Tushonka: Cultivating Soviet Postwar Taste





pig, Soviet, processed meat, Cold War

How to Cite

Smith, J. L. (2010). Tushonka: Cultivating Soviet Postwar Taste. M/C Journal, 13(5). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.299
Vol. 13 No. 5 (2010): pig
Published 2010-10-17

During World War II, the Soviet Union’s food supply was in a state of crisis. Hitler’s army had occupied the agricultural heartlands of Ukraine and Southern Russia in 1941 and, as a result, agricultural production for the entire nation had plummeted. Soldiers in Red Army, who easily ate the best rations in the country, subsisted on a daily allowance of just under a kilogram of bread, supplemented with meat, tea, sugar and butter when and if these items were available. The hunger of the Red Army and its effect on the morale and strength of Europe’s eastern warfront were causes for concern for the Soviet government and its European and American allies. The one country with a food surplus decided to do something to help, and in 1942 the United States agreed to send thousands of pounds of meat, cheese and butter overseas to help feed the Red Army. After receiving several shipments of the all-American spiced canned meat SPAM, the Red Army’s quartermaster put in a request for a more familiar canned pork product, Russian tushonka.

Pound for pound, America sent more pigs overseas than soldiers during World War II, in part because pork was in oversupply in the America of the early 1940s. Shipping meat to hungry soldiers and civilians in war torn countries was a practical way to build business for the U.S. meat industry, which had been in decline throughout the 1930s. As per a Soviet-supplied recipe, the first cans of Lend-Lease tushonka were made in the heart of the American Midwest, at meatpacking plants in Iowa and Ohio (Stettinus 6-7). Government contracts in the meat packing industry helped fuel economic recovery, and meatpackers were in a position to take special request orders like the one for tushonka that came through the lines. Unlike SPAM, which was something of a novelty item during the war, tushonka was a food with a past. The original recipe was based on a recipe for preserved meat that had been a traditional product of the Ural Mountains, preserved in jars with salt and fat rather than by pressure and heat. Thus tushonka was requested—and was mass-produced—not simply as a convenience but also as a traditional and familiar food—a taste of home cooking that soldiers could carry with them into the field. Nikita Khrushchev later claimed that the arrival of tushonka was instrumental in helping the Red Army push back against the Nazi invasion (178).

Unlike SPAM and other wartime rations, tushonka did not fade away after the war. Instead, it was distributed to the Soviet civilian population, appearing in charity donations and on the shelves of state shops. Often it was the only meat product available on a regular basis. Salty, fatty, and slightly grey-toned, tushonka was an unlikely hero of the postwar-era, but during this period tushonka rose from obscurity to become an emblem of socialist modernity. Because it was shelf stable and could be made from a variety of different cuts of meat, it proved an ideal product for the socialist production lines where supplies and the pace of production were infinitely variable. Unusual in a socialist system of supply, this product shaped production and distribution lines, and even influenced the layout of meatpacking factories and the genetic stocks of the animals that were to be eaten.

Tushonka’s initial ubiquity in the postwar Soviet Union had little to do with the USSR’s own hog industry. Pig populations as well as their processing facilities had been decimated in the war, and pigs that did survive the Axis invasion had been evacuated East with human populations. Instead, the early presence of tushonka in the pig-scarce postwar Soviet Union had everything to do with Harry Truman’s unexpected September 1945 decision to end all “economically useful” Lend-Lease shipments to the Soviet Union (Martel). By the end of September, canned meat was practically the only product still being shipped as part of Lend-Lease (NARA RG 59). Although the United Nations was supposed to distribute these supplies to needy civilians free of cost, travelers to the Soviet Union in 1946 spotted cans of American tushonka for sale in state shops (Skeoch 231). After American tushonka “donations” disappeared from store shelves, the Soviet Union’s meat syndicates decided to continue producing the product.

Between its first appearance during the war in 1943, and the 1957 announcement by Nikita Khrushchev that Soviet policy would restructure all state animal farms to support the mass production of one or several processed meat products, tushonka helped to drive the evolution of the Soviet Union’s meat packing industry. Its popularity with both planners and the public gave it the power to reach into food commodity chains. It is this backward reach and the longer-term impacts of these policies that make tushonka an unusual byproduct of the Cold War era.

State planners loved tushonka: it was cheap to make, the logistics of preparing it were not complicated, it was easy to transport, and most importantly, it served as tangible evidence that the state was accomplishing a long-standing goal to get more meat to its citizenry and improving the diet of the average Soviet  worker. Tushonka became a highly visible product in the Soviet Union’s much vaunted push to establish a modern food regime intended to rival that of the United States.                          

