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180 years of Greater Lithuanian culinary discourse

Disintegration or striving for the lost unity?
180 ans de discours culinaire lituanien: désintégration ou quête de l’unité perdue ?
Alexander Belyi and Antanas Astrauskas


Reminiscence of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL), which existed between mid-13th century and 1795, still exists in present-day Lithuania, Poland and Belarus, especially in the culinary heritage. Using the same set of dishes, cooking techniques, old cookbooks, culinary myths and anecdotes, each nation-state or region on the terrain of the former GDL exploits it in their own way, using complex, sometimes irrational, sets of “filters,” imposed by politicians and ethnologists. In the 21st century local elites face the necessity of re-defining their culinary identities. Dishes or products previously labeled “alien” now have to be dusted off and conceptualized commercially. As a result, the discourse on history and anthropology of food and drink on the former terrain of the GDL gradually starts to realize that it deals with the same subject.

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1The Lithuanian Republic, Belarus and the eastern part of Poland share much in their food culture because of their common history. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, annexed by the Russian Empire in 1772-1795, continued to exist in the historical memory of its former citizens, and until 1918 many of them believed that this state would eventually be restored. However, after WWI it turned out that the intellectuals in this territory, defining themselves as Lithuanians, [local] Poles (or sometimes litwiny - Slavonic Lithuanians), or Belorussians, had grown too far apart, to run a common project. One interesting aspect of the former unity is the culinary heritage of this vast region. Challenged by the globalizing markets, local elites of present-day Lithuania, [eastern] Poland, and Belarus face the necessity to re-define their culinary identities, which frequently means that dishes or products labeled “alien” or tacitly silenced since the late 19th – early 20th centuries, now have to be dusted off and conceptualized commercially.

Aftertaste of Brillat-Savarin in the backyard of the Czar’s Empire

2Cuisine of the upper classes of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was more or less a continuous set of culinary ideas and practices by 1795, although with some regional differences. After the partitions, the natural development of this cuisine stopped and it began to be perceived as “heritage.”

3In public discourse of the former GDL, since the early 1830s, tacit canon of culinary heritage was present. It comprised, in particular, a certain set of symbolic dishes obligatory for Christmas, Easter etc., and to a lesser extent – for a routine menu. This canon was a mixture of all-Polish and local culinary traditions and was manifested by litwiny – Polish-speaking Catholic nobility and townsfolk of the former GDL including those forced into exile after the series of uprisings against Russian rule (1794, 1812, 1830-31, 1863-64.) This canon has never been announced as a conceptual manifesto, but was present in culinary practice ipso facto. Its reflections are evident in the most important texts of the 19th century (cookbooks, diaries, memoirs, fine literature, collection of ethnographic records, etc.)

4Before 1830, Russian government respected certain cultural autonomy of the Lithuanian (Catholic and Polish-speaking) nobility. However, the uprising of 1830-31 paved way for the Russian repressions against the social and cultural elite. One of the symbolic responses to that tragedy was the greatest Polish epic poem Pan Tadeusz, or the last foray in Lithuania (1833) by Adam Mickiewicz, written in Paris exile. Inter alia, it initiated the tradition of romanticisation of cuisine of the Lithuanian nobility in literature and media. This must be seen in the context of a flourishing interest in good cooking in Europe at that time, marked by the figure of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. Also, it was quite symbolic that mass emigration caused by the defeat of the 1830-31 uprising, was the most active in spreading the romantic image of the [noble] Lithuanian cuisine. The study on noble life of Łukasz Gołębiowski (1830) gave a first list of the symbolic dishes of this cuisine, most of which remain well-known up do date: chołodziec (cold vegetable soup with sourcream, boiled egg, crayfish meat and other additions), wereszczaka (meat gravy with pancakes), boćwinka (beet leaf soup), półgąski (smoked goose halves), śliżiki (Christmas biscuits), kołduny (stuffed dumplings), ołatki (muffins), grzybek (egg and flour pancake), etc. (Gołębiowski, 1830 : 48).

5The most active culinary writer of that time, Jan Szyttler, shows almost no sign of local food features in his numerous cookbooks that mostly relay French and German recipes to a wealthy public. However two noblewomen, inspired by Szyttler’s books, but having added some elements of the local culinary tradition, have left a significant trace in Greater Lithuanian culinary history. Lithuanian Housewife (1848) by Anna Ciundziewicka, a book on rational housekeeping and Lithuanian Cookwife (1854) by Wincentyna Zawadzka, - these two books, equally popular with the nobility in the present-day Lithuania, Belarus, and Podlasie region of Poland, shaped the local noble culinary culture up to the First World War. They are still in use as a source of culinary heritage – note their recent editions in Lithuanian and Belorussian.

