Anthropologist talks ‘Rotten Renaissance’

Kelsey Gobroski
Feb. 15, 2011

When Sveta Yamin-Pasternak visits Russia’s rural northeastern tip, she needs to convince her hosts that she studies all of their delicacies. They better not hold back on feeding her the rotten stuff.

Intestines marinated in seal oil and fermented walrus flesh have seeped back in to rural Russian cuisine after decades of the predominant culture’s distaste for traditional food. On Feb. 11, Yamin-Pasternak led a seminar called, “The Rotten Renaissance: Aged foods and the importance of their [re]acquired taste in post-Soviet Chukotka”

In ‘60s, the Soviet Union tethered the Far East to modern Russian life. Although this integration provided modern amenities, such as sugars and carbohydrates, stigmas against traditional food preservation threatened cultural survival. Today the Siberian Yupik and Chukchi peoples seek to bridge this generational gap.

While the United States underwent an expansion of capitalist ideals, rural Russians learned Soviet and Slavic ideals, Yamin-Pasternak said. This is called “russification.”

“[Russians] simply didn’t regard the native food as food,” Yamin-Pasternak said. In the Russian mindset, rotten food wasn’t safe for consumption. Traditional meats became more suitable for animals.

In Chukotka, hunters butchering a walrus immediately eat some organs, such as the brain. They roll up the flesh, burying it in the ground for a later date. Because fuel for smoking meat was scarce, fermentation became the process of choice for preservation. Microorganisms ferment the meat. The resulting alcohol cleanses the meat, giving the villagers food in winter. Although the Russian word for this type of rotting is different than accidental food rot, the pungent aroma of these foods earned the cuisine the moniker “those with fragrance,” Yamin-Pasternak said.

Russification in Chukotka intensified as Russia protected its maritime border with Alaska during the Cold War. Border guards restricted subsistence. Reindeer herders began working for state farms. Posters instructed communities: “a newborn belongs in a daycare, not in the tundra.” Children were sent off to boarding schools.

Children today think of Soviet times as a mythical era, Yamin-Pasternak said. In the 60s, the government subsidized rural areas. The state provided banquets for weddings, flew in reindeer food, and used a helicopter to search for a child who left a boarding school. The standardized apartment buildings stretching across the Soviet Union provided Russians with the cultural identity that McDonalds brings from Florida to Fairbanks, she said.

Yamin-Pasternak, originally from Belarus, has been visiting Chukotka’s Chukchi Peninsula on Russia’s northeastern tip since 2001. She graduated from UAF with a doctorate in cultural anthropology and did postdoctoral research at Johns Hopkins University.

The Chukchi and Siberian Yupik peoples seek to close the generational gap because the art of rotting meat is not a skill that can be taught in a recipe, Yamin-Pasternak said. When asked how the indigenous peoples know their food is “done,” she said that takes a lifetime of practice and cultural cues.

“The rot is in the eye of the beholder,” Yamin-Pasternak said.

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