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Russian Food Is a Forbidden Link to the Past on ‘The Americans’

The TV drama’s creators explain why they gave their spies a taste of beef stew for the final season of the show

Paige Jennings (Holly Taylor), Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) and Glaudia (Margo Martindale) discuss Russian food on The Americans. 
Eric Liebowitz/FX

On FX’s Cold War thriller The Americans, married Soviet spies Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) have lived, on the surface, a normal existence in Northern Virginia as a happy family, raising their children Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) — while secretly spying on the U.S. government and frequently murdering people in brutal ways. And now, as the show hurtles toward its conclusion, the walls are crumbling down around the duo, both professionally (their cover business, a travel agency, is in the red) and personally (the schism between the couple continues to escalate, and F.B.I. capture or death seems eminent).

Although The Americans focuses on the complicated world that these Soviet spies occupy, Russian food hasn’t appeared in the show very much over the years. But now, in the sixth and final season, the creators are using Russian dishes to highlight the tension that these characters feel between their current and former lives.

In a recent episode set at a safe house in autumn 1987, four years before the end of the Cold War, grandmother-like KBG supervisor Claudia (Margo Martindale) stands over a stove sautéing and chopping carrots and onions. She works for Soviet-based intel unit the Center and explains to the newly-anointed college-aged KGB recruit Paige that she’s making a Russian dish called zharkoye, a meat and potatoes stew. “It’s peasant food,” Claudia says. “They know how to survive. We’re always having droughts, famines, and wars.”

Elizabeth breathes in the nostalgic aromas, which remind her of Mother Russia, where she lived until she was plucked into the KGB and forced to pose as a married spy. “My mother used to make pots of this,” Elizabeth says. “We’d eat it for weeks.” Paige asks if she ever got sick of it, but the teenager’s American naiveté shines through — in the Soviet Union, in the 1920s and throughout the Cold War, families didn’t have much of a choice in what they ate.

“When we started the season, we were looking for ways for Claudia, Elizabeth, and Paige to come together,” Joe Weisberg, the creator of The Americans, says. He and co-executive producer Joel Fields wanted Elizabeth and Claudia to not only train Paige as a second-generation illegal recruit, but also educate her on cultural touchstones like Tchaikovsky, Soviet history (including the fact that more than 26 million Russians died in World War II), films, and of course, food. “One of first things they’d do would be surround her with Russian food, because that’s part of what we grow up with: the sights and the smells and the tastes,” Weisberg says. A second factor, as Weisberg explains, is that Elizabeth would benefit from rediscovering “certain things she missed by leaving Russia at such a young age.”

Another part of the episode shows Fyodor Nesterenko, a USSR foreign ministry officer assigned to the U.S.-Russia Summit team, out to lunch with a group of American U.S. State Department members. He tells his colleagues that “every Russian dish starts with meat and potatoes,” and another Russian chimes in with “and smetana,” referring to an Eastern European-style sour cream. “I tried some here in America but it’s not like home,” Nesterenko says. One of the colleagues jokes, “Because American cows are different here.” Claudia and Elizabeth also discuss smetana (used to top golubtsy, a dish of shredded beef in boiled cabbage), saying that even back home it was hard to get.

Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), with zharkoye.

After a long day, Elizabeth comes home to Philip and pulls a sealed Tupperware container out of her purse, opens it, and presents the taboo dish to him. “I know it’s not supposed to be in the house, but we made zharkoye,” she beams. (Though zharkoye could easily be mistaken for American meat and potatoes, Fields says, the Jenningses “need to be as American as apple pie, and zharkoye isn’t apple pie.”) Philip, whose work space is littered with empty containers of Americanized Chinese food, inhales the scent, and it’s just like home. “That smells great,” he says, but admits he just gorged himself on kung pao chicken and lo mein. He takes one bite — “That is delicious!” he exclaims — and then Elizabeth dumps the rest down the garbage disposal.

During the Cold War, Russian food wasn’t exactly prohibited in America — it just wasn’t as popular as it is right now. “From what I understand, Russian food, or the diverse foodways of the former Soviet Union, weren’t quite mainstream, for lack of a better term, in the ’80s and ’90s, though there was of course the Russian Tea Room, which was more of a Warner Leroy [the final owner] spectacle than anything else,” Ryan Sutton, Eater NY’s food critic, says. “Such food, I believe, was something folks were more likely to encounter in areas like Brighton Beach or Little Ukraine in the East Village or Rego Park in Queens, where there’s a big Bukharan Jewish population, hailing from Uzbekistan.”

For Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, having zharkoye in the house would’ve been an obvious red flag for anyone who might have been suspicious of their “all-American” origin story. “The truth is, she shouldn’t have even brought it home at all, but she’s trying to connect with her husband through food,” Fields says. “After all, what’s the way to a person’s heart? Through their stomach. And there is a connection — that gesture of hers with the food is what allows them to have hesitation and leads to a fight.”

