The Birth of Espresso: How the Coffee Shots The Fuel Our Modern Life Were Invented

Espresso is neither bean nor roast.

It is a method of pressurized coffee brewing that ensures speedy delivery, and it has birthed a whole culture.

Americans may be accustomed to camping out in cafes with their laptops for hours, but Italian coffee bars are fast-paced environments where customers buzz in for a quick pick me up, then right back out, no seat required.

It’s the sort of efficiency the Father of the Modern Advertising Poster, Leonetto Cappiello, alluded to in his famous 1922 image for the Victoria Arduino machine (below).

Let 21st-century coffee aficionados cultivate their Zenlike patience with slow pourovers. A hundred years ago, the goal was a quality product that the successful businessperson could enjoy without breaking stride.

As coffee expert James Hoffmann, author of The World Atlas of Coffee points out in the above video, the Steam Age was on the way out, but Cappiello’s image is “absolutely leveraging the idea that steam equals speed.”

That had been the goal since 1884, when inventor Angelo Moriondo patented the first espresso machine (see below).

The bulk brewer caused a stir at the Turin General Exposition. Speed wise, it was a great improvement over the old method, in which individual cups were brewed in the Turkish style, requiring five minutes per order.

This “new steam machinery for the economic and instantaneous confection of coffee beverage” featured a gas or wood burner at the bottom of an upright boiler, and two sight glasses that the operator could monitor to get a feel for when to open the various taps, to yield a large quantity of filtered coffee. It was fast, but demanded some skill on the part of its human operator.

As Jimmy Stamp explains in a Smithsonian article on the history of the espresso machine, there were  also a few bugs to work out.

Early machines’ hand-operated pressure valves posed a risk to workers, and the coffee itself had a burnt taste.

Milanese café owner Achille Gaggia cracked the code after WWII, with a small, steamless lever-driven machine that upped the pressure to produce the concentrated brew that is what we now think of as espresso.

Stamp describes how Gaggia’s machine also standardized the size of the espresso, giving rise to some now-familiar coffeehouse vocabulary:

The cylinder on lever groups could only hold an ounce of water, limiting the volume that could be used to prepare an espresso. With the lever machines also came some some new jargon: baristas operating Gaggia’s spring-loaded levers coined the term “pulling a shot” of espresso. But perhaps most importantly, with the invention of the high-pressure lever machine came the discovery of crema – the foam floating over the coffee liquid that is the defining characteristic of a quality espresso. A historical anecdote claims that early consumers were dubious of this “scum” floating over their coffee until Gaggia began referring to it as “caffe creme,“ suggesting that the coffee was of such quality that it produced its own creme.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch an Exquisite 19th Century Coffee Maker in Action


Cold brew

Single origin

Coffee snobbery may seem like a recent phenomenon, but the quest for the perfectly brewed cup has been going on for a very long time.

Behold the Continental Balancing Siphon, above — a completely automatic, 19th-century table top vacuum brewer.

There’s an unmistakable element of coffee making as theater here… but also, a fascinating demonstration of physical principles in action.

Vintage vacuum pot collector Brian Harris breaks down how the balancing siphon works:

Two vessels are arranged side-by-side, with a siphon tube connecting the two.

Coffee is placed in one side (usually glass), and water in the other (usually ceramic). 

A spirit lamp heats the water, forcing it through the tube and into the other vessel, where it mixes with the coffee. 

As the water is transferred from one vessel to the other, a balancing system based on a counterweight or spring mechanism is activated by the change in weight. This in turn triggers the extinguishing of the lamp. A partial vacuum is formed, which siphons the brewed coffee through a filter and back into the first vessel, from which is dispensed by means of a spigot.

(Still curious? We direct you to Harris’ website for a lengthier, more eggheaded explanation, complete with equations, graphs, and calculations for saturated vapor pressure and the approximate temperature at which downward flow begins.)