6It is very difficult to say anything certain on the cuisine of the lower classes of the Grand Duchy before the 19th century when ethnographic records begin. Defeat of the 1830-31 uprising urged the nobility to look for the support of their peasant serfs and, as a result, inspired a series of ethnographic works; some of them containing information on the peasant food culture. Peasant menu, however, did not inspire that of the gentry.

1890-1914 Époque: not so belle for the aristocratic litwiny

7After the abolition of serfdom in Russia in 1861, and a defeat of the last uprising of the Catholic nobility against the Russian rule in 1863-1864, nobility started to lose its economic power and political influence. This led to the emergence of Lithuanian and, to a lesser extent, Belorussian [peasant] nationalisms. The world’s agricultural crisis in the 1880s influenced this process in many ways. Those landlords who did not manage to cope with the consequences of the crisis went bankrupt, and some of the impoverished gentry joined the lines of peasant nationalisms. Secondly, the structure of agrarian production and consumption started to change rapidly: production of grain for export that was a staple of the local economy since the early 16th century became unprofitable, while mass production of meat and dairy products dramatically increased.

8Lithuanian peasants possessed a much higher level of literacy than Belorussians. Therefore, Lithuanian nationalist propaganda had a much larger success. Orthodox Belorussians were treated as a part of the Russian nation, and most Belorussian-speaking Catholics did not consider themselves Belorussian, supporting the Polish-speaking elite.

9In the 1890s, the first culinary texts in the Lithuanian language emerged. They struggled with the utter primitivism of the peasant cuisine and tried to suggest some basic recipes of the petty nobility as the model for enhancing the menu. The first original cookbook in Lithuanian was Lithuanian Housewife (1893) by Liudvika Didžiulienė-Žmona, followed by an authorized translation of the Wincentyna Zawadzka‘s Lithuanian Cookwife (1907). Eventually came a free-style adaptation of the latter, A Textbook for Housewives (1911) by sisters Lazdynų Pelėda. Women were encouraged to cook according to gentry and petty bourgeoisie standards, but unlike the Polish originals, the Lithuanian books did not appeal to the historical traditions of the GDL.

10Nothing of that kind was published in Belorussian – literature in that language had to cope with tremendous censorship difficulties and a lack of educated readership. It was limited, largely, to poems describing the hard work and life of a typical peasant. Important ethnographic works of the period, by Pavel Shein and Nikolay Nikiforofski, in Russian, dealt with the peasant food culture. They were written in Eastern Belarus, where Catholic (and Lithuanian) influence was the weakest, and were addressed to a Russian-speaking audience.

11When WWI began in 1914, relations between the leaders of 3 national projects went downhill. Lithuanian-speaking intellectuals strove for a separate state, litwiny and Poles were in favour of a union with Poland. Belorussian leaders were too weak, hesitating between pro-Polish, pro-Lithuanian, and pro-Russian options. This led to the indoctrination of culinary discourse with nationalist connotations. The culinary heritage of litwiny, in particular, started to be treated with suspicion by the Lithuanians, being accused of noble arrogance and Polish imperialism. In 1915, Lithuanians refused to run a canteen with their Polish-speaking colleagues for war refugees in Vilnius. It became obvious that the divorce was inevitable.

The victory of the peasant nationalism: the first independence

12After the end of WWI, the two restored states, Poland and Lithuania waged the new war (1919-1920). Vilnius, where the position of litwiny was especially strong, was a challenge for both. After its annexation by Poland in 1922, Lithuania and Poland remained in a state of war until 1938. This did not encourage the sense cultural unity, including cuisine, that is reflected in the ironic memoirs of Melchior Wańkowicz.

13Surprisingly, in the inter-war Lithuanian Republic, interest decreased significantly not only in the culinary heritage of the litwiny, but also in that of the peasant. The new ruling elite were much more interested in borrowing the Western model of consumption, including nutrition. Modernized discourse on food, inspired by the government, was preoccupied by the content of vitamins, proteins, carbohydrates, and calories, etc. In a recently restored state, with a predominantly peasant population and a virtually closed market, this discourse was directed by the state bureaucracy and supported by the efforts of the nationalist intellectuals, but was not used as a tool in a competition between business entities.

