Sine qua non of socialist celebrations, this salady Soviet icon actually has a fancy, bourgeois past. The name? Derived from one Lucien Olivier, a French chef who wowed 1860s Moscow with his swank L’Hermitage
restaurant. The Gaul’s original creation, of course, had almost nothing in common with our Soviet classic. His was an extravagant still life of grouse, tongue, and crayﬁsh tails encircling a mound of potatoes and cornichons, all doused with le chef ’s secret Provençal sauce. To Olivier’s horror, Russian clients vulgarized his precious arrangement by mixing up all the ingredients on their plates. And so he retooled his dish as a salad. Then came 1917. L’Hermitage was shuttered, its recipes scorned. All Soviet children knew Mayakovsky’s jingle: “Eat your pineapples, gobble your grouse / Your last day is coming, you bourgeois louse!”
The salad gained a second life in the mid-1930s when Olivier’s old apprentice, a chef known as Comrade Ivanov, revived it at the Stalin-era Moskva Hotel. Revived it in Soviet form. Chicken replaced the class-enemy grouse, proletarian carrots stood in for the original pink of the crayﬁsh, and potatoes and canned peas took center stage—the whole drenched in our own tangy, mass-produced Provansal mayo.
Meanwhile, variations of the salad traveled the world with White Russian émigrés. To this day, I’m amazed to encounter it under its generic name, “Russian salad,” at steakhouses in Buenos Aires, railway stations in Istanbul, or as part of Korean or Spanish or Iranian appetizer spreads. Amazed and just a little bit proud.
At our own table, Mom gives this Soviet staple an arty, nonconformist twist by adding fresh cucumbers and apple, and substituting crabmeat for chicken (feel free to stay with the latter). The ultimate key to success, though, she insists: chopping everything into a very ﬁne dice. She also obsessively doctors Hellmann’s mayo with various zesty additions. I think Lucien Olivier would approve.