In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers.
The complete stories of Varlam Shalamov (1907–1982), published by NYRB Classics in two newly translated volumes, contain some of the bleakest and most powerful writing we have about the Soviet gulag. They’re also terrifyingly and indelibly about food—that is, about starving to death. Shalamov was first arrested in the twenties, when he was a student at Moscow University, and then again in 1937 for Trotskyist activity. He spent the next seventeen years in labor camps, including on the far northern island of Kolyma, where he mined for gold in some of the most horrific conditions in all the gulag. He found no redemption in the camps, writing that they were “a negative school of life in every possible way. Nobody can get anything useful or necessary out of the camps … Every minute of camp life is poisoned.” Yet in the decades after his release, he boiled the horrors he’d seen down to their pure essentials and shared them via this extraordinary body of work. Shalamov is plainspoken—“he knew his material perfectly, and wrote in a way that everyone can understand,” notes the translator Donald Rayfield—but prolonged immersion in the work reveals him as a better Solzhenitsyn; the stories are compulsively readable despite their subject matter, as compressed and brilliant as the Arctic snow. The temptation would be to compare them to “metal number one,” as gold was called by the Soviet authorities—if Shalamov had not so loathed it.
I was reading the first volume, Kolyma Stories, two weeks ago as New York City shut down due to the ongoing public health crisis. He was the only writer who didn’t feel frivolous—not because there can be any comparison between America’s sudden food insecurity and the Stalinist gulag’s conditions of prolonged starvation but because I have been depressed by the human behavior on display. To me, social distancing seemed to erupt spontaneously, and I found it heartbreaking. Even if it will later emerge as necessary and the best decision, I’m hopelessly stuck on the idea that distance is bad. I read a Leslie Jamison piece about being sick with the coronavirus and caring alone for her two-year-old, and on an emotional level, I’m outraged that I can’t bring her soup and human kindness.
I don’t claim Shalamov’s moral authority for my opinions, but I think often of the first point on a list he wrote in Moscow in 1961, which Rayfield includes in his introduction to Kolyma Tales. The list is entitled “What I Saw and Understood in the Camps,” and the first point is: “The extreme fragility of human culture, civilization. A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger and beatings.” That’s too bleak for our times, but it bears keeping in mind. The third point is: “I realized that friendship, comradeship, would never arise in really difficult, life-threatening conditions. Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not at the pit face.)” We have opportunities.
I find Shalamov consoling for his gravity, his sorrow, and his moral purity. Our times are grave and sad, though unfortunately for those of us not deemed essential workers, feelings of moral purity are hard to come by. I decided to bake from him in order to encourage others to read his stories, not because I think that baking bread and sharing it on the internet does much for humanity; baking is fun, but as a cook and sensualist, I consider virtual intimacy no intimacy at all. I’ve also had a long-running, long-failing personal project to correctly bake Russian rye bread from homemade sourdough starter, and testimony by all the novice quarantine bakers currently struggling with this implies that my experiences may be of some use. Moreover, while any attempt to faithfully reproduce the staff of life from a concentration camp would be ghoulish, Shalamov specifies that the bread was rye, and I had the medium rye flour, coarse rye meal, and red rye malt necessary for such bread already in my pandemic pantry, waiting to be thriftily used up.
Shalamov writes that bread was the “basic food” in the camps, and it appears in nearly every story. “We got half our calories from bread,” he explains. “The cooked food was something hard to define, its nutritional value depended on thousands of different things.” It was bread that kept him alive, specifically the ratio between its quantity and his labor. Men in his stories scheme for bread, fight for it, weep when they don’t get “a crusty piece.” There are loving descriptions of allowing crumbs to dissolve on the tongue. In the story “The Typhus Quarantine,” in which the Shalamov proxy Andreyev wakes up in the hospital and realizes he’s going to survive, he observes that “as little as half a kilo of rye bread, three spoonfuls of porridge, and a bowl of thin gruel were enough to resurrect a man: as long as he didn’t have to work.”