14The Agricultural Chamber published Ūkininko patarėjas (Economist’s Advice) newspaper (1926-1940) with book supplements, including those on cooking and good housekeeping by Lithuanian authors. The Lithuanian Women’s Catholic association was publishing Moteris (Woman) magazine which included a recipes section and published the most important Lithuanian cookbook of the period – What do we eat? (1935, ed. by Elena Repčytė-Starkienė), written from a nutritionist’s point of view. The cookbook gives the detailed description of the main dishes of the 4 principal Lithuanian ethnographic groups: Aukštaitians, Samogitians, Suvalkians and Dzūkians. It is believed that the oldest written recipe of famous Lithuanian Zeppelins (cepelinai - big oblong potato dumplings stuffed with chopped meat) was first published in this book. The Women’s Catholic association also created a network of professional schools for girls which taught cooking and housekeeping. But the influence of state authorities was even higher. The state agricultural academy in Dotnuva was preparing maid instructors in good housekeeping who taught women how to raise the living standards and strongly influenced the rural nutrition culture.

15The Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, created in 1919, was an autonomy within USSR. The nation/land/country made some efforts in organising national life (during a short period of maximum 10 years), but the scale of these cultural activities, in a state where private property had been prohibited since the late 1920s and where all peasants’ farms were forcibly collectivized, was dramatically lower than in Lithuania. In the mid 1920s, the National Communists in power in Belarus, tried to adopt a concept of “Red Denmark,” combining intensive production of pork and dairy products with a distributed system of property and ideological dominance of Communism. This idea, however, proved to be utopian and was eventually prohibited by Moscow. One of the by-products of this policy was publishing a long series of books under the common title “A Peasant’s Library,” containing a great deal of advice on agricultural production but very little on cuisine and nutrition which were considered “bourgeois” and “harmful.” The most vivid contribution to the idea of Belorussian culinary heritage was “The New Land” (1923) by Yakub Kolas, an epic poem in Belorussian, with prominent descriptions of peasant meals. In Lithuania, a similar role was played by “Rushlight Time” (1931) by Mikalojus Katkus, a diary/essay on the peasant life in the middle of the 19th century.

The GDL all together again, under Soviet rule

16The first post-war decade, marked by the collectivisation of land property and forced industrialisation and cultural Russification/Sovietisation, yielded no achievements in culinary culture. For the Stalinist elite of this period, The Book on the tasty and healthy food (1939, first ed. by Y.Khudyakov) was a cultural icon which contained a number of elitist recipes with colour photos. It was virtually never used in practice but rather to confirm the high social status of the possessors. The publishing of other culinary books was considered unnecessary.

17Public interest in culinary culture started to be restored after the death of Stalin in 1953. The USSR’s Collection of the recipes of dishes for the enterprises of public nutrition was compiled in 1955 and was obligatory for all canteens, cafes etc. all over the Soviet Empire. This collection of recipes contained sections dedicated to the cuisines of the Soviet republics, including Lithuania and Belarus. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, in both Soviet Lithuania and Soviet Belarus, new official canons of the “people’s cuisines” were adopted. These were based on the collectivisation of land property and a certain stabilisation of the economy after the war-time collapse, symbolised by the introduction of the gas oven.

18Factory and office canteens had a tremendous impact on culinary habits. Even in home cooking, people tended to copy dishes they ate in the canteens. It was exactly this time that the modern set of stereotypes about the typical Lithuanian cuisine were defined. In 1975 a poll was conducted in Elektrėnai, a completely new town which hosted the young power plant workers from all around Lithuania, to find out what they considered to be “typical national dishes.” 78,8 % of them mentioned Zeppelins, 34% - potato kugelis/babka, 25,2% - vėdarai/kiszka, 17,5% - potato pancakes, 9,7% - skilandis, 7,8% - flour pancakes etc. (Daniliauskas, 1978 : 95).

19Of all the Soviet republics, Lithuania was given the biggest cultural autonomy. Interest in folklore, including folk food culture, was encouraged while any mention of the culture of nobility/bourgeoisie was suppressed. Thus, the Soviet age finalized a “divorce” of official Lithuanian culture with that of litwiny. In Belarus, even at the lowest level of public life, Russification was encouraged. Certain interest towards Belorussian language and folklore was revived only in 1965. Even then, however, food culture attracted very little public interest. It was in this time that the image of Belorussians as “bulbashi” (potato eaters) started to be heavily publicized, with draniki (potato pancakes) becoming the main, if not the only, symbol of the national cuisine.