The balancing siphon was to 1850’s Paris and Vienna what Blue Bottle’s three-foot tall Japanese slow-drip iced coffee-making devices are to early 21st-century Brooklyn and Oakland.

Does the flavor of coffee brewed in a balance siphon merit the time and, if purchased in a cafe, expense?

Yes, according to Maria Tindemans, the CEO of Royal Paris, whose 24-carat gold and Bacarrat glass balancing siphon retails for between $17,500 and $24,000:

The coffee from a syphon can best be described as “crystal clear,” with great purity of flavor and aroma and no bitterness added by the brewing process.

More affordable balancing siphons can be found online, though be forewarned, all siphons are a bitch to clean, according to Reddit.

If you do invest, be sure to up the coffee snobbery by telling your captive audience that you’ve named your new device “Gabet,” in honor of Parisian Louis Gabet, whose 1844 patent for a counterweight mechanism kicked off the balancing siphon craze.

via Boing Boing

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday

Kurt Vonnegut’s Recipes in Deadeye Dick: Polka-Dot Brownies, Linzer Torte & Haitian Banana Soup

Author Kurt Vonnegut incorporated several recipes into his 1982 novel Deadeye Dick, inspired by James Beard’s American Cookery, Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cook Book, and Bea Sandler’s The African Cookbook.

He writes in the preface that these recipes are intended to provide “musical interludes for the salivary glands,” warning readers that “no one should use this novel for a cookbook. Any serious cook should have the reliable originals in his or her library anyway.”

So with that caveat in mind…

Early on, the narrator/titular character, née Rudy Waltz, shares a recipe from his family’s former cook, Mary Hoobler, who taught him “everything she knew about cooking and baking”:



Mix together in a bowl half a cup of flour, one and a half cups of yellow corn-meal, a teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of sugar, and three teaspoons of baking powder.

Add three beaten eggs, a cup of milk, a half cup of cream, and a half cup of melted butter.

Pour it into a well-buttered pan and bake it at four hundred degrees for fifteen minutes.

Cut it into squares while it is still hot. Bring the squares to the table while they are still hot, and folded in a napkin.

Barely two paragraphs later, he’s sharing her barbecue sauce. It sounds delicious, easy to prepare, and its placement gives it a strong flavor of Slaughterhouse-Five’s “so it goes” and “Poo-tee-weet?” — as ironic punctuation to Father Waltz’s full on embrace of Hitler, a seeming non sequitur that forces readers to think about what comes before:

When we all posed in the street for our picture in the paper, Father was forty-two. According to Mother, he had undergone a profound spiritual change in Germany. He had a new sense of purpose in life. It was no longer enough to be an artist. He would become a teacher and political activist. He would become a spokesman in America for the new social order which was being born in Germany, but which in time would be the salvation of the world.

This was quite a mistake.


Sauté a cup of chopped onions and three chopped garlic cloves in a quarter of a pound of butter until tender.

Add a half cup of catsup, a quarter cup of brown sugar, a teaspoon of salt, two teaspoons of freshly ground pepper, a dash of Tabasco, a tablespoon of lemon juice, a teaspoon of basil, and a tablespoon of chili powder.

Bring to a boil and simmer for five minutes.

Rudy’s father is not the only character to falter.

Rudy’s mistake happens in the blink of an eye, and manages to upend a number of lives in Midland City, a stand in for Indianapolis, Vonnegut’s hometown.

His family loses their money in an ensuing lawsuit, and can no longer engage Mary Hoobler and the rest of the staff.

Young Rudy, who’s spent his childhood hanging out with the servants in Mary’s cozy kitchen, finds it “easy and natural” to cater to his parents in the manner to which they were accustomed:

As long as they lived, they never had to prepare a meal or wash a dish or make a bed or do the laundry or dust or vacuum or sweep, or shop for food. I did all that, and maintained a B average in school, as well. 

What a good boy was I!