I considered making a second dish, oreshki, that I remember from my time living in Moscow: walnut-shaped cookies filled with a caramel made from condensed milk. The inspiration was “Condensed Milk,” a Shalamov story in which the narrator achieves one of his few victories over the forces trying to destroy him, tricking an enemy out of two cans of condensed milk. He consumes both instantly, after having “used the corner of an ax to pierce a hole” in the cans. I also had a can of condensed milk sitting in my pandemic pantry. Moreover, a Russian friend from Irkutsk—where the narrator arrives after his long exile, in the last story of the first volume—once told me that to make the caramel, you boil the sealed can for hours, stopping just before the point of explosion. This sounded like a cooking adventure of the type I am familiar with and enjoy, but for two factors: I’d have to order a cookie mold off the internet at a time when people need the transportation grid for more pressing matters, and it felt inappropriate to Shalamov and his work.
Thus, I made bread. It’s the title of a story, and it’s the ultimate human comfort food. There are many styles of Russian rye, but the one I’ve been trying to reproduce has a chewy, spongy, sour interior and a leathery black crust dusted with coriander seeds. I found a recipe that seemed close in a book called The Rye Baker, by Stanley Ginsberg. The first step was to develop a starter.
The starter method outlined in The Rye Baker is fairly similar to all the others on the internet: You combine flour and water in about equal weights (half a cup of flour to a quarter cup of water, roughly), cover, and leave in a room-temperature place for twenty-four hours. Then you scoop out half the mixture, add another round of flour and water, stir, and repeat. After forty-eight hours, you should see gas bubbles, but even if you don’t, step up the discard-and-feed cycle to every twelve hours. Allegedly, within seven days you will have a puffy, sour mixture that can rise bread.
I wish I could report success with this, but instead I’ve had days and weeks of failure—and even, one night, tears, when my husband preheated the oven and accidentally cooked three carefully tended starters I’d placed there to soak up the warmth from the pilot light. Mishaps aside (oh, there were more), I suspect that my fundamental problem was the temperature: the Ginsberg book specifies that “room temperature” is between sixty-eight and seventy-two degrees. Up in Vermont, it’s been snowing, and starters left on my countertop have remained completely inert. Some sources suggest that a starter that looks flat might still be working, but I tried it and got a rocklike, unrisen loaf. Starters nourished in warmer places—the proofing drawer, the oven with the light on, the microwave with the light on—showed some growth and bubbling but either didn’t survive or did not raise bread. I suspect they may have been too warm, since too-warm conditions encourage bacteria (the sourness and bubbles) but not yeast (the growth). It’s also possible that wild yeast is a more mysterious beast than commonly admitted and that my starter just didn’t have enough of it. A last caveat: Ginsburg says the starter should be ready in five to seven days. I tried mine at day seven, and it did not work. However, other sources say you need up to twenty days to establish a culture powerful enough to bake with.
There is also the possibility that my starter was okay and the failure was somewhere in the bread recipe or my technique. Ginsberg’s Borodinsky rye bread asks for “a scald” and “a sponge.” For the former, you pour boiling water over rye meal and rye malt and allow it to soften overnight. For the latter, you make a slurry of starter, water, and flour and allow it to rise overnight. In the morning, you combine the two and let them sit for three to four hours “until doubled in volume.” I did so, and the doubling did not happen. I thought my starter was at fault. But then I added a packet of instant yeast (proofed), and though it bubbled, it also did not increase the volume. I would have stopped there, having been down this inedible-brick, wasted-flour road before, but for the sake of this story, I added the rest of the ingredients and followed the rest of the instructions, producing a pasty, bitter, concrete-like sludge, nowhere near the color of the bread promised in the cookbook photo. I had no faith in it at all.
But the sludge rose, and I baked it, and the texture and crustiness were perfect. If I hadn’t made other mistakes, it may have even been good bread. Warm, with butter and jam, it wasn’t so bad. I’d like to say that having to provide a recipe for this failed loaf is a caution to me and that I’m going to give up on starter and stop wasting flour, but the truth is that I plan to make another starter tomorrow. There will never be such a time again (I hope, fervently) for sticking around the house tending to multiple long rises and watching the yeast grow.