Over the sink, Elizabeth and Philip argue about how Moscow’s changing — a Pizza Hut is opening there soon — and how Gorbachev’s initiatives of glasnost and perestroika will open the Soviet Union to the rest of the world. However, Elizabeth doesn’t want to be like the Americans. “Honestly, the way things are going, in a couple of years I think we’ll have Stan over here for zharkoye,” Philip flippantly says to her about their nosy FBI neighbor.

“I think it’s one of the most heartbreaking scenes we’ve ever done in the series,” Weisberg says. “They’re both trying so hard. She’s reaching out to him with the zharkoye. At first he rejects it just because he’s stuffed, but then he changes his mind because he realizes that she’s trying so hard. And because he said no to the first opportunity, she closes off. And by the time he goes to take a bite — and he’s reaching out in that way — she now won’t accept. They are two people who really love each other and want to reach out to each other, but because of the marriage, even if their efforts are just few seconds, they cannot connect. The food is the symbol of that failed effort, and you see it go slop into the sink. It just breaks my heart.”

Later, the camaraderie between Elizabeth and Claudia shifts in the penultimate episode of the series when Elizabeth stops by the safe house to find Claudia ladling ukha, a Russian fish soup, into a bowl. Claudia asks Elizabeth if she wants some, and she rejects it, the same way she rejects her job and her past. She confesses to Claudia she contacted Gorbachev’s people and told them about the Center’s plans to overthrow him. “The damage you’ve done is indescribable, far worse than all the good you’ve done over these years,” Claudia calmly says. “What’s left for you now?”

Claudia (Margo Martindale) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell)
Eric Liebowitz/FX

Today, despite sanctions that forbid Russia to import goods from the U.S. and the European Union, Russia supplies wheat to more than half of the world. But that wasn’t the case during the 1980s. In the show, while the three generations of women bond over shots of vodka at the safe house, Elizabeth confesses to Paige and Claudia that she ate rats while growing up in Russia. Claudia reveals that during wartime, she slept with a Red Army soldier to receive half of his rations. This alludes to the famines in Russia and Ukraine from the 1920s to the 1940s. Between 1921 and 1922, more than five million people died in Russia from starvation. In 1932 and 1933, the Holodomor (also known as the Famine-Genocide in Ukraine) occurred in Soviet Ukraine, which resulted in the government starving millions of its own people.

“There’s a through-line in the series, basically Soviet history or some Russian history, that you can’t take food for granted,” Weisberg says. “Even when it wasn’t a time of famine, the food was in short supply at certain times and people could go hungry. Food wasn’t something in great abundance. Americans have more food than they know what to do with it, and you never think twice about stuffing your face.”

To contrast Americans’ overabundance of food, in Season 5 there’s a moment when Philip’s secret American wife Martha (Alison Wright), exiled to Russia, is seen shopping in a grocery store with barren shelves. In the fourth episode of this season, Philip sits at his desk snacking on potato chips when he looks over and discovers an uneaten sandwich sitting on files. Feeling guilty, he flashes back to himself as a young boy living in Soviet Russia.

In order to get the throwback scene as authentic as possible, Weisberg and Fields tapped Russian consultant Sergei Kostin. The show’s creator explains, “We called Sergei and said, what would be the Russian equivalent of a poor American kid staring through the glass of a diner and seeing people eat?” Kostin suggested what ended up making it into the flashback: a man carrying two big pots of porridge and handing the leftovers to a group of children. They scrape the bottom of the pan, barely extracting any porridge.

“It was such a different worldview then, and one of things we’re exploring here is the lives of characters that grew up with that singular difference — that they couldn’t take their food for granted and how that changed their perception in how they view the world,” Weisberg says.

By the end of the series, food has become an inextricable part of the show’s themes. Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin), a former KGB operative who’s visiting America on a special mission, tells Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) why he’s fighting for his country: “All of us want a better future, just like you. Peace, food to eat — all the same things.” Elizabeth and Philip are also fighting for those things. They want to melt their war at home, and they allow food to remind them of where they came from and where they could be going. In Russia, they had so little. But in America, they could take a sandwich for granted.

It’s unclear what devastation the finale will inflict on Elizabeth and Philip Jennings. But one thing’s for certain: Weisberg and Fields have created an incredible series that manages to explore the complexities of both the Cold War and marriage, one plate of zharkoye at a time.

Garin Pirnia is a freelance arts and culture writer, and author of the books The Beer Cheese Book and Rebels and Underdogs: The Story of Ohio Rock and Roll.
Editor: Greg Morabito