20In Lithuania, many more books on the national cuisine were published than in Belarus, including those for private cooking. The most important of these was Preparation of dishes (1956) by Elena Drąsutienė. She and her colleagues put in a tremendous amount of work to prepare this book: they tested a huge collection of ethnographic records and made them into ready-to-use recipes. This book was the main source of practical knowledge on Lithuanian cooking for the rest of the Soviet age. Another collection of (mainly ethnographic) recipes, Lithuanian dishes, was published in 1983 (ed. by Julija Pauliukonienė). Its Russian translation was published in Belarus and largely contributed to the revival of the interest in the common culinary heritage. The second edition of the all-Soviet Collection of the recipes (1982) was marked with a serious innovation: the governments of the constituent republics, including Lithuania and Belarus, were granted proxies to specify and publish such canons independently. To understand how important this degree of freedom was, suffice it to say that the Soviet Union collapsed only 9 years later, in 1991. Lithuanian official canon was published in 1983. Of course, this does not mean cooking books publications have directly influenced the fall of Soviet Union; but similar gradual liberalisation in other fields eventually proved to be incompatible with the Soviet system.

21Oddly enough, the only conceptual models of the development of Lithuanian and Belorussian cuisines in the long historical retrospective belonged not to the local scholars, but to the Russian amateur historian of cuisine, William Pokhlyobkin (1923-2000). In his bestseller of 1978, Pokhlyobkin tried to grasp the essence of the culinary identities of all major individuals of the USSR, including the historical patterns of their development, and cross-cultural interaction. His chapters on both Lithuania and Belarus are flooded with factual mistakes – however, in the closed Soviet society he won the reputation of the only true connoisseur, and his views still influence not only the general public’s perception of the national culinary canons, but even that of the professionals. He did, however, make one important conclusion that would have been impossible to come to within a standard ethnographic approach: the Old Lithuanian cuisine of the privileged classes that existed in the 14th-18th centuries, despite not being the direct ancestor of the modern Lithuanian cuisine, still influenced the latter in many ways. Both of these are, from an historical point of view, Lithuanian. However, he did not recognize the same continuity for the Belorussian cuisine which was construed by him only in terms of an all-Russian culture.

22In 1944-1958, several hundreds of thousands of citizens of the pre-war Poland, mostly Polish-speaking Catholics, left Lithuania and Belarus for the People’s Republic of Poland. It may be said symbolically that they took their culture with them to exile. Some Polish publications include the popular essay of the culinary history of the Commonwealth “Old Polish Traditions in the Kitchen and at the Table by Maria Lemnis and Henryk Vitry (1978), which was translated to Russian, English, German and other languages and was used as a part of Poland’s international image, but contained a lot of information on the historical Lithuanian cuisine as well.

After the collapse of Communism: still too early for conclusions

23After the restoration of independence, Belarus and Lithuania in particular were introduced to the international food market as new products and foreign cuisine concepts were brought in. The importance of the national culinary heritage “dimmed,” looking less important to the general public than it had seemed before 1991. However, the decrease in public interest was matched with some achievements of the local researchers (Vilius Puronas, Birutė Imbrasienė, Antanas Astrauskas, Alexander Belyi). Former contradictions between ethnographic and historical approaches became somewhat less dramatic. The Soviet past started to look a bit less horrible after having been overcome, as it is represented at a somewhat ironic exhibition on the culture of the Soviet canteens in Lithuania by designer Indrė Klimaitė (2009).

24After the cultural shock of the 1990s, post-Soviet societies mostly satisfied their curiosity for the previously inaccessible food, which either became a part of the routine menu or remained exotic. Since the beginning of the 21st century, market researchers have come to a paradoxical conclusion that the best way to promote a new food product is to specify it as a “traditional” one. This encouraged the research activity at the service of the local manufacturers, substantiating their claims with the long historical traditions of their products. Lithuanian national legislation on the national culinary heritage is stricter than EU legislation, demanding at least 100 years of proven continuity. The most well-known expert body in this field is the Culinary Heritage Foundation, founded by ethnologist Birutė Imbrasienė in 2001. It certifies food processing and HORECA enterprises, and this revives the interest towards the “Lithuanian culinary canon” of the 19th century.

25In 2007, the Lithuanian law on products of national heritage was adopted. Skilandis, made of coarsely chopped, top quality pork which is highly seasoned, tightly stuffed into a pig's stomach, and intensely smoked, was one of the first Lithuanian specialties, registered under this law. Later, in 2010, this became the first Lithuanian product recognized at the EU level as Traditional Quality Guaranteed (Kindziuk, the Belorussian and Polish version of the same product, is occasionally produced in the respective parts of the former GDL. While the Polish version also received protected status in Poland as the regional product of the Podlasie region, in Belarus the product is almost extinct.)

26An interesting example of the regional cuisine that has recently tried to establish itself as traditional, with reference to the common Lithuanian heritage, is the cuisine of the Podlasie region of Poland. The existence of Podlasian cuisine was virtually ignored until 2003, when a book on Podlasian cuisine by Andrzej Fiedoruk was published. Podlasie was a part of the Grand Duchy, and by an attempt to manifest the existence of the regional cuisine, Fiedoruk in fact emphasized the differences between the Polish “mainland” and a local version of Lithuanian cuisines.