And anyway, I’m sure they would have eaten my bread in Kolyma.
Adapted from The Rye Baker, by Stanley Ginsberg.
whole wheat flour
To make a starter:
Day 1: Using a quart-size mason jar or other roomy receptacle, combine half a cup of flour (I used King Arthur White Whole Wheat) with a quarter cup plus a tablespoon of water, and stir to make a starchy paste, making sure not to leave any pockets of flour sticking to the sides. Cover with saran wrap, and seal with a rubber band. If it’s hot where you are, you can probably leave the jar sitting out at room temperature. Otherwise, place it in an unheated oven with the door closed and the light on, and leave for twenty-four hours.
Day 2: Scoop out a quarter cup of the mixture, and refresh with half a cup of flour and an additional quarter cup plus a tablespoon of lukewarm water. Stir till completely combined, and let sit for another twenty-four hours.
Days 3–5: Begin feeding the starter at twelve-hour intervals, with the following change from the above: Scoop out half a cup (rather than a quarter cup) of the mixture, and discard; refresh with half a cup of flour and a quarter cup plus a tablespoon of lukewarm water. Stir, cover, and keep in the oven with the light on.
My recipe says you want five to seven days to build a powerful starter. I tried baking with mine on the seventh day, with inconclusive results.
To make the bread:
For the sponge:
2 cups medium rye flour
1 3/4 cups warm water
1/3 cup sourdough starter
For the scald:
3/4 cup coarse rye meal
1/4 cup red rye malt, ground
1 1/4 cup boiling water
For the final dough:
scald-sponge (use all)
1 2/3 cups medium rye flour
1 cup bread flour
1 2/3 tsp salt
2 tbs dark molasses
1 tbs red rye malt, ground
flavorless oil (for pan)
1–2 tbs coriander seeds
Day 1: The evening before you bake, make the sponge and the scald. To make the sponge, combine all the ingredients in a large bowl, cover with saran wrap, and leave overnight in your warm area of choice (“room temperature” if you’re someplace warm; the oven with the light on if you’re someplace cold, like a New York City apartment). Do the same for the scald in a separate bowl. Let rest for twelve hours.
Day 2, morning: Using the bowl of your stand mixer, combine the scald with the sponge. It’s essential that you allow the scald-sponge to rise in the mixer bowl because on the next step, you’ll add the rest of the ingredients and knead the dough, and you want to keep as much air in as possible. Cover the mixer bowl with saran wrap, put it in your warm place, and allow it to rest and rise for an additional three to four hours, or until doubled in bulk.
Day 2, afternoon: Add the flours, salt, molasses, and red rye malt to the risen mixture in the mixing bowl, then use the dough hook on low speed for eight to ten minutes to create a soft, smooth, deep-brown dough. Cover and ferment in your warm place until visibly expanded, sixty to seventy-five minutes.
Day 2, afternoon: Grease a nine-by-four-by-four-inch Pullman loaf pan with butter or flavorless oil (I baked mine in a Dutch oven because I didn’t have a loaf pan). Carefully spoon in the risen dough. Use wet hands to distribute it evenly, and smooth the top. Spoon a tablespoon of water over the top to keep the dough moist, then cover and set in your warm place to rise until the top of the loaf shows broken bubbles, an hour and a half to two hours.
Day 2, evening: Preheat the oven to 550, arranging one rack in the middle of the oven and one at the bottom. Place a shallow baking dish or roasting pan on the bottom shelf. Five minutes before you put the bread in, add two cups of boiling water to the pan. Bake with steam for ten minutes, then remove the pan, cover the loaf with aluminum foil, and reduce the temperature to 350. Bake for forty-five to fifty minutes, then remove the loaf from the pan and return it to the oven to firm up the sides and bottom crust. Bake until the loaf thumps when tapped with a finger, ten to fifteen more minutes. Transfer to a rack and cool thoroughly before slicing.
Valerie Stivers is a writer based in New York. Read earlier installments of Eat Your Words.