What I have for you today, is Polish Cookery, Jean Karsavina’s 1958 translation of Marja Ochorowicz-Monatowa’s famous Polish cook book Uniwersalna Ksiazka Kucharska (The Universal Cook Book), published by Crown Publishers in New York as part of their “International Cook Book Series.” However, before we dig into the recipes. A short history lesson to lend some context to this remarkable book.
In 1863, Polish resistance fighters staged the longest running insurgency against Tsarist rule since becoming partitioned by Russia in 1795. The insurgency—unorganized and out-manned—was doomed to be a failure and was shortly followed by a series of harsh reprisals including: hangings, mass deportations, as well as an intensified ‘Russification‘ of the Polish people through language, culture and religion.
It was under the specter of this oppressive Russian rule that Marja Ochorowicz-Monatowa, the author of Uniwersalna Ksiazka Kucharska (the Universal Cook Book), was born in 1866. In 1888, she married prominent philosopher and psychologist Julian Ochorowicz, an associate of the famous novelist Boleslaw Prus (Aleksander Glowacki). Although Prus had taken part in the January Uprising as an early teen, he later became a leader of the Positivist movement in Poland along with Julian Ochorowicz whose poem Naprzod (“Forward”) in 1873 is cited as the ‘Positivist manifesto.’ Positivism eschewed the idea that Polish independence could be achieved through insurgency due to Russia’s superior military might, focusing instead on building Poland’s infrastructure to make the country stronger. The idea was that by developing the internal infrastructure of Poland, in particular through education, it would gradually earn its independence as a fully integrated ‘social organism,’ drawing on the theoretical concepts of British philosopher Herbert Spencer. A key concept to the Positivist movement was that of ‘organic work,’ a grass roots movement to strengthen the future potential of Poland through the education of its lower classes and improvement of their economic conditions. This is the historical context surrounding Marja Ochorowicz-Monatowa’s Uniwersalna Ksiazka Kucharska. The book that would later be translated as Polish Cookery in 1958 by Crown Publishers.
Published in Warsaw in 1910, Ochorowicz-Monatowa’s Uniwersalna Ksiazka Kucharska was an epic tome of Polish cooking containing over 2200 recipes, lavishly decorated in an Art Nouveau style made famous by Slavic artist Alphonse Mucha. At a time when Polish identity was being systematically eradicated through Russian influence, Ochorowicz-Monatowa published an exhaustive compendium of Poland’s rich culinary identity—from the rural peasant dishes of farmers to the sumptuous banquets of Poland’s nobility—which provided every Polish family a veritable ‘bible’ of culinary identity. Now, this is mere speculation on my part, but it seems clear to me that this ambitious and massively successful cook book is a direct result of the Positivist agenda in which she was surrounded. This is food as passive resistance in its finest form. You can view this fascinating artifact here.
Flash forward to 1958 and Ochorowicz-Monatowa’s Uniwersalna Ksiazka Kucharska is chosen by Crown Publishers to be a part of their truly fantastic “International Cook Book Series” which translated key culinary texts from around the world and introduced them to America between the early 1950s and on into the 70s. Beginning a full decade before Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961, this series really seems to pave the way for the foodie explosion of the 1960s. Karsavina, herself, is an interesting person, not a professional chef by any means, she is a Polish writer and intellectual who immigrated to America as a child and is known primarily for her 1974 historical novel White Eagle, Dark Skies set, ironically, during the Polish uprising of 1905 against the Russian Tsarist occupation which is roughly contemporary to Ochorowicz-Monatowa’s original Polish publication of Polish Cookery.
Surprisingly, Jean Karsavina, doesn’t seem to acknowledge Ochorowicz-Monatowa’s contribution to Polish positivism. Instead, Karsavina tends to portray Ochorowicz-Monatowa as a stern matriarch who is primarily concerned with shaming newly wedded brides into becoming dutiful housewives by admonishing “If there is room on one’s schedule for singing lessons, piano practice, water coloring and fine embroidery, surely there is also a half-hour each day which can be made available for one’s housewifely duties” because “everyone knows how apt the servants are to cheat, especially if the lady of the house makes no attempt to interest herself in planning menus or fails to check bills and accounts.” However, Ochorowicz-Monatowa appears to me a more complex and nuanced woman than that simple snippet would imply.
Imagine her life, born only a few years after the pivotal failure of the January Uprising in 1863, Marja Ochorowicz-Monatowa lived her entire life under wrath and reprisal of Tsarist Russia on Polish identity. However, despite this, at the age of 44, she publishes her magnum opus, a massive compendium of over 2200 recipes that catalog every single nook and cranny of Polish identity which becomes universally adopted by Polish families for the next several decades. It’s quite a powerful story, when you think about it.
So, how does this rate as a ‘gourmet relic’? It’s possibly the single most important document that preserves the culinary history of Poland as a nation while simultaneously being an incredibly important artifact at that pivotal time in the 19th century when Polish identity was under incredible duress and questionable extinction. It’s more than just a cook book, it’s a culinary anchor for an entire nation to preserve their identity. So, yeah, this is a ‘gourmet relic’ alright. I came for the pierogies, but I bit off some serious European history in the process and it’s a lot to chew on.
Generally speaking a book published in 1910 falls outside of the golden era of 1950-1970s American hosting manuals that I tend to explore. This is a rather antiquated book and it shows. There recipes were heritage cooking in 1910 when they were first published. However, being translated for an American audience in 1958 as part of the burgeoning international cuisine craze this book fits squarely in my area of interest. The result, is that while most of the books I explore were written contemporaneously for that gastronomic fervor of the baby boomer generation, this was already an artifact in 1958 and is doubly so now. This book was written as a universal compendium for the Polish housewife and as such, has a copious amount of redundant information for the contemporary gourmand. I can’t even imagine what the original 2200 recipe list looked like! But, I knew pretty quickly that I was going to have to prioritize what recipes made it into my test kitchen. Unlike Lambert-Ortiz’s masterful The Complete Book of Mexican Cooking which I recently covered that seemed unable to do wrong, this book has been a struggle to work through. I have to be honest, I am in love with this book, but it is a somewhat tumultuous love affair. A lot of time, money and ingredients have gone into a fair amount of deplorable meals while researching this book. Now, that is essentially the name of the game while digging into vintage cook books, some fair better than others. Unfortunately, this is not one of them. The good news, is that I suffer so that you may enjoy and, while I may not fully endorse you hunting down your own copy of this book, the recipes I am here to share with you today are tried and true and utterly fantastic. And so, without further ado, I give you my curated selection of Polish recipes from Polish Cookery: The Universal Cook Book.