EGGS À LA RUDY WALTZ (age thirteen)

Chop, cook, and drain two cups of spinach.

Blend with two tablespoons of butter, a teaspoon of salt, and a pinch of nutmeg.

Heat and put into three oven-proof bowls or cups.

Put a poached egg on top of each one, and sprinkle with grated cheese.

Bake for five minutes at 375 degrees. Serves three: the papa bear, the mama bear, and the baby bear who cooked it—and who will clean up afterwards.

By high school, Rudy’s heavy domestic burden has him falling asleep in class and reproducing  complicated desserts from  recipes in the local paper. (“Father roused himself from living death sufficiently to say that the dessert took him back forty years.”)


LINZER TORTE (from the Bugle-Observer)

Mix half a cup of sugar with a cup of butter until fluffy.

Beat in two egg yolks and half a teaspoon of grated lemon rind.

Sift a cup of flour together with a quarter teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of cinnamon, and a quarter teaspoon of cloves. Add this to the sugar-and-butter mixture.

Add one cup of unblanched almonds and one cup of toasted filberts, both chopped fine.

Roll out two-thirds of the dough until a quarter of an inch thick.

Line the bottom and sides of an eight-inch pan with dough.

Slather in a cup and a half of raspberry jam.

Roll out the rest of the dough, make it into eight thin pencil shapes about ten inches long. Twist them a little, and lay them across the top in a decorative manner. Crimp the edges.

Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for about an hour, and then cool at room temperature.

A great favorite in Vienna, Austria, before the First World War!

Rudy eventually relocates to the Grand Hotel Oloffson in Port au Prince, Haiti, which is how he manages to survive the — SPOILER — neutron bomb that destroys Midland City.

Here is a recipe for chocolate seafoams,  courtesy of one of Midland City’s fictional residents:



Break up six ounces of semisweet chocolate in a saucepan.

Melt it in a 250-degree oven.

Add two teaspoons of sugar to four egg yolks, and beat the mixture until it is pale yellow.

Then mix in the melted chocolate, a quarter cup of strong coffee, and two tablespoons of rum.

Whip two-thirds of a cup of cold, heavy whipping cream until it is stiff. Fold it into the mixture.

Whip four egg whites until they form stiff peaks, then fold them into the mixture.

Stir the mixture ever so gently, then spoon it into cups, each cup a serving.

Refrigerate for twelve hours.

Serves six.

Other recipes in Rudy’s repertoire originate with the Grand Hotel Oloffson’s most valuable employee, headwaiter and Vodou practitioner Hippolyte Paul De Mille, who “claims to be eighty and have fifty-nine descendants”:

He said that if there was any ghost we thought should haunt Midland City for the next few hundred years, he would raise it from its grave and turn it loose, to wander where it would. 

We tried very hard not to believe that he could do that. 

But he could, he could.


Put two cups of grated coconut in cheesecloth over a bowl.

Pour a cup of hot milk over it, and squeeze it dry.

Repeat this with two more cups of hot milk. The stuff in the bowl is the sauce.

Mix a pound of sliced onions, a teaspoon of salt, a half teaspoon of black pepper, and a teaspoon of crushed pepper.

Sauté the mixture in butter until soft but not brown.

Add four pounds of fresh fish chunks, and cook them for about a minute on each side.

Pour the sauce over the fish, cover the pan, and simmer for ten minutes. Uncover the pan and baste the fish until it is done—and the sauce has become creamy.

Serves eight vaguely disgruntled guests at the Grand Hotel Oloffson.


Stew two pounds of goat or chicken with a half cup of chopped onions, a teaspoon of salt, half a teaspoon of black pepper, and a pinch of crushed red pepper. Use two quarts of water.

Stew for an hour.

Add three peeled yams and three peeled bananas, cut into chunks.

Simmer until the meat is tender. Take out the meat. What is left is eight servings of Haitian banana soup.

