habits and temperament. They began to serve these “snacks” on the same tables where people later had dinner, which was already a violation of tradition.

So appetizers, originally Russian, entered the main European menu and began to be served directly to the table at the beginning of the meal. I don’t want to say that this is the only explanation, in cases such as this it’s always a whole bouquet or factors and traditions. One that comes to mind is the Swedish 
Smörgåsbord, but the fact that the snacks were on the menu at the beginning of the meal definitely has a Russian origin story.

Our newest contributor, Kseniia Markova, is a specialist in European social etiquette.  Project creator and author for ETIQUETTE748, Kseniia won a national award in the field of protocol, image and etiquette, “For contributions to the development and popularization of the profession” for quality content that supports the ETIQUETTE748 project - 2018; National Award in the field of protocol and etiquette, winner in the category “Best educational project in the field of etiquette” -2022. She is a holder of diplomas and certificates from leading schools and teachers in Europe. (including: Institut Villa Pierrefeu, Debrett’s Academy, The Minding Manners etc... She is the author of several books, including, “European Etiquette: Conversations about good manners and subtleties of behavior in society,” and “Etiquette. Traditions and history of romantic relationships,” and “Dress code: Etiquette and classics as ways of self-expression.” In 2022, this book won an award as the best in the field of etiquette. She is a member of the National Association of Protocol Specialists (NASP)

 🍽️Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J. Graber, is the Site Editor for the Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia

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