The curious Russian history of lobsters and crab sticks

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Lobsters, crabs, crayfish… what could be further from Russian cuisine? In fact, that’s not true, if only because all kinds of European seafood have been part of Russian culinary tradition for more than 250 years.

In 1766, Catherine brought together the most eminent scientists of the time and gave them a difficult task. She demanded that they search the Baltic Sea for the crab and lobster she loved so much. It was an expensive pleasure, but the public treasury was not tight with their funds, and they gave what was at the time a huge sum of money to conduct sea and land expeditions along the coast. Unfortunately, no lobsters were found. But scientists have made many discoveries and even laid the foundations of ichthyology in Russia. And all kinds of seafood ended up on the Russian table.

But, of course, lobsters occupy a special place in science, culture and the city of St. Petersburg. Let’s dive into the history of 200 years ago for a moment.

By a twist of fate, a 22-year-old Scotsman named James Wylie finds himself in Russia in 1790 where he is quickly renamed Jakob Vasilievich Villie. He entered service as a medic in the 33rd Yeletsky Infantry Regiment, where he quickly showed professionalism and ingenuity. As often, chance played a role in his fate. In 1799, the young doctor successfully operated on the father of Count Kutaisov, a very important general and dignitary. At the request of his new patron, Wylie was appointed lieutenant surgeon to Emperor Paul I.

Wylie became the palace physician to three emperors. He signed the medical report on the death of Paul I “of apoplexy” (and not of having been struck with the heavy golden snuffbox of Count Nikolai Zubov). With the new Emperor Alexander I, the Scottish doctor crosses the Napoleonic countryside. After his defeat at Austerlitz, Wylie and his aide-de-camp accompanied the Tsar, who miraculously escaped captivity. When the emperor on horseback fell, the adjutant rode away, but the faithful doctor carried the tsar away on his horse.

In 1808, barely forty years old, Wylie became the first president of Russia’s oldest higher medical school, the Petersburg Academy of Medicine and Surgery (now the Military Medical Academy). In honor of the 50th anniversary of his selfless service to Russia, in 1840, a commemorative gold medal was struck.

Mihaly Zichy. Portrait of Baronet James Wylie (1840).
Media Wikicommons

Shortly after her birthday, Wylie made an unexpected move. He divided his entire then considerable fortune into three parts: he set aside 100,000 rubles for scholarships for exceptionally gifted university graduates, and he left a small sum for a monument to himself. He also donated 1.2 million rubles to build a public hospital. After his death in 1854, the Medical and Surgical Academy built a clinic. And today this building stands on the corner of Botkin Street and Bolshoi Sampsonievsky Prospekt. And opposite is a monument to this exceptional Scotsman who served Russia and the Russian Imperial families.

So what does this have to do with lobsters, you might ask. It’s simple. Wylie originally wanted to bequeath 80% of his fortune to his brother. But according to a family legend, one day at dinner, the brothers had an argument: Wylie’s brother didn’t want to share his lobster. The fight was so bad that Jacob disinherited his brother. “And because of these lobsters, a huge clinic was built in St. Petersburg for the benefit of all mankind,” the Physician’s Gazette later wrote.

Monument to Wylie in front of the Military Medical Academy.  St. Petersburg, placed in 1859. (Postcard from the end of the 19th century).

Monument to Wylie in front of the Military Medical Academy. St. Petersburg, placed in 1859. (Postcard from the end of the 19th century).

That said, lobsters and other shellfish were not uncommon in Russia at the time. They were imported from abroad and widely available in “good stores”. A recipe for cooking lobster was included in the “Cook’s Dictionary” written by Vasily Levshin and published in St. Petersburg in 1795. A recipe for lobster mayonnaise is found in the “Almanach of Gastronomists” (1855), a book by famous Russian chef Ignaty Radetsky. At that time, mayonnaise was not just the sauce, but the dishes made with it. For example, a dish might be called “game and sturgeon mayonnaise”.

But lobster, public services and public health aren’t the only reasons Wylie was famous. There is another curious aspect in the story of his life.

James Wylie was a close friend and comrade-in-arms (in the French countryside) of Count Alexander Apraksin. He was in turn the godfather of Alexander Blank (1799-1870). The Earl was very involved in his godson’s life, but it was Wylie who helped him get into the Medical and Surgical Academy. Wylie takes an interest in the young man and encourages the talented cadet in his studies. Later (1832) during his residency, obstetrician Alexander Blank lived with his wife and children in the Wylies’ house on the English Quay. Here, in this house, Masha Blank was born in 1835.

In Russia, she is better known as Maria Alexandrovna Ulyanov, the mother of Vladimir Lenin.

Ilya Nikolaevich Ulyanov and Maria Alexandrovna Ulyanova (Lenin's parents) Wikimedia commons

Ilya Nikolaevich Ulyanov and Maria Alexandrovna Ulyanova (parents of Lenin)
Wikimedia commons

Even the monument to Wylie had a twist in its fate. For almost a century it stood in front of the main building of the Military Medical Academy. But in 1948, during the campaign against cosmopolitanism, the long-dead doctor was, it suddenly turned out, an English spy. The monument was dismantled and from 1949 to 1964 it was not accessible to the general public.

He was resettled not in front of the Military Medical Academy, but in a small park near the Mikhailovsky Hospital – the hospital built on “lobster money”.

But Russia’s epic love affair with seafood didn’t end there. In the 30s and 50s, crabs appeared on the shelves of Soviet stores and were even exported under the CHATKA brand. They were good both in simple salads and in complex banquet dishes.

Jellied crab with fish cream puffs from the book Kulinaria (1955).

Jellied crab with fish cream puffs from the book Kulinaria (1955).

The building of communism, heralded by Nikita Khrushchev in the early 1960s, caused a stir in society in 1980. In fact, at that time, the lack of basic foodstuffs was becoming increasingly apparent. No one could find crab and lobster on store shelves. Ordinary cans of squid became a holiday meal.

And then the Soviet authorities decided to do an experiment: crab sticks. Invented in Japan in 1984, they were produced in a factory in Murmansk called Protein. At the time, the Soviets thought it was a delicacy. It tasted different from today’s versions. The 1985 specification specified that this imitation crabmeat should be made with minced shrimp or cod with flavorings and essence of crabmeat. Modern production and advances in the chemical industry have changed the ingredients somewhat, but the principle remains the same: the more expensive it is, the more natural it is.

Crab stick salad was a big hit in Soviet cuisine for many years, and even today it is served on festive tables. Let’s not forget about this simple and inexpensive dish.

Crabstick and red caviar salad

Ingredients

  • 150 g (about 5 ½ oz) crab sticks
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 orange
  • 100 g (3.5 oz) canned corn
  • 2 tablespoons of red caviar
  • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise

Instructions

  • Boil the eggs then cool them.
  • Peel the orange and remove the core.
  • Dice the crab sticks, orange and eggs.
  • Put all the ingredients in a bowl, mix gently and season with mayonnaise; add a spoonful of caviar on top.
  • Salt to taste (if the caviar is not salty enough).

Pavel and Olga Syutkin

Pavel and Olga Syutkin

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