Bon appétit!

The recipe that closes the novel is couched in an anecdote that’s equal parts scatology and epiphany.

As a daughter of Indianapolis who was a junior in high school the year Deadeye Dick was published, I can attest that Polka-Dot Brownies would have been a hit at the bake sales of my youth:



Melt half a cup of butter and a pound of light-brown sugar in a two-quart saucepan. Stir over a low fire until just bubbly.

Cool to room temperature.

Beat in two eggs and a teaspoon of vanilla.

Stir in a cup of sifted flour, a half teaspoon of salt, a cup of chopped filberts, and a cup of semisweet chocolate in small chunks.

Spread into a well-greased nine-by-eleven baking pan.

Bake at two hundred and thirty-five degrees for about thirty-five minutes.

Cool to room temperature, and cut into squares with a well-greased knife.

Enjoy, in moderation of course.

I was wearing my best suit, which was as tight as the skin of a knackwurst. I had put on a lot of weight recently. It was the fault of my own good cooking. I had been trying out a lot of new recipes, with considerable success. — Rudy Waltz

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday

Discover Japan’s Oldest Surviving Cookbook Ryori Monogatari (1643)

Maybe your interest in Japan was first stoked by the story of the seventeenth-century shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu and his campaign to unify the country. Or maybe it was Japanese food. Either way, culinary and historical subjects have a way of intertwining in every land — not to mention making countless possible literary and cultural connections along the way. For the curious mind, enjoying a Japanese meal may well lead, sooner or later, to reading Japan’s oldest cookbook. Published in 1643, the surviving edition of Ryori Monogatari (variously translated as “Narrative of Actual Food Preparation” or, more simply, “A Tale of Food”) resides at the Tokyo National Museum, but you can read a facsimile at the Tokyo Metropolitan Library.

Translator Joshua L. Badgley did just that in order to produce an online English version of the venerable recipe collection. In an introductory essay, he describes his translation process and offers some historical context as well. Ryori Monogatari was written early in the era of the Tokugawa shogunate, which had been founded by the aforementioned Ieyasu.

“For the previous 120 years, the country had been engulfed in civil wars,” but this “Age of Warring States” also “saw the first major contact with Europeans through the Portuguese, who landed in 1542, and later saw the invasion of Korea.” The foreigners “brought with them new ideas, and access to a new world of food, which continues to this day in the form of things like tempura and kasutera (castella).”

Consolidated by Ieyasu, Japan’s subsequent 250-year-long peace “saw an increased emphasis on scholarship, and many books on the history of Japan were written in this time. In addition, travel journals were becoming popular, indicating various specialties and delicacies in each village.” The now-unknown author of Ryori Monogatari seems to have gone around collecting recipes that had been passed down orally for generations — hence the sometimes vague and approximate instructions. But unusually, note publishers Red Circle, the book also “includes recipes for game at a time when eating meat was viewed by most as a taboo.” In it one finds instructions for preparing venison, hare, boar, and even raccoon dog.

Your fascination with Japan might not have begun with a meal of raccoon dog. But Ryori Monogatari also includes recipes for sashimi, sushi, udon and yakitori, all eaten so widely around the world today that their names no longer merit italics. Taken together, the book’s explanations of its dishes open a window on how the Japanese ate during the Edo period, named for the capital city we now know as Tokyo, which lasted from 1603 to 1863. (In the video just above, Tasting History vlogger Max Miller makes a typical bowl of Edo noodles, based on a recipe from the 1643 cookbook.) “From the mid-Edo period,” says the Tokyo National Museum, “restaurants began to emerge across Japan, reflecting a new trend toward enjoying food as recreation.” By the late Edo period, an era captured by ukiyo-e master Hiroshige, eating out had become a national pastime. And not so long thereafter, going for Japanese food would become a culinary, historical, and cultural treat savored the world over.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Ramen Became the Currency of Choice in Prison, Beating Out Cigarettes

The last decade ushered in a slew of traditional Japanese-style ramen restaurants — enough to justify ramen maps to New York CityChicago, and the Bay Area.