Because it was shelf-stable, wartime tushonka had served as a practical food for soldiers, but after the war tushonka became an ideal food for workers who had neither the time nor the space to prepare a home-cooked meal with fresh meat. The Soviet state started to produce its own tushonka because it was such an excellent fit for the needs and abilities of the Soviet state—consumer demand was rarely considered by planners in this era. Not only did tushonka fit the look and taste of a modern processed meat product (that is, it was standard in texture and flavor from can to can, and was an obviously industrially processed product), it was also an excellent way to make the most of the predominant kind of meat the Soviet Union had the in the 1950s: small scraps low-grade pork and beef, trimmings leftover from butchering practices that focused on harvesting as much animal fat, rather than muscle, from the carcass in question.

Just like tushonka, pork sausages and frozen pelmeny, a meat-filled pasta dumpling, also became winning postwar foods thanks to a happy synergy of increased animal production, better butchering and new food processing machines. As postwar pigs recovered their populations, the Soviet processed meat industry followed suit. One official source listed twenty-six different kinds of meat products being issued in 1964, although not all of these were pork (Danilov). An instructional manual distributed by the meat and milk syndicate demonstrated how meat shops should wrap and display sausages, and listed 24 different kinds of sausages that all needed a special style of tying up. Because of packaging shortages, the string that bound the sausage was wrapped in a different way for every type of sausage, and shop assistants were expected to be able to identify sausages based on the pattern of their binding. Pelmeny were produced at every meat factory that processed pork. These were “made from start to finish in a special, automated machine, human hands do not touch them. Which makes them a higher quality and better (prevoskhodnogo) product” (Book of Healthy and Delicious Food). These were foods that became possible to produce economically because of a co-occurring increase in pigs, the new standardized practice of equipping meatpacking plants with large-capacity grinders, and freezers or coolers and the enforcement of a system of grading meat.

As the state began to rebuild Soviet agriculture from its near-collapse during the war, the Soviet Union looked to the United States for inspiration. Surprisingly, Soviet planners found some of the United States’ more outdated techniques to be quite valuable for new Soviet  hog operations. The most striking of these was the adoption of competing phenotypes in the Soviet hog industry. Most major swine varieties had been developed and described in the 19th century in Germany and Great Britain. Breeds had a tendency to split into two phenotypically distinct groups, and in early 20th Century American pig farms, there was strong disagreement as to which style of pig was better suited to industrial conditions of production. Some pigs were “hot-blooded” (in other words, fast maturing and prolific reproducers) while others were a slower “big type” pig (a self-explanatory descriptor). Breeds rarely excelled at both traits and it was a matter of opinion whether speed or size was the most desirable trait to augment. The over-emphasis of either set of qualities damaged survival rates. At their largest, big type pigs resembled small hippopotamuses, and sows were so corpulent they unwittingly crushed their tiny piglets. But the sleeker hot-blooded pigs had a similarly lethal relationship with their young. Sows often produced litters of upwards of a dozen piglets and the stress of tending such a large brood led overwhelmed sows to devour their own offspring (Long).

American pig breeders had been forced to navigate between these two undesirable extremes, but by the 1930s, big type pigs were fading in popularity mainly because butter and newly developed plant oils were replacing lard as the cooking fat of preference in American kitchens. The remarkable propensity of the big type to pack on pounds of extra fat was more of a liability than a benefit in this period, as the price that lard and salt pork plummeted in this decade. By the time U.S. meat packers were shipping cans of tushonka to their Soviet allies across the seas, US hog operations had already developed a strong preference for hot-blooded breeds and research had shifted to building and maintaining lean muscle on these swiftly maturing animals. When Soviet industrial planners hoping to learn how to make more tushonka entered the scene however, their interpretation of american efficiency was hardly predictable: scientifically nourished big type pigs may have been advantageous to the United States at midcentury, but the Soviet Union’s farms and hungry citizens had a very different list of needs and wants.

At midcentury, Soviet pigs were still handicapped by old-fashioned variables such as cold weather, long winters, poor farm organisation and impoverished feed regimens. The look of the average Soviet hog operation was hardly industrial. In 1955 the typical Soviet pig was petite, shaggy, and slow to reproduce. In the absence of robust dairy or vegetable oil industries, Soviet pigs had always been valued for their fat rather than their meat, and tushonka had been a byproduct of an industry focused mainly on supplying the country with fat and lard. Until the mid 1950s, the most valuable pig on many Soviet state and collective farms was the nondescript but very rotund “lard and bacon” pig, an inefficient eater that could take upwards of two years to reach full maturity. In searching for a way to serve up more tushonka, Soviet planners became aware that their entire industry needed to be revamped.

When the Soviet Union looked to the United States, planners were inspired by the earlier competition between hot-blooded and big type pigs, which Soviet planners thought, ambitiously, they could combine into one splendid pig. The Soviet Union imported new pigs from Poland, Lithuania, East Germany and Denmark, trying valiantly to create hybrid pigs that would exhibit both hot blood and big type. Soviet planners were especially interested in inspiring the Poland-China, an especially rotund specimen, to speed up its life cycle during them mid 1950s. Hybrdizing and cross breeding a Soviet  super-pig, no matter how closely laid out on paper, was probably always a socialist pipe dream. However, when the Soviets decided to try to outbreed American hog breeders, they created an infrastructure for pigs and pig breeding that had a dramatic positive impact of hog populations across the country, and the 1950s were marked by a large increase in the number of pigs in the Soviet  union, as well as dramatic increases in the numbers of purebred and scientific hybrids the country developed, all in the name of tushonka.

