It’s high summer — hamburger season. The char, the fat, the squishy perfection of processed bread sopping up the overflowing juices — doesn’t it somehow seem like Americans’ birthright? There’s a reason that President Trump chose to serve hamburgers — twice — as an all-American feast for some all-American championship college football players.
But peel back the oil-spattered pages of history, and you’ll find that the sandwich so closely aligned with the stars and stripes was once also embraced by the hammer and sickle. (Yep, like so much about this current administration, even Trump’s beloved hamburgers have surprising ties to Russia.) In the 1930s, when McDonald’s was just a greasy twinkle in Ray Kroc’s eye — he didn’t open his first McDonald’s until 1955 — the Soviet Union was a couple of decades out from its revolution and in the midst of industrialization and urbanization on a staggering scale. Tens of millions left the countryside for the cities, as feudal farmers transformed into urban Soviet workers. And these workers needed to be fed.
In the centralized Soviet system, this task fell to the ministry of food — which was struggling. “The ideal was to make everything centralized, everything standardized,” explains University of Helsinki sociologist Jukka Gronow. “They had menus that were centrally planned, down to the very small details — so many grams of potatoes.” At canteens, factory workers were fed meals that, on paper, sounded tasty. “They all had these three-course meals: zakuski [appetizer], soup, main dish. And even a dessert,” Gronow says. “A French style of dining.” But we’re not talking souffles and cheese courses. The soup might be little more than cabbage, the main dish perhaps macaroni. “Workers were complaining about the bad quality,” says Gronow. “So many weekdays without meat.”
The food commissars knew they had to improve their centralized system. And so, in 1936, Anastas Mikoyan, the ministry’s head, took a delegation to America, to learn how Ford’s conveyor-belt approach and emerging technology could streamline food production. According to Irina Glushchenko, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics University, the three-month tour included “ice cream, soft drinks and beer factories, a factory for freezing ducks, a factory for the production of powdered milk and fruit juices, poultry farms and the famous Chicago slaughterhouses.”
Mikoyan and his delegation loved it all. Dispatches home had the feel of a fairy tale, with poetic descriptions of the order and standardization. They took notes on how to replicate the drumbeat of industrial capitalism, except without the capitalists. And they especially loved hamburgers. “For Mikoyan, hamburgers obviously became the most powerful shock in his entire trip,” Glushchenko explains, citing the loving mentions of American machine-made burgers in Mikoyan’s memoirs. In the steaming burgers and buns churned out for sale in stadiums and parks, Mikoyan saw a solution to the food needs of the Soviet Union. “Mikoyan shared Trump’s opinion of fast food. He was a great admirer,” Gronow says, laughing. “If the war hadn’t broken out in 1941, we would have a chain of McMikoyan’s.”
In his memoirs, Mikoyan recalls ordering 25 American machines that could produce 2 million hamburgers per day. Historian Pavel Syutkin notes that by October 1937, the Mikoyan meat processing plant was already working toward this goal, daily churning out more than 400,000 patties.
But ask anyone from the former Soviet Union about Soviet hamburgers today, and they’ll look confused. Because, for the most part, burger did not meet bun until McDonald’s opened in Moscow in 1990 — about two years before (and perhaps heralding) the end of the Soviet Union.
Yes, Mikoyan cutlets, or kotleti, were churned out en masse. Syutkin notes the original recipe “was a complete analogue of the American hamburger,” featuring minced meat and seasoning. But it quickly took on a distinctly Soviet character. Instead of disk-shaped patties, the Mikoyan factory eventually produced ones that were rounder with tapered ends, like footballs. And most strikingly, they were served sans bun, as bread crumbs were introduced into the patty itself as filler. “You can say that the Soviet mass-produce cutlet swallowed up the American hamburger and devoured it,” jokes Glushchenko.
The result, whose taste has been likened more to meatloaf than a Big Mac, was served in the stolovaya (Soviet cafeteria), and sold in stores frozen, using the blast-chilling that had so impressed Mikoyan during his American trip. This, in turn, made it a Soviet weeknight staple.
Actress Yelena Shmulenson, who grew up in Soviet Ukraine, says her American husband calls kotleti “Soviet meatball,” and laments that she doesn’t make them for holidays. Others have less fond feelings toward Mikoyan’s creation. Sociologist Asya Tsaturyan, who grew up in Moscow, recalls the “horrendous smell” of her cafeteria kotleti. Twenty years later, she remains best friends with the girl from second grade who volunteered to eat her portion so that Tsaturyan wouldn’t run afoul of her teachers for wasting food.
Author Boris Fishman, who left the U.S.S.R. as a child in 1988, says that while the distinctions between burgers and kotleti are not huge, the meaning behind them can be. “Has a single, instantaneous kitchen maneuver ever accounted for more distance between two places, two selves?” Fishman wrote in an email. “I’m talking about the patty-flattening that turns a kotleta (humped, sturdy, as Soviet as living with Grandma) into a hamburger (backyards, ballgames, Amurka). Eating a burger (with my hands), I feel diffusely American, a little coarse, faddish. But eating a kotleta (with knife and fork), I feel … like that grandmother’s grandson.”
Fishman isn’t the only one who has come to love the food of his babushka. Russians can now dine in retro canteen-style restaurants serving up Soviet nostalgia — and kotleti. Who knows what Mikoyan would think of that.
Deena Prichep is a print and radio journalist based in Portland, Ore., and co-author of the cookbook “Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking.”