Yet most Americans still conceive of ramen as the pack of seasoning and dehydrated instant noodles that have long sustained broke artists and college students.

Add incarcerated persons to the list of packaged ramen’s most ardent consumers.

In the above episode of Vox’s series, The Goods, we learn how those ubiquitous cellophane packages have outstripped cigarettes and postage stamps as the preferred form of prison currency.

Ramen is durable, portable, packaged in standard units, available in the prison commissary, and highly prized by those with a deep need to pad their chow hall meals.

Ramen can be used to pay for clothing and hygiene products, or services like laundry, bunk cleaning, dictation, or custom illustration. Gamblers can use it in lieu of chips.

Ramen’s status as the preferred form of exchange also speaks to a sharp decline in the quantity and quality of food in American penal institutions.

Ethnographer Michael Gibson-Light, who spent a year studying homegrown monetary practices among incarcerated populations, notes that slashed prison budgets have created a culture of “punitive frugality.”

Called upon to model a demonstrably tough on crime stance and cut back on expenditures, the institutions are unofficially shunting many of their traditional costs onto the prisoners themselves.

In response, those on the inside have pivoted to edible currency:

What we are seeing is a collective response — across inmate populations and security levels, across prison cliques and racial groups, and even across states — to changes and cutbacks in prison food services…The form of money is not something that changes often or easily, even in the prison underground economy; it takes a major issue or shock to initiate such a change. The use of cigarettes as money in U.S. prisons happened in American Civil War military prisons and likely far earlier. The fact that this practice has suddenly changed has potentially serious implications.

Ramen may be a relatively new development in the prison landscape, but culinary experimentation behind bars is not. From Pruno prison wine to Martha Stewart’s prison grounds crabapple jelly, it’s a nothing ventured, nothing gained type of deal. Work with what you’ve got.

Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez, who appears in Vox’s video, collected a number of the most adventurous recipes in his book, Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars. Anyone can bring some variety on the spur of the moment by sprinkling some of your ramen’s seasoning packet into your drinking water, but amassing the ingredients for an ambitious dish like Orange Porkies — chili ramen plus white rice plus ½ bag of pork skins plus orange-flavored punch — takes patience and perseverance.

Alvarez’s Egg Ramen Salad Sandwich recipe earns praise from actor Shia LeBoeuf, whose time served is both multiple and minimal.

Someone serving a longer sentence has a more compelling reason to search for the ramen-centered sense of harmony and wellbeing on display in Tampopo, the first “ramen western”:

Appreciate its gestalt. Savor the aromas.

Joe Guerrero, host of YouTube’s AfterPrisonShow, is not immune to the pleasures of some of his ramen-based concoctions, below, despite being on the outside for several years now.

You’re free to wrinkle your nose at the thought of snacking on a crumbled brick of uncooked ramen, but Guerrero points out that someone serving a long sentence craves variety in any form they can get. Experiencing it can tap into the same sense of pride as self-governance.

Guerrero’s recipes require a microwave (and a block of ramen).

Even if you’re not particularly keen on eating the finished product, there’s a science project appeal to his Ramen Noodle Cookie. It calls for no additional  ingredients, just ten minutes cooking time, an outrageous prospect in a communal setting with only one microwave.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Tasting History: A Hit YouTube Series Shows How to Cook the Foods of Ancient Greece & Rome, Medieval Europe, and Other Places & Periods

The food of our ancestors has come back into fashion, no matter from where your own ancestors in particular happened to hail. Whether motivated by a desire to avoid the supposedly unhealthy ingredients and processes introduced in modernity, a curiosity about the practices of a culture, or simply a spirit of culinary adventure, the consumption of traditional foods has attained a relatively high profile of late. So, indeed, has their preparation: few of us could think of a more traditional food than bread, the home-baking of which became a sweeping fad in the United States and elsewhere shortly after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Max Miller, for example, has baked more than his own share of bread at home. Like no few media-savvy culinary hobbyists, he’s put the results on Youtube; like those hobbyists who develop an unquenchable thirst for ever-greater depth and breadth (no pun intended) of knowledge about the field, he’s gone well beyond the rudiments.