It was not just the genetic stock that received a makeover in the postwar drive to can more tushonka; a revolution in the barnyard also took place and in less than 10 years, pigs were living in new housing stock and eating new feed sources. The most obvious postwar change was in farm layout and the use of building space. In the early 1950s, many collective farms had been consolidated. In 1940 there were a quarter of a million kolkhozii, by 1951 fewer than half that many remained (NARA RG166). Farm consolidation movements most often combined two, three or four collective farms into one economic unit, thus scaling up the average size and productivity of each collective farm and simplifying their administration. While there were originally ambitious plans to re-center farms around new “agro-city” bases with new, modern farm buildings, these projects were ultimately abandoned. Instead, existing buildings were repurposed and the several clusters of farm buildings that had once been the heart of separate villages acquired different uses.

For animals this meant new barns and new daily routines. Barns were redesigned and compartmentalized around ideas of gender and age segregation—weaned baby pigs in one area, farrowing sows in another—as well as maximising growth and health. Pigs spent less outside time and more time at the trough. Pigs that were wanted for different purposes (breeding, meat and lard) were kept in different areas, isolated from each other to minimize the spread of disease as well as improve the efficiency of production. Much like postwar housing for humans, the new and improved pig barn was a crowded and often chaotic place where the electricity, heat and water functioned only sporadically.

New barns were supposed to be mechanised. In some places, mechanisation had helped speed things along, but as one American official viewing a new mechanised pig farm in 1955 noted, “it did not appear to be a highly efficient organisation. The mechanised or automated operations, such as the preparation of hog feed, were eclipsed by the amount of hand labor which both preceded and followed the mechanised portion” (NARA RG166 1961). The American official estimated that by mechanizing, Soviet  farms had actually increased the amount of human labor needed for farming operations.

The other major environmental change took place away from the barnyard, in new crops the Soviet Union began to grow for fodder. The heart and soul of this project was establishing field corn as a major new fodder crop. Originally intended as a feed for cows that would replace hay, corn quickly became the feed of choice for raising pigs. After a visit by a United States delegation to Iowa and other U.S. farms over the summer of 1955, corn became the centerpiece of Khrushchev’s efforts to raise meat and milk productivity. These efforts were what earned Khrushchev his nickname of kukuruznik, or “corn fanatic.” Since so little of the Soviet Union looks or feels much like the plains and hills of Iowa, adopting corn might seem quixotic, but raising corn was a potentially practical move for a cold country. Unlike the other major fodder crops of turnips and potatoes, corn could be harvested early, while still green but already possessing a high level of protein. Corn provided a “gap month” of green feed during July and August, when grazing animals had eaten the first spring green growth but these same plants had not recovered their biomass. What corn remained in the fields in late summer was harvested and made into silage, and corn made the best silage that had been historically available in the Soviet Union. The high protein content of even silage made from green mass and unripe corn ears prevented them from losing weight in the winter.

Thus the desire to put more meat on Soviet tables—a desire first prompted by American food donations of surplus pork from Iowa farmers adapting to agro-industrial reordering in their own country—pushed back into the commodity supply network of the Soviet Union. World War II rations that were well adapted to the uncertainty and poor infrastructure not just of war but also of peacetime were a source of inspiration for Soviet  planners striving to improve the diets of citizens. To do this, they purchased and bred more and better animals, inventing breeds and paying attention, for the first time, to the efficiency and speed with which these animals were ready to become meat.

Reinventing Soviet pigs pushed even back farther, and inspired agricultural economists and state planners to embrace new farm organizational structures. Pigs meant for the tushonka can spent more time inside eating, and led their lives in a rigid compartmentalization that mimicked emerging trends in human urban society. Beyond the barnyard, a new concern with feed-to weight conversions led agriculturalists to seek new crops; crops like corn that were costly to grow but were a perfect food for a pig destined for a tushonka tin. Thus in Soviet  industrialization, pigs evolved. No longer simply recyclers of human waste, socialist pigs were consumers in their own right, their newly crafted genetic compositions demanded ever more technical feed sources in order to maximize their own productivity. Food is transformative, and in this case study the prosaic substance of canned meat proved to be unusually transformative for the history of the Soviet Union. In its early history it kept soldiers alive long enough to win an important war, later the requirements for its manufacture re-prioritized muscle tissue over fat tissue in the disassembly of carcasses. This transformative influence reached backwards into the supply lines and farms of the Soviet Union, revolutionizing the scale and goals of farming and meat packing for the Soviet food industry, as well as the relationship between the pig and the consumer.


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Author Biography

Jenny Leigh Smith, Georgia Institute of Technology

Assistant Professor of History, Technology and Society