  • 1 Lista produktów tradicyjnych. Województwo Podlaskie in the database of Ministry of Agriculture & Ru (...)

27In 2005-2008, Poland ran an EU-sponsored campaign for the search and codification of the PGS product. Many local products of Podlasie were registered with the “Lithuanian” denomination1 or as very close analogues to the similar Lithuanian/Belorussian traditional products. The case of Pierekaczewnik is particularly interesting. It consists of a stuffed pie of Lithuanian/Belarusian Tartars, and was registered No. 1 in the list of Polish traditional products (2005). Its heritage complexity can give a hint for the better understanding of the “Greater Lithuanian Culinary Discourse”: a) Stuffed pie of Turkish origin shared by Lithuanian Tartars in Lithuania, Belarus, Poland; b) The name is borrowed from the Belorussian language (“something that is being rolled out”); and c) This became a kind of a tourist icon of Podlasie and No. 1 traditional regional product registered in Poland.

28Scientific and commercial interest towards the Old Lithuanian Canon is slowly growing as arguments occasionally arise over the priority of the certain dishes, etc. Are we looking forward to the new age of the acknowledged unity, or will trade wars eventually repeat the bitter nationalist quarrels of the last 100 years? Let us be more optimistic, for the time being.


29As a result of the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the natural development of its “haute cuisine” has stopped. This gave birth to the discourse on the “desirable content” of the local culinary canon. This discourse was closely related to the social and political discourse on the terrain of the former GDL, for the last 180 years. Initially (ca. 1830), this “Lithuanian canon” was a mixture of all-Polish and local culinary traditions and was manifested by litwiny – Polish-speaking Catholic nobility and townsfolk. This aristocratic canon was strictly observed until the 1st World War. By the 1890s the Lithuanian national movement, predominantly peasant, became influential (to a lesser extent the Belorussian,) and it was much concerned with the primitive nutrition culture of the non-privileged classes. They partly accepted “Lithuanian culinary canon” as a rough model but fully gave up almost any of its symbolic connotations. In the mid-war period the new national elites of Lithuania and Soviet Belarus undertook a forcible modernization of their societies, based on the Western model. The former unity of culinary practice, still evident in everyday life, was completely ignored at a symbolic level. In Poland, “Lithuanian culinary canon” was largely integrated into the national culinary heritage. After the 2nd World War the new Soviet culinary canons were artificially designed in Moscow and enforced as a law. Some of the traditional recipes were dramatically edited for the sake of practicability, and some recipes of completely unknown origin were added to these canons as well. Any interest towards culinary heritage was limited to the peasant ethnography, while cuisine of urban middle class and aristocracy was heavily censored. After 40 years of such approach, perception of culinary heritage in Lithuanian and Belarusian societies significantly changed, limiting it to a small number of symbolic dishes such as Zeppelins or draniki. For the last 2 decades, Lithuania and Belarus have been challenged by the culinary globalisation. Trying to manifest their own identities, they refer to the common past. The most active agent of the national culinary indoctrination, however, is the food industry that tries to exploit the discourse on the national identity in both societies. A project of regional culinary identity in Podlasie became a somewhat unexpected phenomenon in the 2000s. Thus, the re-writing of the “Lithuanian culinary canon” remains incomplete.

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1 Lista produktów tradicyjnych. Województwo Podlaskie in the database of Ministry of Agriculture & Rural Development, Republic of Poland. Local products of Podlasie with the Lithuanian denomination included: ser biały deserowy litewski (sweet curd-cheese), kump nadbużański z ćwiartki (a kind of ham), kumpiak podlaski (kind of ham), kindziuk z Puńska, kumpia weprzowa “z komina” (kind of ham), bliny po litewsku (stuffed potato pancakes), kartacze sejneńskie czyli cepelinai (Zeppelins), chołodziec litewski czyli chłodnik (cold beetroot soup), soczewiaki sejneńskie (pancakes with lentil filling), kołduny litewskie (stuffed dumplings) etc. See online:

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Electronic reference

Alexander Belyi and Antanas Astrauskas, « 180 years of Greater Lithuanian culinary discourse », Anthropology of food [Online], S7 | 2012, Online since 26 December 2012, connection on 22 May 2018. URL :

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About the authors

Alexander Belyi

Historian and researcher of food culture in Belarus,

Antanas Astrauskas

Vilnius University, Faculty of History, Department of History Theory & History of Culture,

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Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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