18th-century Saly Lunn bunsmedieval trencherPompeiian panis quadratus, even the bread of ancient Egypt: he’s gone a long way indeed beyond simple sourdough. But in so doing, he’s learned — and taught — a great deal about the variety of civilizations, all of them heartily food-eating, that led up to ours.

“His show, Tasting History with Max Miller, started in late February,” writes Devan Sauer in a profile last year for the Phoenix New Times. “Since then, Tasting History has drawn more than 470,000 subscribers and 14 million views.” Each of its episodes “has a special segment where Miller explains the history of either the ingredients or the dish’s time period.” These periods come organized into playlists like “Ancient Greek, Roman, & Mesopotamian Recipes,” “The Best of Medieval & Renaissance Recipes,” and “18th/19th Century Recipes.” In his clearly extensive research, “Miller looks to primary accounts, or anecdotal records from the people themselves, rather than historians. He does this so he can get a better glimpse into what life was like during a certain time.”

If past, as L.P. Hartley put it, is a foreign country, then Miller’s historical cookery is a form of not just time travel, but regular travel — exactly what so few of us have been able to do over the past year and a half. And though most of the recipes featured on Tasting History have come from Western, and specifically European cultures, its channel also has a playlist dedicated to non-European foods such as Aztec chocolate; the kingly Indian dessert of payasam; and hwajeon, the Korean “flower pancakes” served in 17th-century snack bars, or eumshik dabang. He’s also prepared the snails served at the thermopolium, the equivalent establishment of the first-century Roman Empire recently featured here on Open Culture. But however impressive Miller’s knowledge, enthusiasm, and skill in the kitchen, he commands just as much respect for having mastered Youtube, the true Forum of early 21st-century civilization.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Largest Free Kitchen in the World: Discover India’s Golden Temple Which Serves 100,000 Free Meals Per Day

If you find yourself hungry in Amritsar, a major city in the Indian state of Punjab, you could do worse than stopping into the Golden Temple, the largest Sikh house of worship in the world. It thus also operates the largest community kitchen, or langar, in the world, which serves more than 100,000 free meals a day, 24 hours a day. Anyone familiar with Sikhism knows that, for its believers, serving food to the hungry constitutes an essential duty: not just to the poor, and certainly not just to fellow Sikhs, but to all comers. Wherever in the world you may live, if there’s a Sikh temple or shrine in the vicinity, there’s quite possibly a langar you can visit as well.

Of course, no other langar matches the scale of the Golden Temple’s. As explained in the Food Insider video above, it operates with a permanent staff of 300 to 350 employees as well as a large number of volunteers, all of whom work in concert with machines around the clock to produce an unending stream of vegetarian meals, which include daal lentil stew and chapati bread. There’s always been a market for free food, but recent years have seen increases in demand great enough to necessitate the construction of additional dining halls, and total operating expenses come to the equivalent of some US$4 million per year. (Every day, $5,000 goes to ghee, or Indian clarified butter, alone.)

