What I Learned About the CIA From Cooking the Declassified Recipe for Soviet Borscht

The problem for people who care about government transparency is that the CIA's efforts to conceal history go far beyond soup.
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A bowl of non-Soviet borscht.

A bowl of non-Soviet borscht.

"It is a poor cook-instructor who does not go out into the mess hall where the soldiers are at breakfast, dinner, or supper and talk with them concerning the quality of the food.... The good opinion of the soldiers and the sergeants concerning the quality of the food is the most important appraisal of the work of the cook instructor."

Russian Army Manual for the cook-instructor in peacetime, from acting chief quartermaster of the armed forces of the U.S.S.R. Lieutenant-General Vladimir Vlasov. Declassified from CIA archives.

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World War II had ended. The Iron Curtain was extending across Europe. And the cook instructors in the Russian army were making borscht.

The key, according to their recently declassified manual, was to start with the lengthy process of making beef bullion (or stock) before adding any beets, cabbage, or other vegetables. As any good soup-maker knows, it's all about that base.

Yet this recipe was kept secret for decades, buried in the Central Intelligence Agency archives simply because our national security apparatus, by habit, hides everything. Enter JPat Brown, executive editor of MuckRock, a non-profit organization that helps people file and track Freedom of Information requests, archives released pages, and supports a group of investigative journalists. The group's lawyers spent years fighting to make the CIA publish its archive online, and, these days, Brown likes to search daily for some interesting tidbit to share.

Brown tells me by the phone that, one night, he and his wife were going out for schnitzel, so he searched in the archive for any material about breaded cutlets of meat. Lo and behold, he found the Soviet Army cookbook, which had been declassified in 2012. A few weeks ago, MuckRock published the recipe online and challenged its readers to get cooking. Challenge accepted.

My wife and I do not have a 1940s-style Soviet broiler. In fact, we couldn't figure out what such a machine involved, other than that it allowed army chefs to run multiple pots of soup and to take out the coals whenever they wanted it to cool off.

In pursuit of our own Russian-style winter dish, we decided to cook outside. I made the beef stock overnight in a slow cooker, removing the bones and the meat, adding more water, and placing the bones back in the pot. The next day, a lovely warm Saturday afternoon (it was 13 degrees Fahrenheit at peak) and just ahead of the polar vortex, I built a small but raging-hot blaze in our snowy backyard fire ring. My wife prepped vegetables and developed a workable recipe.

We put a heavy soup pot on the coals, sautéed the vegetables in beef fat we pulled from the stock, and did our best to follow the directions in the declassified document. The result was extraordinary, nothing like the thinner beet soup I'd had as a child (which was always served as summer food), but instead rich with the fattiness of beef and cut just right with sharp vinegar and sauerkraut, all of it complemented by smoke, sour cream, and dill.

The soup was good, but not good enough to qualify as an American state secret. It wasn't even a Soviet state secret in the 1940s. And yet, like so many other documents, it lay classified in the CIA archives until this decade.

Even after declassification, Brown argues, the resulting documents are often difficult to locate by design. "The CIA archives search is purposefully terrible," he says, complaining that the CIA likes to use the "national security" exception to declassification as a means of avoiding embarrassment.

Too often, Brown says, "it becomes a slippery slope" where "'dangerous to national security'" exceptions get applied to materials that might just be embarrassing. Once, he tells me, the CIA tried to use the national security restriction to hide a joke about an attack on Santa Claus.

The problem for people who care about government transparency is that the efforts to conceal the CIA's history go far beyond soup and Santa Claus.

"These historical records are our collective history," Brown says. "Sometimes [they are] borscht recipes, and sometimes military interventions." When it's the latter, such as continued attempts to hide the CIA's history of promoting right-wing governments in Brazil—highly relevant under the new presidency of Jair Bolsonaro—the stakes in the fight for government transparency escalate quickly.

Soup may not matter as much as (say) the CIA's history of destabilizing left-wing Latin American governments, but people do care a lot about their national dishes. While I was live-tweeting the process of making this historic soup, I learned many things from the responses. Lots of Americans dislike borscht because they have only had bad, thin, stinky soup. The "t" at the end of borscht in the typical English spelling comes from Yiddish, rather than Russian, and Russians get kind of touchy about it. Ukrainians wanted me to know that borshch is their soup, not Russia's. It turns out, as Olia Hercules described beautifully in The New Yorker, that there are dozens, maybe hundreds of borsch(t)s popping up all across north Asia and Eastern Europe. Each one sounds more delicious than the last. Each one is the only authentic borscht.

The politics of food can often illustrate deeper histories of cultural appropriation, identity, imperialism, immigration, slavery, and war. In making tortillas, Spanish colonizers and their elite descendants in Mexico promoted wheat, the grain of the eucharist, over corn, the grain of the indigenous deities. Tens of thousands of refugees fled the Levant and the collapsing Ottoman Empire to Mexico around 1900, bringing with them shawarma and adapting it to pork, providing the world with al pastor. Israelis frequently call shakshuka, the best egg dish in the world, their national dish. It came from North Africa. A Moroccan friend, a Muslim woman, recently assured me that the only good and authentic shakshuka was Moroccan. In my beloved Minnesota, Hmong farmers displaced by the Vietnam War now hawk bitter melon and intensely hot peppers along with tomatoes and corn in the farmers' markets.

Food history is history. It's important and potentially delicious. It should never be locked away in secret archives. Let the soup flow free.

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