Apart from the people of Amritsar and pilgrimage-making devotees, the Golden Temple langar has also drawn the attention of culinarily minded travelers. Take the Canadian Youtuber Trevor James, better known as the Food Ranger, to whose taste for extreme scale and quantity the operation no doubt appeals. His visit also affords him the opportunity, before his meal, to be outfitted in traditional dress, up to and including a Sikh turban. (The Golden Temple requires its diners to wear a head-covering of some kind.) James’ stock of travel-vlogger superlatives is nearly exhausted by the splendor of the temple itself before he steps into the kitchen to observe (and even lend a hand in) the cooking process. “Look at this,” he exclaims upon taking his seat on the floor of the hall with a tray of his own. “This is an almost spiritual meal” — an aura exuded whether you believe in Waheguru, the gods of street food, or anything else besides.

via Metafilter

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

30,000 People Line Up for the First McDonald’s in Moscow, While Grocery Store Shelves Run Empty (1990)

Everyone has waited in a long line — for burgers, Broadway tickets, Black Friday sales… But few us have the notorious queuing resilience of the Soviets. “When the first McDonald’s arrived in Moscow in 1990, the city went mad,” Boris Egorov writes at Russia Beyond. “Thousands of Muscovites flocked to the new burger joint, forming lines several kilometers long in the center of Moscow on Pushkinskaya Square.” On its first day, the restaurant obliterated the previous record for most McDonald’s customers (9,100 in Budapest), serving over 30,000 people, a testament to the fortitude of the employees. The CBC news segment on the opening above quotes a line from Pushkin to set the scene: “a feast in a time of plague.”

Stereotypes of fast food workers as lacking in skill and ambition did not find purchase here. “The first workers,” Egorov notes, “were the crème de la crème of Soviet youth: students from prestigious universities who could speak foreign languages with brilliant customer service skills.” Their cheerfulness so unnerved some customers that they were asked to tone it down for Russians “accustomed to rude, boorish service.”

Customers seemed less awed by the iconography than the “simple sight of polite shop workers,” wrote an American journalist. The restaurant, once a tourist attraction, notes travel site Bridge to Moscow, had “more than 700 seats inside and 200 outside,” and was once the largest McDonald’s in the world.

The Moscow McDonald’s represented more for Russians than an American novelty. Original customer Ksenia Oskina had never heard of McDonald’s before she visited. She later saved her Big Mac box. “I used that Big Mac box for a long time and put my sandwich in there instead of a lunchbox,” she tells The Washington Post. “I’d clean it, dry it on the heater and then use it again.” It wasn’t about brand recognition for many who dutifully lined up to pay half a day’s wages for a couple “thin slabs of meat and sliced vegetables between buns of bread.” (Sorry… “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, and a sesame seed bun…..”)

What did Soviet Russians, who had not been raised to sing fast food advertising jingles, see in the new restaurant? Capitalism’s promises of abundance. One Soviet journalist wrote of McDonald’s as “the expression of America’s rationalism and pragmatism toward food.” Just months afterward, the first Pizza Hut arrived. As the Soviet Union dissolved less than two years later, the country saw the creation of more desire for high-calorie, ultra-processed foods with Western-style TV ads: most famously a Pizza Hut spot from 1997 featuring the U.S.S.R.’s last premier, Mikhail Gorbachev. (“Because of him, we have Pizza Hut!”)

The politics may have mattered little to the average Muscovite McDonald’s customer in 1990. “Visiting the restaurant was less a political statement than an opportunity to enjoy a small pleasure in a country still reeling from disastrous economic problems and internal political turmoil,” notes Large, seemingly abstract problems had tangible effects: the empty grocery stores for which the failing empire became famous.

The Moscow McDonald’s was a colorful oasis for its first customers, who had no sentimental associations with burgers and fries. Now, those tastes are nostalgic. “I love it,” said Oskina thirty years later. “For some reason in America, it’s not as tasty as it is here.” Insert your own dated Yakov Smirnoff reference.

Related Content: 

Watch Metallica Play “Enter Sandman” Before a Crowd of 1.6 Million in Moscow, During the Final Days of the Soviet Union (1991)

Watch Andy Warhol Eat an Entire Burger King Whopper–While Wishing the Burger Came from McDonald’s (1981)

The Beautiful, Innovative & Sometimes Dark World of Animated Soviet Propaganda (1925-1984)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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